I actually rather like To Say Nothing of the Dog. I have found Willis' recent work cloying, tedious, and not as funny as many readers seem to think it is, and the reviews I've seen of Blackout/All Clear make me feel that, when it inevitably makes this year's Hugo shortlist, it may well be the first shortlisted work I skip in over a decade. But rereading To Say Nothing of the Dog has reminded me that there was a time when her writing did not seem so laboured and her humour much more successful.
The story of To Say Nothing of the Dog concerns time-travelling historians who have been commissioned to retrieve an ornamental flower vase from Coventry Cathedral before its destruction in 1940. The humour revolves around failures of communication, references to various light literature (Three Men in a Boat, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers), tyrannical mother figures, and culture shock regarding the Victorian era (for some reason the key to rescuing the vase is in 1888). The various time travel paradoxes are rather reminiscent of the end of last year's season of Doctor Who, but actually slightly more satisfactory in the way they are worked out. It's not deep or tragic in the same way as Willis' previous novel in this series, Doomsday Book, but it is rather good fun.
This won the Hugo for Best Novel back in 1999, beating Mary Doria Russell's Children of God, Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia, Bruce Sterling's Distraction and Robert J. Sawyer's Factoring Humanity. This is the most recent year for which I have not read all the Hugo novel nominees; I was very disappointed with Children of God, which I felt a poor follow-up to The Sparrow. I have read Distraction but don't remember much about it. The Nebula that year went to Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler which is a truly great book.
I have now completed one of my reading projects - to have a write-up on-line, be it ever so humble, of every winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Some of them are mere one-para stubs awaiting expansion if I ever get back to my project of writing up all of the joint Hugo/Nebula winners in detail, but at least they are all there now.
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My favourites (at least, those I've given five stars on LibraryThing) in no particular order are Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Gateway, Green Mars, Blue Mars, Lord of Light, Doomsday Book, The Dispossessed, Rendezvous With Rama, Hyperion, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Left Hand of Darkness and Fahrenheit 451. If I had to pick one out of those as my all-time favourite Hugo winner, I think it would be A Canticle for Leibowitz.
My least favourite - those I've given fewer than three stars to on Librarything - are Neuromancer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Cyteen, The Gods Themselves, The Uplift War, Downbelow Station, Hominids, and They'd Rather Be Right/The Forever Machine. I know that my failure to grok Cherryh or Gibson is not widely shared, but I think that the Farmer, the Asimov, the Sawyer and the Brin are genuinely awful books which should not have won in normal circumstances.
Right, Nebula winners next - I have read all but one (Powers) but there are another nine I haven't written up on-line (Man Plus, Timescape, Falling Free, Tehanu, Slow River, The Moon and the Sun, Parable of the Talents, The Quantum Rose and The Speed of Dark).