To Say Nothing of the Dog

Great Blue in Teal Pool

“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is the title of a Connie Willis novel. Loosely based, actually more in the style of, “Three Men and a Dog”, it is my favorite novel from one of my favorite novelists. Willis set her novel in her uniquely unscientific time travel series. When you have history professors explaining the mechanics of time travel, you have to expect a little fuzziness about the physics. I mention all this only as preamble, because this weekend holds in store at least three men, more women and a dog. Whoo Hoo!

Continuing with the preamble aspect of this post, I am writing this, before anyone arrives. Here is the tentative schedule: Tonight, Bob, Nink and Zoe, the dog, arrive. Cece, Megs and our David arrive tomorrow. Short of any late arrivals that leaves us with one spare couch. I assume that Zoe will not be sleeping on the couch. All save Dave are here in town to celebrate Andrew’s college graduation. He has been at Fontbonne University, which is just a stone’s throw from here. Andrew and David are the two halves of our own little student exchange program. David went to school in Rochester and Andrew came to Saint Louis for college. Speaking of Rochester someone has brought along some of upper New York state’s winter weather with them, it has gotten cold outside tonight, Burr.

When The Lights Go On Again

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello to love”

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the ships will sail again all over the world
Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing
When the lights go on again all over the world

I was too short in my original post about Connie Willis’ new novel, Blackout.  I wish to make amends.  Blackout is an excellent piece of art by a master craftsperson.  I enjoyed reading it immensely and recommend it to readers of all stripes.  The fact that I have read all of her major works and am a major fan should in no way impugn my recommendation. 

Her novel Blackout primarily revolves around three protagonists, all time traveling historians, who have chosen Britain in 1940 as their area of research.  They all “land” pretty much according to plan, but life, the story, devolves from there.  One historian is researching the evacuation from Dunkirk.  Another is researching the evacuation of children from London because of the Blitz.  The third historian is researching the effects of the Blitz on ordinary citizens.

Choosing Britain’s “Finest Hour” for material could lead to a story that is both dark and foreboding, but that is not Ms. Willis’ writing style.  She has always been able to infuse her stories with humor and this one is no different.  Her humor is in no small part derived from everyday situation that she captures so well.  Imagine trying to get to Dover, which is only twenty miles away and every form of conveyance conveniently appears and then leaves, all while you are off searching for it elsewhere.  She perfected this madcap chase sequencing in her previous novel, Passages.  Willis also finds opportunity for humor in the mischief of London’s two worst truants, who are evacuated to the stuck-up Lady Caroline’s manor house.  The class counterpoint here is especially funny considering that Lady Caroline has hand picked her evacuated children, to get “only the nicest ones”.  Or, imagine London’s greatest Shakespearian actor cajoled into putting on the latest bit of popular fluff, just to raise his shelter’s moral, the horror, the horror.

In her book and also in her interviews about it, Willis discusses the gulf that remains between her historians from the future and her 1940 contemporary characters, the contemps.  The historians know that Hitler won’t invade Britain, that the Battle of Britain will be won and that Germany will lose the war.  The contemps don’t know any of this.  The historians are doubly hobbled though; because they not only know what the contemps don’t they also know what they cannot even suspect.  At one point a frightened evacuated child asks after being teased by a bully, “Will the Germans sneak into this house tonight and kill me in my sleep?”  The historian can truthfully console this child with the answer no, all the while knowing that that same answer would be a lie to another child in Poland.

In interviews Ms. Willis describes her motivation for writing Blackout and its second half, All Clear, as rising out of the events of 9/11.  She describes herself as feeling very apocalyptic after that attack.  She felt under siege and saw parallels between World War II Britain and the United States post 9/11.  She had been working on a totally different story, a romantic comedy/road picture, modeled after the Crosby and Hope movies that involved Roswell and space aliens, but shelved it as being no longer appropriate.  She plans to pick this project up again after she finishes her Blackout/All Clear project.  We are now set to mark the ninth anniversary of September 11th.  The shock has faded, but also has this country’s sense of unity.  Part of that is attributable to Iraq, but time has also been a culprit.  In 1940, Britain was shocked by the multitude of German victories.  So much so that what was basically just a retreat after defeat became the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.  After 9/11 we also reveled in similar behavior.  In 1940 Britain had five more years of war ahead of it.  So far we have had nine.  We haven’t yet won the war begun on 9/11.  I will be interested to see how Connie Willis completes her project.


Blackout is the title of the newest Connie Willis novel.  It is her first novel since 2001.  With Blackout Ms. Willis revisits her vision of time travel.  Her writings are generally characterized as science fiction, but I prefer the term alternative reality.  Time travel is a theme that has won her rewards in the past.  To date she has won ten Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards and all of her time travel stories have been winners.

Blackout comprised my beach reading for this summer.  The Thursday before we left for the Cabin, I was in Borders searching for some summer reading.  Armed with my iPhone of mass distraction, I continually googled for possible titles, but to no avail.  None of them were in stock.  Scanning the bookshelves also turned up nothing of interest.  I even got distracted and started to look at DVDs, but still found nothing that I wanted to part money for.  After an hour of fruitless search, on the edge of despair, I spied upon the bottom shelf a single copy of Blackout.  Oh Rapture, Oh Joy, my beach vacation was saved!  I gladly forked out full hardcover price and marched home triumphantly.  Wanting to save the entire reading experience for that time when sand lay below my feet, I did not dare to even crack the book’s spine.  Instead I went to the web, just to read a review or two.

I soon discovered that I had not purchased a Connie Willis novel, but only the first half of one.  The second half of this story is scheduled to be published later this year, under the title All Clear.  Serialization has been a publishing ploy for many more years then I have been on this earth and by all appearances will continue long after my departure.  Lately though the media companies have taken a new tack.  Now, they are doubling down on a sure bet.  The poster child for this tactic is the upcoming final Harry Potter movie.  Are they finally giving more screen time to capture more of the nuances of J.K. Rowling’s always incredibly rich novels or are they just doubling their profit margins on this last chance at an incredibly lucrative franchise?  Regarding Harry Potter, I suspect that it was all about the money.  I am disappointed that I also suspect the same about Connie Willis.

With all this griping about the book industry, I must say that I still enjoy their products.  Especially, when featuring such an artist, as Ms. Willis.  My beach reading was not spoiled knowing that the book that I was reading would end as a cliffhanger.  I took that fact as stoically as any of her 1940’s contemps took the Blitz and pressed on regardless.  I am now poised for and patiently awaiting the “sequel”, All Clear.  Will Britain survive?  Will nary a historian be left alive?  Only time will tell.