Time Travel for Academicians: Connie Willis’s Oxford books


In the 2050s, at least in Connie Willis’ Oxford University, time travel has become an accepted part of historical research, after the university1 developed a working time machine some 30 years earlier although the process still has a few glitches2. At the risk of spoilers3, in Doomsday Book, our heroine Kivrin gets dropped 30 years later than the original target date, and in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Verity brings something back through the net4, thereby setting off a cascade of attempts to correct what the 21st century historians assume will be a temporal discrepancy.

Of the two, Doomsday Book is by far the darker although like Willis’ other books, it does include lighthearted touches–a middle aged don trying to find presents for a twelve year old boy on Christmas Eve5–but given that the 30 year error in destination point puts Kivrin right in the middle of the 14th century outbreak of plague in England, there’s no getting around the fact that a good many characters, both sympathetic and irritating, die. Overall, the book is divided between Kivrin’s experience in 14th century England as she tries to blend in with the natives and Professor Dunworthy in the 21st century as he tries to correct the original error in programming Kivrin’s drop during a rampaging influenza outbreak over the Christmas holidays.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is, in essence, a comedy of manners set (at the historical end) in Victorian times, although it is similar structurally to Doomsday Book, in that there are two different plotlines, one in the “present day” and one in the past. In 2057, Lady Schrapnell has commandeered as many of Oxford’s history staff as possible to assist with her dream to restore Coventry Cathedral to the glories that it had during her several-greats grandmother’s visit in the 19th century, which were destroyed during the Blitz, but refuses to believe in the limitations inherent in time travel: you can’t send people back to a time which they’ve already visited nor can you send anyone to a pivotal point in history6. The plotline in Victorian times brings up a third issue: the theory that historians can’t bring anything forward through the net when they return, as the missing objects would affect time, and therefore their absence would disrupt the time continuum.

Thankfully for the historians, this last proves not to be quite true. They can bring things forward if the removal of said object did not affect time/history; if the object would have been destroyed shortly after the point at which it was removed, it can be taken forward in time as its absence would have no effect. It’s supposed to be gone. This opens up a whole new area of research–removal of objects just prior to the burning of the library at Alexandria, the volcanic eruptions at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and all the other destructions through time.

1It’s not specified if any other university is similarly equipped–sorry, Cambridge!
2not much point in writing a novel about time travel if nothing goes wrong, right?
3I don’t feel too bad about the spoilers; the two have been out for over fifteen years
4time travel transport device
5not surprisingly, his favorite was the one that turned his tongue and lips different colors
6e.g. Fords Theater on the night Lincoln was to attend, although the problematic pivotal event in To say nothing of the dog is the bombing of Coventry Cathedral

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