Thursday, March 10, 2011

What am doing here? : Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog

When I was considering what I should write my Honours paper on my first thought was that I was very sad my venerable Children's Lit prof (Kieran Kealy) had retired when I was in Britain because I wanted to do George MacDonald for years and the only Christian professor left with a remote interest in him was too sick to take on an Honours paper. I still had some inhibitions about Shakespeare then because after years of disappointing road blocks to my ambitions I was accustomed to thinking of Shakespearean theatre as inaccessible to me. So my next idea was Connie Willis and I spent a good two months frantically emailing everyone in the English department to see if anyone had heard of her. No one had.

Connie Willis writes Science Fiction, also known as SF by the initiated (as opposed to Sci-Fi). I know this because my Mum is a writer of the same genre and I gather that people who write "SF" actually know what they're doing and happen to be among the more brilliant and unappreciated writers of our particular literary era. This is because the education system functioning in most western countries is invested in teaching students to reject things which are exciting and fantastical as mere entertainment for the plebeian masses. Writing must be dull, depressing, and political to be remotely intelligent and worthy of note. I suspect this is why Connie Willis has remained below the notice of anyone at UBC.

I will openly confess I do not like SF myself and I can give no intelligent reason for this except that in general I prefer magic to science (though they are often indistinguishable) and for some reason most futuristic fiction bores me because it does not appeal to my feminine appetite for frilly fantasy with flowers and songs and long-haired maidens and beautiful elves and quaint hobbits and medieval-style battles. Science offers a backdrop of hard lines and cold technology. I enjoy it on television, but I cannot read it.

However, Connie Willis is one illustrious SF writer who really breaks out of the genre entirely in To Say Nothing of the Dog and some of her other novels and short stories. She is a Science Fiction author for people who don't like Science Fiction. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that only SF writers (and only ones of particular genius like Willis) can integrate so many genres into one piece of writing. To Say Nothing of the Dog is historical fiction, romantic comedy, mystery, and farce as well as SF. It's got something for everyone and, like much Science Fiction, it is also incredibly profound.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the 3rd time-travel story which takes place in Willis' futuristic Oxford. I know I read it before I went to Britain because I had a very different picture of Oxford in my head the first time I read it and after I had been to Oxford, the book came alive to me in a different way. It is the story of Ned Henry and Verity Kindle, historians and time- travellers whose mission is to discover what happened to the bishop's bird stump and to somehow prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing accidentally.

If this brief description doesn't sell it to you I won't be surprised. I myself had great difficulty reading past the first three chapters. This is because you spend the first three chapters wondering what the heck is going on. Willis drops you right into the story, like one of Oxford's time-travelling historians, with no idea where you are or what is going on and it takes you 3 chapters to figure out that either you or Ned or both of you are suffering time-lag and you haven't a clue where you're both going or what to expect on your mission or indeed what your mission is even about because everyone keeps talking nonsense around you and all your historical and literary preconceptions are muttering in your ear about the role of women in Victorian society and where the fish fork goes and what science fiction novels and literature should be like. And bang!-- you're in the past (probably) and your trying to figure out what time it is and where you are and what the heck you're doing there. You thought you were going on holiday to recover.

It really is a piece of genius that is so rarely appreciated because the reader is often so grounded in the prejudices of his own literary era that he doesn't realise he's being used as a character in the bigger story itself. Instead of seeing where the story will take him and trying to figure out his place in it at large he gives up on the Grand Design-- a victim of our current literary era which emphasises the role of Blind Forces in the shaping of the world and art by extension. Our role in the great tapestry of earth's history is meaningless, nonexistent, which means so are we. This is why we are so completely obsessed with our individual identities and spend our lives (and obscene amounts of money too) in the interest of self-fashioning. We care less about what we do in our lives on a daily basis with others and more about what we can call ourselves to set ourselves apart from the meaningless Blind Forces and give our lives soe significance.

Both Ned and the reader experience the same displacement and it isn't until Ned mistakenly takes up with one of the "contemps" in Victorian Oxford that he begins to realise the gravity of his situation. He is NOT there on holiday. This is NOT about him. He has a very specific mission to perform, but he's too muddled by time-lag to remember what it is, and if he doesn't figure it out the entire space-time continuum could collapse or the Nazis could end up winning World War II--which pretty much amounts to the same thing: the world will tumble into chaos and evil.

Of course Willis does all this very humorously with Ned nearly being run over because it didn't occur to him that the horn he kept hearing wasn't the All-Clear siren of the Battle of Britain, 1940, but a bloody great stream train coming down the railway--which ought to have been obvious because he was standing on the tracks. How often it is that we are amidst the obvious answers to our problems and can't see them because of our ignorant "chronological snobbery" (as Lewis would call it) which enables us to assume that we are much better informed than all our elders. Time and what we now call "education" has really done nothing for the human race but help us to assume that because hindsight is 20/20, we therefore see perfectly clearly in comparison to everyone that came before us. As a matter of fact, all it means is that we have a much bigger muddle of information to sort through and are therefore aware of less of the world. I am sure that the internet has only reinforced this notion.

