When one thinks of time travel stories, H.G. Well’s Time Machine comes to mind, and Ray Bradbury’s The Thunder Of Its Wings, and then of course Back To The Future I, II, and III, and… The point is that most time travel stories lead to far-distant adventures, danger, or history-threatening paradox. And then there is To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis.
TSNOTG is based on an interesting twist on time travel; paradox is apparently impossible. Because of this, when time travel is discovered it turns out to be of limited usefulness. For example, you can’t travel to the future because this would allow you to gain future-knowledge, a paradox. You can travel to the past, but can’t change events–or even take anything living back with you or anything that might conceivably be missed because that would create paradox. So, no time-tourists going back to watch historical events–crowds would be noticed, therefor change things and create paradox.
Because of these depressing limitations, time travel is really only of interest to university history departments, and they have to scrabble for funding. So the history department at Oxford finds itself at the mercy of Lady Schrapnell, an American neo-aristocrat who has endowed the department and drafted the professors into helping her rebuild and redecorate, down to the finest detail, Coventry Cathedral as it was before it burned in the Blitz during Word War II. Mostly this means going back and taking pictures to guide reproduction, but she insists on also recovering every item of furniture or decoration that survived the Blitz and was subsequently sold off or lost into people’s attics. The faculty is being driven crazy by the mystery of one item in particular: the Bishop’s Bird-Stump, a piece of Victorian brick-a-brack. Nobody knows what it was, there are no pictures, and its identification/retrieval is vital to the department’s endowment.
All this is merely background. The story begins with an emergency precipitated by the impossible; somebody actually brought a living thing back through the veils. A half-drowned Victorian era cat, to be precise, and suddenly the temporal understanding that makes time travel even possible is threatened and history itself is at risk (yes, cats are that important). This happens just while a “crack team” has been dispatched to London in the middle of the Blitz to determine whether or not the “bird stump” was in fact inside Coventry Cathedral when it was bombed. Ned Henry, a deeply time-lagged historian is dispatched to return the offending feline, but this doesn’t solve the problem; Ned and Verity Kindle (his Victorian-era contact, on the deep-cover mission of reading someone’s diary) must sort it all out and restore history to its proper course before it all unravels like a cheap sweater.
Of course historical people abound–but this isn’t one of those stories where the adventurers meet Winston Churchill (instead Ned meets three men in a boat, to say nothing of the dog). Nor are there shootouts, desperate chases, dastardly deeds done dirt cheap, etc. In fact the elaborate science fiction setup, while faithfully and satisfyingly executed, appears to be a grand excuse for a snort-worthy comedy of manners and drawing room romance. Okay, there is the London Blitz, and yes, it does involve history-threatening paradox, but the other bits are much more fun. To Say Nothing of the Dog is available in paper and on ebook, unfortunately only on Amazon.com.