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Connie Willis – Fire Watch

June 8, 2012

57. Fire Watch by Connie Willis (1985)

Length: 288 pages
Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy/Science Fiction

Started: 17 May 2012
Finished: 20 May 2012

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I’ve been meaning to read more Connie Willis since To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, back in the day.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 28 May 2011.

Overall Review and Recommendation: Fire Watch is a collection of Willis’s short stories, most of them with a science fiction slant to them, but with sub-genres that cover the sci-fi gamut, from the titular story that involves the time-travelling Oxford history department from her other books, to stories that are dystopian or apocalyptic, that involve space travel, ghosts, and strange visitors. It’s an old collection, with stories that are older still: most of them were originally published in the late 70s and early 80s. However, they’re hardly showing their age, which is not always the case with older science fiction; the only obvious clue to the fact that they are 30-odd years old was the fact that the communists are still considered to be the bad guys. Overall, the stories were interesting and enjoyable to read, and there were a few standouts, although most of them didn’t leave me with a particularly strong impression one way or the other. It’s not a bad read, and the title story in particular is worth checking out, but it’s not on a level with the novels of Willis’s that I’ve read.

As a note, I read the Kindle version of this book, and it was pretty poorly copy-edited. I suspect the errors came from mistakes in scanning: “lea” for “tea”, missed appostophes and other punctuation, and other similar problems. Not enough to make things unintelligible, but still distracting. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Individual Stories:
– “Fire Watch” is the longest, and in my opinion the best, story of the bunch. It involves a Oxford history student who has trained to go back to biblical times and travel with St. Paul, but is instead sent back to St. Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz, where he joins the team of volunteers that keeps the church from burning during bombing raids. Willis is great about evoking the feeling of London during the Blitz, and it’s a lovely story about history, and permanence, and the importance of acts both big and small. Plus you can read it online for free!

– “Service for the Burial of the Dead” is about a manipulative young man, and his jilted lover who continues to be susceptible to his charms, even after he’s ostensibly dead.

– “Lost and Found” is a story of a small church, some miraculous discoveries, and a literal approach to the quote “The Son of Man is come to save that which is lost.” I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Christian view of the end of the world, but I certainly do appreciate a story that can turn the stereotypical ideas of the Second Coming on their ear. This story reminded me of Carrie Vaughn’s Discord’s Apple, with the artifacts from myth and history collecting in an unlikely place.

– “All My Darling Daughters” is a story of a troublemaker at a boarding school who gets an innocent new roommate, and a disturbing new fad that is sweeping the campus. The voice and tone of this story are different from every other one in the collection, and for all that several other stories involve the end of the world, this one was by far the most dark and disturbing in its implications.

– “The Father of the Bride” is a very short piece that looks at what everyone else in Sleeping Beauty’s castle must have been feeling after they woke up from their 100 years of sleep.

– “A Letter from the Clearys” involves a girl who finds a letter from some friends at the post office, but does not get the expected reaction when she brings it home to her parents. This story didn’t quite work for me; it was well-written, but what I think was supposed to be the big reveal did not particularly surprise me.

– “And Come from Miles Around” features a young family that has travelled to a remote town in Montana to view a solar eclipse, only to discover that they’re not the only ones with the same idea. I liked this one, partly because I read it just about the time that everyone was making a big deal about the recent solar eclipse, and partly because it’s a nice example of Willis’s skill at subtle storytelling: lots of effective showing, without ever outright telling.

– “The Sidon in the Mirror” involves a newcomer to a mining town, who has a score to settle and the secret ability (or curse) of mimicry. I appreciated the Western flavor to this story, but I was never quite clear on how the copying worked, which hampered my enjoyment somewhat.

– “Daisy, in the Sun” is another story about the end of the world, and how life and growing up still go on despite it all. Not my favorite, it was too fragmented and strange for me really to get a decent hold on it.

– “Mail-Order Clone” is a quick and humorous piece about a man who places an order for a clone, but doesn’t get quite what he was expecting.

– “Samaritan” is a story about an orangutan who is taught sign language, and who has decided he wants to be baptized, and the controversy that descends on the pastor who must make the decision about whether or not to do it. Interesting food for thought here, even for those who are not religious.

– “Blued Moon” is a comedy of errors involving the unintended consequences of a company’s new waste treatment plan, and its effects on the atmosphere and the laws of probability. On its own merits, this was probably my second-favorite story; it’s very clever and witty and well-structured. However, its light, almost farcical tone made it an odd fit with the other stories in this collection, which were mostly darker and more serious fare.

“There are no guidelines for historians, and no restrictions either. I could tell everyone I’m from the future if I thought they would believe me. I could murder Hitler if I could get to Germany. Or could I? Time paradox talk abounds in the history department, and the graduate students back from their practica don’t say a word one way or the other. Is there a tough, immutable past? Or is there a new past every day and do we, the historians, make it? And what are the consequences of what we do, if there are consequences? And how do we dare do anything without knowing them? Must we interfere boldly, hoping we do not bring about all our downfalls? Or must we do nothing at all, not interfere, stand by and watch St Paul’s burn to the ground if need be so that we don’t change the future?” –p. 12-13

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Other Reviews: A Novel Read, Shelf Love
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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2012 7:22 am

    I also love Connie Willis’ work, but reading your review of Fire Watch makes me realize I haven’t read that one. I thought the only book I had missed was Lincoln’s Dreams. So thanks for the review! I hearing about each story individually.

    • June 15, 2012 6:03 pm

      Laurie – You’re welcome! I really liked Willis’s novels that I’ve read, and have been adding more of her books to my TBR pile, now I just need to start reading them!

  2. June 12, 2012 1:50 pm

    I haven’t read these stories either, but they’re on my list to collect and enjoy. It’s a shame about the copyediting though; that’s always annoying but especially when it’s an author of such quality it’s doubly irksome!

    • June 15, 2012 6:04 pm

      BiP – Agreed! But it was clear that’s what had happened, and when I checked my print copy it was in a not very clear font…


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