I take the topic “Summer Reads” to mean that I get to recommend a book—and my mind promptly boggles over how to pick one book from the many I love. But for a number of reasons I’m going to offer you Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog.
I generally describe Connie Willis as the Jane Austen of science fiction. Her stories all have some SF element, but they’re realistic stories about real people leading real lives—and as far as I’m concerned, she’s one of the funniest authors ever. (Note: some of her books are tragedies, where she’s still funny, but notorious for killing lots and lots of important characters.) But her comedies are pure delight, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is my favorite.
In Willis’ time-travel system the space-time continuum protects itself from paradox (people changing history, etc.) by having her time travel mechanism simply refuse to work if someone tries to go back and do something that will have any historical impact. You can’t go back to pivotal events, you can’t take anything back that doesn’t belong in that period—and you can’t bring treasures forward to make yourself a fortune, either. This means that time travel has stopped being of interest to everyone except historians, who have a safe and sensible system for using it to study the past without disrupting anything.
Until a crazy billionaire, Lady Shrapnel, offers Oxford a whole bunch of money to help her build an replica of Coventry Cathedral, exactly as it was before it was bombed in WWII. The universities of the future are no more immune to big donations than the universities of today, and she’s turned the whole historical department on its head doing her research.
Historian Ned Henry has been sent back to discover what happened to a supremely ugly piece of Victorian iron-mongery, the bishop’s birdstump, that may or may not have been in the cathedral during the raid. But Ned’s been sent back so often that he’s suffering from a horrible case of time-lag. The symptoms of time lag are: maudlin sentimentality, difficulty in distinguishing sounds, fatigue, a tendency to be distracted by irrelevancies, slowness in answering…well you get it. The only cure is rest, and no time travel.
But before he can find a place to hide from Lady Shrapnel Ned gets called to the boss’s office, where he overhears parts of a conversation that indicates that some historian has brought something from the past into to the future—and due to difficulty in distinguishing sounds (a rat, a fan, a cab) Ned doesn’t even know what this thing is. But whatever it is, it being brought forward could endanger the whole space time continuum, and the boss tells Ned he has to go back in time to return it. The Victorian era is supposed to be restful—just what he needs. Ned’s being costumed, briefed on his mission, and prepped on the Victorian era through an earbug, all at the same time. And these are the instructions he hears, for his mission to save the space time continuum:
“There’s nobody else to send,” Mr. Dunworthy said. “Ned, listen carefully. Here’s what I want you to do. You’ll come through on June 7th, 1888, at 10 A.M. The river is to the left of the dessert fork, which is used for gateaux and puddings. For such desserts as Munching’s End, the dessert knife is used with the…”
Knife. Nice. Naiads. That was what they were called. Hylas and the Naiads. He went to fill his water jug, and they pulled him into the water with them, down and down, their hair and their wet sleeves twining about him.
“As soon as it’s returned, you can do whatever you like. The rest of the two weeks is yours. You can spend it boating on the river or to the right of the dessert plate, with the blade pointing inward.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Have you got that?”
“What?” I said, but Mr. Dunworthy wasn’t listening…
If you like gloriously funny, intelligent, comedy-adventure-romance, I’d highly recommend that you spend part of your summer in the Victorian era saving the space time continuum.
Hilari Bell writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and the best of her books for summer are the Knight & Rogue series.