When I picked up my own pen to start writing fiction in late 2010, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t read the novels of others while I was writing my own. Just couldn’t. This was a real problem because reading books was my favorite pastime. I moved on to flash faction, to playing online word games, and to losing myself in the worlds I was creating. So it was a big deal a few weeks ago when I finished d4 and left for a two week vacation with my family and decided that after almost four years it was high time I read a book for the sheer fun of it.
I chose Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” which I had bought for my travel friendly Kindle. It had been on my list for years. Her award winning short story “Daisy in the Sun” remains one of my favorites ever and what could provide more vacation reading pleasure than a book described as a “comedic romp through an unpredictable world of mystery, love, and time travel.” Too bad I did not enjoy the book.
It’s well written, of course. Willis is an accomplished teller of tales. Part of the problem might be that I’m a more critical reader these days, and part of it might be that my expectations were too high. But mostly, I was reminded how much the reading of a novel is an interaction between two people. There isn’t just a book. There is chemistry between the book and the mind of the reader and the problem here is that Connie Willis and I don’t have enough chemistry together to get through a whole novel.
She’s fascinated by Victorian England. A lot of people share this obsession, as the whole steam punk genre proves. I don’t particularly, and I had no idea that the novel would be so deeply rooted in it. I also seem to lack the genes for fascination with World War Two and with Napoleon, either of which would have helped. I am fascinated by the history of lots of other things, mind you, like mountain climbing in the Himalayas and sailing in the south Pacific and you’ve got my full attention for anything about the Mayans, or the Druids. Not a trace of these were to be found, however, just endless riffs on butlers, chaperones and appropriate cutlery. There were also far more details about an old English cathedral than I was prepared to absorb.
My favorite part of the book involved an intellectual feud between two history professors about whether individual actions could affect the course of history. It was funny, and it showed how silly we all can be when we adhere blindly to a our pet theories. This brings me to the second problem between me and Ms. Willis.
I really, truly do not like her approach to time travel. I winced when I saw the movie “Back to the Future” long ago, explaining to anyone who would listen how you can’t go back in history and change things. You can’t kill your grandfather and then fade into nothingness. You can’t kill off Stalin and destroy the space time continuum. If you can somehow find a way to go back in time then by definition you are on another time line when you get there. You now live in another universe. Kill off who you please, including people who appear to be your grandparents if you can find them, because it won’t affect the folks back in your own universe who created you. You are just an alien now, causing havoc in your new home maybe, but destroying nobody’s cosmos.
Most of the parts of “To Say Nothing of the Dog” that were not infatuated with Victorian courtship were all about saving the universe from the misdeeds of other time travelers lest the whole universe unravel. “No!” I screamed, just like one of Willis’ pedantic professors. “You’ve got it all wrong! It doesn’t work that way.” The people on the beach just ignored me.
I finished the book feeling quite disappointed, and turned to the other science fiction fan in my family to vent my frustration. Turns out he read “To Say Nothing of the Dog” a few years ago. He really enjoyed it. What was my problem?
Even though Connie Willis did not give me the fun read I hoped for, she may have given me something better. She helped me to understand why some readers really seem to like my work and others are not impressed. I’ve received enough of both kinds of reviews now to know that it’s not just me. Ms. Willis has me thinking that it is also not just them. It’s me and the reader together, and the ways that our interests and philosophies compliment each other, or don’t.