Fire Watch

by Connie Willis

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: February 1985
Printing: April 1998
ISBN: 0-553-26045-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 271

Buy at Powell's Books

This collection of twelve short stories from Connie Willis features huge variety. There's a bit of fantasy, a bit of science fiction (although nothing that's purely space opera), stories about the end of the world, about time travel, and about UFOs. The collection is best known for its eponymous story, "Fire Watch," which returns to the same group of time travellers previously featured in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, but that's the only story set in that universe. The rest bounce all over, including some stories that feel very different from what Connie Willis normally writes.

"Fire Watch": The collection opens with the familiar. Bartholomew is a historian from an era where time travel is used for research and has just been assigned his practicum. Rather than travel with St. Paul as he expected, he will instead go to St. Paul's in London during the Blitz, which means all of his training and research are wrong. With two days warning, he's thrown into the heart of wartime and the Fire Watch, the team of volunteers who try to locate and extinguish incendiaries before any of them set the church on fire. What follows is one of those confusing and convincing stream-of-consciousness character portraits that Willis is so good at, following a first person narrator through his thoughts, mistakes, and frantic worries. The story captures the harried chaos of wartime with an additional dose of paranoia, and the ending, if a bit predictable, was well-done. (7)

"Service for the Burial of the Dead": This is another meander through someone's thoughts, this time told in third-person, but the subject matter is contemporary fantasy rather than history. The former girlfriend of a deceased man attends his funeral, unsure if she belongs there or not, and then encounters him, apparently still alive. The story follows her attempts to understand and deal with this, in the typical elliptical, non-confrontational Willis style. Slowly growing realization is partly given away by the introduction and partly a bit too obvious, detracting from the story. I also took an immediate dislike to the man, which didn't help. (5)

"Lost and Found": Another idea story, this one tries applying a completely different literal interpretation of Revelation than the ones so much in vogue and tells a story of signs of a coming Apocalypse that aren't the ones people are expecting. I love the ironic twist and the idea. The story itself was weaker and mostly entailed fumbling about. Still, nice bits of theology and lots of fun for recovered millennialists. (6)

"All My Darling Daughters": This story struck me as dramatically different than what I expect from Willis, enough to come as a considerable surprise. It's set in an upper-class boarding school against a background of some sort of empire. The first-person female narrator is an old hand, just assigned a new roomate. She uses fuck in the first paragraph, she's primarily interested in sex, and she's far cruder and more vulgar than I normally expect from a Willis protagonist. I had a hard time with her and her constant slang for the first few pages, but then started finding her surprisingly compelling. The story revolves around both the mystery of her new roommate and the strange animals that all the boys are carrying around, and the last takes a sinister and then deeply disturbing twist and an ending that leaves the reader bleeding. This is a nasty, hard-edged story with a rapier-sharp point. Recommended, but not at all like what Willis normally writes. (8)

"The Father of the Bride": A slight story about the reaction of Sleeping Beauty's father to being awoken in the Middle Ages by the prince's revival of his daughter. It's not a bad gag and good for a smile, and at only three and a half pages it doesn't belabor its point. (6)

"A Letter from the Clearys": I won't say much about this story since its strength is the slowly dawning understanding of the setting. Willis is good at this: she rarely slips into too much exposition and is great at showing pieces of the background as a side effect of following the inner musings of her characters. This is a story about illusions and comfortable lies and a quiet sort of desperation; the surprise isn't horribly surprising by the end of the story, but the sad twist of emotion is quite effective. (7)

"And Come from Miles Around": I think this could be the quintessential Willis story, at least along the axis of character development. The protagonist is a young mother, harried by the care of her young daughter. They're on a family outing to look at a solar eclipse, but only Meg notices something a bit strange about four people who are also in town. The story is full of the mundane details of her life and her musings and wonderings, letting the reader inside her head while the action follows other characters. Meg has to focus on her family rather than get caught up in the eclipse, which lets her notice something that everyone else misses. The ending uses her different focus to bring all the story threads together. I loved the subtlety of it and the feeling that, to Meg, this was just another episode in her life and that all of life was potentially this special. (7)

"The Sidon in the Mirror": Another surprisingly dark story, this is the most fully science fiction of this collection. It's set on a colony world (actually on the surface of a dying star, which is a little improbable from a physics perspective). The protagonist is a Mirror, someone with the uncontrolled ability to copy the mannerisms and knowledge of someone else just by being around them. I loved this idea and wanted to see more of it; unfortunately, it's mostly used as structure here rather than fully explored in all its implications as an idea. Since he can't tell who he's copying while he's doing it, the ability substitutes in a way for the normal mystery structure of multiple suspects when he starts untangling and stepping into the middle of abuse and power plays in a bordello on this mining world. I didn't find the end entirely satisfying, but the idea is wonderful. (7)

"Daisy, in the Sun": An odd story, another apocalyptic story, this one starts with Daisy in a constantly changing world that makes no sense and without her memory of how she got there, and then tells the story of the world in a series of flashbacks. It's one of the better constructions of an apocalypse that I've seen and held my attention even though the details of the end of the world aren't horribly interesting once finally revealed. One of those stories that feels thin looking back on it, but which kept me turning the pages while I was reading it. (6)

"Mail-Order Clone": This one is straight humor. It's the story of a remarkably dim man who sends away for a mail-order clone and has that clone turn up at his door some months later, but looking nothing like him. The humor is mostly of the "I can't believe he's that stupid" variety where the reader figures out things the protagonist never does. Willis does weave in a way for him to be quite cunning, just with entirely the wrong assumptions. (6)

"Samaritan": This story tackles the question of baptism and conversion of an orangutan who can talk with sign language from a different angle than normal. The pastor (in a wonderfully sarcastic future world in which millennialism has run amok) is responsible for deciding whether the orangutan should be baptised as a Christian and can understand what that means, but slowly the story turns to the organutan's understanding of his place relative to humans. A good, thoughtful twist on an old debate, and full of Willis's typical long-suffering characters. (7)

"Blued Moon": This is the best story of the collection and a fitting end to it. It's a romance in the inimitable Willis style, featuring two good-hearted people blundering through the world, extremely busy trying to solve various problems, obviously destined for each other, and slowly realizing it. It features Willis's standard menagerie of likeable lunatics and self-absorbed villains and some truly wonderful descriptions of strings of bad luck. As with so many Willis stories, the SFnal twist is just what's going on in the background of the lives of the characters, but here it manages to infiltrate the plot to hilarious effect. There's a wonderful happy ending, the bad guys get their just desserts, and the story had me grinning throughout. (8)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-10-20

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