Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Connie Willis Hugos: "Doomsday Book" (1993) and "To Say Nothing of the Dog" (1999)

Subgenre:Time Travel

Connie Willis, Greeley resident and obvious Anglophile, is in the select category of two-time Best Novel Hugo-winners, which puts her in the company of Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card. Now, I'm not planning to cover all of an author's Hugo winners at once, but it was the stark contrast between these two novels that motivated me to write about my Hugo Project in the first place.

Both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog are novels about time-travel to England, but though the books are set in the same universe, and written only six years apart, they are vastly separated in tone, content, and execution. Dog is part Jerome K. Jerome pastiche, part intricate puzzle, whereas Doomsday is a classic thriller. The former sparkles with Victorian academic absurdity, and the latter is haunted by the specter of disease. Dog quickly became a personal favorite of mine, but Doomsday impressed me more as a very depressing rough draft. After consideration, both are excellent novels, but reading Dog first colored my appreciation of Doomsday, and I found myself repeatedly frustrated with small plotting and tone inanities that had been gracefully avoided in the second novel.

To Say Nothing of the Dog conjures a world in which time travel has become common to the point that budding history students are shuffled into the past to search out vintage Victorian vases for the amusement of the rich. Now, any time travel story has to define its own little rules, usually spinning between the butterfly effect of Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" to the cheerfully demented fatalism of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." The basic principle here is a mix of the two ideas - a sort of studied irrelevance, where reality only permits time travel when it doesn't change the grand course of history. Of course, as always, rules are most interesting when broken, and Dog pours a heavy dose of comedic chaos, with its protagonist caught between the inflexible harridan, the Lady Schrapnell, and the destruction of the universe. There's a lot of foolishness, British bullheadedness, tribulations of absent-minded Oxford dons, and some very clever time-travel looping, some of which I guessed, and some which gelled in the last few pages in classic mystery novel tradition. Also, it's frankly hilarious, even though I haven't read "Three Men in a Boat," which gets a special cameo appearance.

Now, take everything that worked well in Dog, played for laughs, insert it in a dramatic novel, and you have Doomsday Book. It was disconcerting to see the broad comedic stereotypes actually driving the action, and I soon realized that the book was in the grasp of an Idiot Plot, in which the first time travel attempt to a new time period is undertaken with fewer precautions than a typical family vacation. Of course, I noticed this mostly because every single danger that Kivrin faces in Doomsday was dismissed by a few common-sense measures taken for granted in Dog. In a way, this could be a triumphant literary version of how real ingenuity seems obvious in retrospect - but I found that interpretation hard to swallow, because the characters making decisions are portrayed as genuinely, jaw-droppingly naive in Doomsday. The novel also suffers a little from a common malady; written in 1993 but set in the future, it features challenges for the characters that could be solved simply if anyone involved had a cell phone. Dog, written in 1999, has that problem fixed.

Despite my laundry list of frustrations, I enjoyed Doomsday Book - its power rests in the characterization of Kivrin, the young historian in medieval England, and her advisor, Dunworthy, each desperately trying to cope with disaster after disaster on each end. I just wonder what it would be like with a better setup plot.

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Absolutely. I give it an A
Doomsday Book: Well, it tied with A Fire Upon the Deep, which I feel holds up much better. I'd probably give the Hugo to Vinge solo, and give Doomsday a pretty solid B.

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