To Say Nothing of the Dog
How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last
By Connie Willis
To Say Nothing of the Dog is quite possibly my favorite Connie Willis book. It is very much in the style of her comparatively light-hearted shorter works (e.g. Bellwether), but still pulls off the epic span of her longer novels. It is more-or-less a sequel to Doomsday Book, although they do not need to be read in any specific order.
The story is set in the not-too-distant future (2057), at a time when time travel is not only possible, but downright boring. While time travel had been a big deal when it was first discovered, once it become apparent that you could not change the past, and could not even travel into a part the past in which you might accidentally change anything important, the world lost interest, leaving time travel the domain of the historian. Our hero is a historian, Ned Henry, who specializes in the early 20th century. While he is a serious scholar (you don't get to time travel with out some serious doctorate work under your belt), he is somewhat unwillingly swept up in big the whirlwind project de jour, an attempt to catalog the exact history and contents of Coventry Cathedral. History, being a somewhat unglamorous profession (yes, even with time travel) is always in need of extra funds to maintain the complex equipment, so when an eccentric billionaire decides that she wants to recreate the cathedral that changed her great-great-great-great-great grandmother's life, the entire department is given over to meeting her every whim. Ned is on the front lines of the project, documenting the ruins of the cathedral following its destruction in a German bombing raid during a World War II. But that's just the first chapter...
Because of this hectic situation, Ned comes down with a severe case of Time Lag (akin to jet lag, but much worse), and is sent off to the Victorian era for a respite (the past is the only place the billionaire can't pester and bully the historians). A couple of weeks boating on the Thames is exactly what he needs -- except that it turns out that boating on the Thames isn't as calming as he expected, and on top of that Coventry research is even more chaotic in 1888 than in 1940. He discovers that he may have caused (or perhaps fixed?) an incongruity, a disturbance in the space-time continuum -- theoretically impossible, but something's gone awry.
As always, Connie Willis has researched her history extensively, to the point where this could easily be considered historical science fiction. Other than that, this book make no claim on being hard science fiction, although her account of time travel is more sensible than many science fiction author's. On the whole, though, the science fiction aspect of the book takes a backseat. As with most of Mrs. Willis' books, this is mostly a story about someone with an chaotic job just trying to make it through the work week without everything falling apart. It's about dealing with difficult personalities and confusing situations with too little information and the wrong set of tools for the job. This is an excellent book for someone who doesn't like science fiction, which is not to say that SF fans should avoid it.
The writing style may be an acquired taste. Willis' characters are slightly dreamy, intelligent people barely able to keep up with the chaos around them, and they spend nearly as much time in thought as they do in dialog. This gives us a chance to learn interesting bit of history (yes, actually interesting), and keep us with the most recent plot twists. The result is that the tangled web of history takes on a frenzied sense of urgency, and sub-plots, such as romance and Time Lag, take on a low-key, secondary importance, and the plot sometimes seems to disappear and then jump out at you from nowhere.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes lighthearted historical fiction (or thinks that they might). Be warned, while it is an engrossing read, it is not light reading. It is long, it is written for someone who likes words and ideas, and the story is so complex the denouement is forty pages long, delicately untangling 200 years of time-travelling confusion. It's a great book.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, this book was named in homage to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), but it does not reflect that book's plot, writing style, or even sense of humor. It is completely different, except that it is set in the same year and on the Thames. And yes, Ned does see the Three Men in Their Boat (to say nothing their dog), briefly.