Humor in speculative fiction is usually pretty heavy-handed. If you talk to regular readers of the genre and ask them to think of humorous books, the list usually includes Piers Anthony's Xanth books (with their complete dependence on puns), Robert Aspirin's Myth books (with puns and slapstick farce), and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker books (zany British Monty Pythonesque storytelling). A more thoughtful kind of comedy, subtle and still effective, can be found in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, which leads me to suggest Pratchett's Diskworld books should be on the list as well—but I honestly don't know anyone that reads them. To this short list we can now add Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, a self-proclaimed comedy (the blurbs say it right on the cover!). Unfortunately for this reader, I had in mind the more heavy-handed books when I started the novel the first four times, and it finally took a concentrated effort to put those associations out of my head and appreciate Dog for what it is. It also took a viewing of the first season of Jeeves and Wooster, the BBC production of P. G. Wodehouse's classic series of stories about the perfect butler and his foppish dullard master.
Willis's work is a mash-up of several genres, none usually related to speculative fiction: there are elements of the stereotypical Victorian novel, what with manor houses and young men and women falling into and out of love regularly; the comedy of manners; and the 1930s detective novels, wherein the butler is generally the one who did it. A great deal of the charm of Dog is that the main characters, Ned Henry and Verity Brown, recognize that their ongoing circumstances also reflect those genres, providing a sort of meta-conversation that exists slightly above most of the plot of the novel. But underlying all the references and allusions to other genres is a strong time travel story that examines the repercussions of the ability to travel back and forth through time and ultimately poses some questions regarding free will and fate.
Ned Henry is a historian at Oxford University, which now has a working time travel machine. Unfortunately, the history department is propped up by the donations of an American who has married into British nobility, a Lady Schrapnell; because she donates the money, she gets to decide what research is performed. Her current project is to reconstruct Conventry Cathedral the way it was before it was destroyed by German bombing in World War II. To that end, she has sent out the historians to find out the most trivial information about the pickiest details of the Cathedral; Henry has been sent out to find the "bishop's bird stump," a vase of dubious artistic value.
The novel opens with Ned suffering from "time lag", a condition caused by taking too many trips in too short a span. He has trouble distinguishing sounds, is prone to waxing poetic about the littlest things, and is generally unable to trust his own faculties. It's no help that the time travel machine appears to be malfunctioning, sending historians to the wrong times and sometimes to the wrong location as well. Upon his return to the present, he is prescribed two weeks' bed rest, which given Lady Schrapnell's wishes, is not likely to take place if he stays where he is. So his department sends him to Victorian England to rest, so long as he fixes one minor problem: returning a cat that should never have gotten through the time travel to its original place in the space-time continuum.
Much of the humor of the first parts of the novel is based on Ned's inability to function well since his time lag makes it impossible for him to trust everything he sees or hears. Propelled into Victorian England, and into the arms of the upper class vacationing along the Thames at Oxford, just adds to the fish out of water scenario, as he struggles to not be caught out as being out of place and returning the cat, Princess Arjumand, to her rightful place…even if Henry can remember where the cat is. Along the way, Ned meets stereotypes of British culture that are familiar even to American audiences: Terence St. Trewes, dapper Oxford student smitten by upper class ingénue Tossie Mering; absent-minded Oxford don Professor Peddick, whose theories about history clash with those of his rival, Professor Overforce; and long-suffering bulldog Cyril, the only creature that Henry can confide in as he tries to recover his wits and then accomplish his task.
After the humorous patterns are established, however, they move to the background as Ned and Verity fear that they have inadvertently corrupted the time-stream: by allowing Terence and Tossie to get engaged, a series of events is begun that appears to have allowed the Nazis to discover England's possession of Ultra, the code-breaking device used to such devastating effect in World War II. Since saving the time-stream they know is based on breaking up the two young lovers, there remain comic moments, but when they are not plotting, Ned and Verity try to work out how time travel really works. Brown herself is a historian specializing in the 1930s, and she uses the detective novels of the time period, especially Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot books, as guides to solving the mysteries with the time-stream. And while the question is not asked overtly until the last half of the novel, Ned and Verity's assertions about the fragility of their timeline implies free will but the scientists who run the time machine feel otherwise—that the time-stream, and thus destiny if you will—is fixed.
The book never gets serious about this question and is mostly concerned with solving the smaller issues of finding the bishop's bird stump and somehow getting Tossie married to the mysterious Mr. C in order to fix the space-time continuum. But the question will sit in the back of thoughtful readers' minds, especially when Ned and Verity stumble upon the solutions to all their crises and how they tie together to resolve the issue of the slippages in maneuvering about the time-stream.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a rambling fun read with some interesting genre questions lying just under the surface. It exemplifies what a thoughtful writer can do with speculative fiction, mixing it with other disparate genres. Allusions to other books might become tiresome, but I think Willis does a strong job of explaining such references and tying them into the novel so that they are not merely prizes thrown out to the watchful reader. While there are sequels of a sort (nominated for Nebula for Best Novel, incidentally), it would be interesting to see more adventures for Ned and Verity, perhaps set in different times and working with different genres.