As Ned floats down the Thames with Terence (the contemp-- ie the Victorian) and Cyril, (his bulldog), he realises that not only is he not supposed to be there on a pleasure cruise, but that missing the details of his role in this historical mission could be disastrous. He knows that the historians in Oxford are researching every last detail of Coventry Cathedral before it was destroyed in the Blitz so that it might be rebuilt in perfect detail by the unstoppable Lady Shrapnell in Christ Church Meadow of all places. He also knows that the hideous piece of Victorian kitsch, referred to as "the bishop's bird stump"-- a cast iron urn of some sort-- is missing somewhere in history because it was not in the cathedral ruins after it was bombed, but it was there only a few days before and they cannot figure out when and where it was taken from the cathedral before the bombing. And though every historian on the project thinks it ugly enough not to bother recovering Lady Shrapnell insists that "God is in the details." This is how Ned ended up with time-lag in the first place-- he was flying all over the past trying to figure out what happened to the damned thing.

The "bishop's bird stump" is the Macguffin-- the thing everyone seems to be voluntarily or involuntarily chasing after, though it seems insignificant in itself-- it drives whole the plot and as a matter of fact serves as the perfect illustration of what we all really are: hideous, presumptuous creations that are neither aesthetically pleasing, nor particularly intelligent, that convey no obvious meaning and are base imitations of whatever fantastical nonsense seems to be popular in our own time. We are "cluttered, artificial, and...mawkishly sentimental." Nevertheless, we are all important details in one great creation that needs to be rebuilt, beyond all odds, because it has been destroyed in spiritual warfare.

This idea that we all have a role, that we are all important details in Creation, so great that we cannot actually perceive our own significance, is the main thing that blew me away about this book. It may be summed up by the often quoted maxim "everything happens for a reason." And this was not exactly news to me when I was at college. I recall years earlier talking about life and eternity with Dad-- I was probably 14 or 15-- and he told me that the history of the world is like a tapestry or painting and that we can't understand it because we can't see the whole thing. I'm not sure what occasioned this conversation but the idea of a Grand Design was not new to me when I read To Say Nothing of the Dog. What was new was the idea that I had an important role in the picture and that the things which happened to me in my life, good or bad, would ultimately be significant details, not only in my life but in everyone else's life too. I could not even begin to imagine how every detail of my life was affecting the lives of those around me.

When the bishop's bird stump goes missing Ned meets Verity, who has unwittingly created her own temporal incongruity by bringing a Victorian cat through to the future-- something they had always thought was scientifically impossible. The "net" or time-travel mechanism would not allow incongruities. They needed to return the cat to Victorian England and find the bishop's bird stump to prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing and of course everything they do to try to "fix" the problem only seems to make it worse. But in the end they find that everything they have done, intelligent or (mostly) otherwise, has been drawing them nearer and nearer to solving the mystery and preventing disaster. Time is altered slightly, the mystery is solved and the detectives go home to find that The Continuum has repaired itself, the Heavens are declaring the glory of God, both in spite of them and because of them.

The pagan notion of an inescapable Fate is redeemed by making the events that befall us in our lives not ultimately about us nor about nothing, but about all of us and everything. This is where Christianity transforms things. Where individual self-sacrifice to the Blind Forces which seem to shape our lives and make us believe in our insignificance becomes the Redeeming Force that changes everything and moulds it into the Grand Design. Christ did not seek out His death, but when the blind men nailed Him to the Cross it changed all of Creation and He allowed it to happen to Him for all of us. It had never occurred to me that accepting my Fate, such as it was, was actually submitting myself into the hands of God and allowing Him to use me in the redemption of His Creation-- if only I could stop looking at the world in hopelessly time-lagged dementia and see God in the details I could save not just me but all those around me.

This has been a hard hard lesson for me to learn and I am still learning it really, on a daily basis. We have the cursed luxury in the modern Western world of believing ourselves in control of our lives and we have all kinds of technology to assist us and reinforce this belief that we are our own. Letting God tell you what you can and can't do because you belong to Him is terrifying. Most of us Christians pretend we have faith in God, but the truth is I only have faith in Him when I already know what's going to happen to me and think I've got things in my life under control. It takes stepping into unfamiliar territory, taking a degree at a secular university, fleeing to a foreign country for two years, stepping into a marriage, opening oneself up to childbearing, throwing oneself into parenthood, going back to college at 28, to realise that we're at God's mercy. We might be insulted, defaced, bombed, revealed as foolish, but God doesn't want us to disappear and He'll seek us out and make sure we're there on the Last Day and in the Age to Come because we are all heroes in His epic Creation.


Donna Farley said...

On the anti-SF current among the literati, check out this article.

It's also a great pet peeve to Canadian SF writers in particular that Margaret Atwood keeps insisting that what she writes can never be called SF because 'that has rocket ships and stuff'. @@

Donna Farley said...

and boy you are really steaming along with these posts! This is maybe the best one yet!

Andrew Seraphim said...

How are all the Farleys such fucking good writers? What's going on here?