Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To Say Nothing of the Story

"To Say Nothing of the Dog," by Connie Willis, is without a doubt the finest entry I have read in the genre of Sci-Fi-Mystery-Victorian-Romance.

It's the first book I've read by Ms. Willis, and I'd like to thank Brother Scott for the excellent suggestion. Once again I find myself wondering how I went for so long without even being aware of an author. Granted, I've been out of the sci-fi game for a long time (the only hard sci-fi book I remember reading in the past decade is Vernor Vinge's "The White Rabbit"), but you'd still think I'd have at least heard of someone who has won so many Hugo and Nebula awards.

From what I've seen, those awards are well deserved. Most importantly, the author can write well - she has a wonderfully realized first-person narrator, excellent prose that is descriptive without getting bogged down, and a great sense for pacing. Less obvious is her skill as a sci-fi writer. At times it is very easy to forget that this is a science fiction book at all, but that's a praise and not a slam. She has a sort of quiet approach that treats future technology matter-of-factly... much like George R. R. Martin, she doesn't stop to say, "Here is a thorough exposition of all that may seem strange!", and instead she has her main characters act as they would if they had grown up in this world, trusting the reader to catch up.

She has a great sense of humor as well. It is not an absurdist humor, which is what I usually go in for these days, but sort of a mannered self-deprecating humor. It's impossible to avoid comparing the style of this book to P. G. Wodehouse, which she deliberately honors within the text. The overall form is one of a Victorian novel, including the descriptive subtitles for each chapter, which have also recently been resurrected for humorous potential in Terry Pratchett's Moist books.

I think the one word I'd pick to sum up the book is "confident." It is the product of an author at the top of her game, exercising a skilled and effective voice, subversively educating while she entertains.


What is it about science fiction writers and the Victorian era? While reading this book, I couldn't help but think about "The Diamond Age," the phenomenal Neal Stephenson tome. In a weird way, both books are about elements of the Victorian era being brought forth into a chaotic future. In Neal's book, it's the values and mores of that age; in Connie's book, it's actual physical items. I suppose two books is too few to count as a trend, but still. Part may be the wonderful incongruity of it. Traditionally, the future is presented as almost antithetical to Victorian times, in terms of manners and social structure. At the same time, there's a weird sort of parallel in how each approaches new technology. Reading this book reminded me how exciting the recent advances of that age must have seemed; this was a time before the horrors of world war poisoned our attitude towards technology, and there was incredible optimism about mankind's potential, which was advancing rapidly through the development of the steam engine, the locomotive, the telegraph, and other world-changing inventions.

The characters in this book are very well-done in general, and phenomenally done in comparison to much of sci-fi. Ned is one of the most likable protagonists I've met recently, and it's kind of relaxing to share the head of a first-person narrator who isn't villainous, broken, or deranged. All right, Ned's occasionally a LITTLE deranged, but that only makes me appreciate him more. And Verity makes a perfect sidekick: smart and confident, with a little twinge of vulnerability. I like the trick Willis pulls off for Mrs. Schrapnell (what a wonderful, Dickensian name!) who exerts a horrifying influence over the story despite only appearing in the flesh on a few pages. Even the characters you're meant to dislike, like Tossie and Madame Irikovsky, are entertaining in their own right and fun to read.

One thing I really, really appreciated was the respect Willis shows towards time travel. Like I said above, this is kind of subversive, because this is a very tricky topic to get right, and she makes it seem almost effortless. Time travel is way too often treated as a convenient plot device without considering the huge epistemological implications it can have; prior to reading this book, the movie "Primer" was one of the only works to do it right, and that movie is one of the most incomprehensible things I've seen.

There are two ways (in my opinion) of properly dealing with time travel. The first is what you might call a predestination approach: this theory holds that there is a single, inviolate history. Time travel may be possible as long as you do not do anything in the past that would alter the course of the future. Since almost anything you do in the past (most famously including stepping on a butterfly) will have an impact, that means you are forbidden from doing anything besides observing. Taking any action is either impossible or catastrophic, because an action taken in the past might change your life in the future, preventing you from going back into the past, thus causing a paradox.

The second way might be called a quantum approach. This theory holds that, instead of a single space-time continuum, there are an infinite number of parallel universes, each only slightly varying from the others. Under this theory, you can freely travel back in time and change events, in which case you create an alternate history. Lincoln is still assassinated in our universe, but in the one you created, a mysterious stranger stopped John Wilkes Booth. The Reconstruction continued into the 20th century, and African Americans escaped decades of official discrimination.

This book's ontology actually takes a hybrid of both approaches, an intriguing idea. It doesn't treat the space-time continuum as a single static immovable thing; rather, it is almost organic, one single discrete entity that is capable of evolution and change. As they explain it within the book, the continuum has a limited ability to repair itself. Suppose that you did go back in time and save Lincoln. Your actions would have touched off other consequences: perhaps in this new history, Seward is killed, and Lincoln attends his funeral, where he catches an infection and dies in the next week. A sort of bubble forms around the alteration, but the farther you get from that bubble, the closer history comes to recovering its original trajectory, and ultimately the future remains essentially the same as before.

But what if it's a really, really big change you make, something that cannot be easily repaired? In this case, the universe shifts into a sort of quantum state, where incongruities are present: for a brief time, you can see impossibilities, where multiple possible futures compete. The universe is unstable during this time, and could theoretically tip into a paradox, but the incongruities are themselves a type of healing that allows the universe to make adjustments which mitigate the damage done.

All of this is fascinating, and almost offhandedly presented. It's impossible for me to not think about the epistemological and religious implications of such a system. Towards the end of the novel Ned wonders about free will, and makes the startling (and perhaps impossible) conjecture that free will may itself be a part of a predestinated, fateful system. Free will is itself a tool that can be used to arrive at the one true outcome. This theory is reminiscent of Mr. Schneider's "Box within a box" argument, and feels like something worth pondering.


This is one of those rare books that I can recommend almost without reservation. It isn't overly strange, it doesn't contain lots of swearing and violence, it won't offend most people's sensibilities. At the same time it is interesting, well-written and quite clever. I'd say that this book is almost mandatory for people who enjoy intelligent soft sci-fi, Agatha Christie, or P. G. Wodehouse. For the rest of you, it's a fine book that might expand your horizons a little bit.

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