Fire Watch, Connie Willis

Written by Donna


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March 21, 2013

Fire Watch, Connie Willis

Fire Watch, Connie Willis

One great thing about having an e-reader is that a lot of books that are hard to come by in this neck of the woods are now miraculously available to me for the first time.  Fire Watch has been on my list for ages—I’m a huge fan of Willis’ time-travelling historians (To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of the five books I’d take with me when I die; I’m just assuming there’s no library in hell and all…) and Connie Willis in general, so this early collection has been on my want list forever.

I was mostly interested in the title story, and it did not disappoint me, but I found myself pleasantly (or unpleasantly in one case) engrossed by most of the other stories in this early collection.  “Fire Watch” is the only one set in the historian universe (it is, in fact, the first story in her WWII arc, although not the first historian novel).  This story won both a Hugo and a Nebula, and with good reason.  Meticulous period details about The Blitz aside, it addresses the fundamental definition of history: a time period cannot be defined merely by statistics and numbers, and history contains the word story for a reason.  As I was reading, I was reminded of two teachers from my past.  The first was a middle school history teacher who reminded his students that history can be found in the most mundane objects, from ticket stubs to football helmets to a torn army uniform, because there is a story attached to those objects and each story is one thread of a larger piece of fabric.  The second teacher was a college professor who reminded his students throughout the semester that history is more than a series of dates—it’s a collection of people coping with a set of circumstances they have in common.  “Fire Watch” illustrates both of those philosophies as Bartholomew travels to St. Paul’s to join the Fire Watch for his final exam.

I have often wondered what it is about Willis’ time-travelling historians that appeals to me so much, and it finally came to me while I was reading this story—the characters in these stories come from both the past and the future to collide in what is, at that moment, their own present, so there is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story component to them.  Bartholomew’s story cannot be told to Langby, the verger, so Langby wrongly concludes that Bartholomew is a Nazi spy.  Addled by the time travel and trying to retrieve information he crammed into his head to help him cope with the time period, Bartholomew is often confused by the people he meets and the language they use; when he becomes exhausted both by his physical duties on the fire watch and by the mental stress of living in a dangerous alternate time, his own mind invents its own stories about the people he’s dealing with, which are not, of course, their stories.  So yes, he’s living in “history” and experiencing it first-hand, sharing a set of circumstances with these people, but their stories are not always the correct version of history—his presence has altered that.  So he’s both time-traveler and brigade member—he is the present and the future, and those story lines may mingle, but remain separate.  And he learns that history is really about the people and not the date.

There are 12 stories in this collection, and while I liked all of them, there are a few others I want to mention as having really stood out to me.  One is “All My Darling Daughters”, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s relationship with her father [warning: triggers for rape and incest].  A group of students at a school in orbit are forced to find ways around the smothering atmosphere of the school, where the girls are sent to prevent them from forming romantic attachments.  When it becomes clear that the restrictions placed on them are not preventing them from becoming involved, the boys obtain creatures that are unable to defend themselves to attach to instead, leaving the girls bewildered by the boys’ sudden lack of desire.  The story is a little more complicated than that, as one girl, Tavvy, is smart and determined and soon figures out that the creatures, which the boys all call “daughters” are being used as sexual vessels in anticipation of their future with their own daughters.  It’s a creepy, disturbing story about mistaking possession for love and about a culture that encourages the abuse of women by ignoring it and making excuses for it.

Also high on my list was “Daisy, in the Sun”, about a 15 year old girl who is desperately trying to remember something.  As she pieces together a timeline for herself, she comes to the gradual realization that what her mother feared was true and what she thought would happen was not true.  To say much more would ruin the story if you haven’t read it, but I really liked the way this story was structured; as Daisy bounces from memory to memory to get to the truth, her fragmented memories gradually begin to form bigger pieces as she pings from one place to another.  It’s skillfully done.  And I was intrigued by the implications of the solution—so much so that I sat up for nearly an hour longer than I should have thinking about them.  Plus, Willis manages to equate the apocalypse with a girl reaching puberty, which…I can see that.  The destruction of innocence.

The last two stories, “Samaritan” and “Blued Moon” were among my favorites.  In “Samaritan”, Willis examines the tricky question of what it is, exactly, that makes us human.  It’s a moving, effective piece about whether an ape can be baptized, but what it really looks at is whether we’re human because we have souls and free will or because we say we are.  Esau, the ape in the story, can communicate, can bond with others, can appear almost human in appearance, and seems to understand scripture.  Doesn’t that make him as human as the rest of us?

“Blued Moon” is just fun—it’s built on the phrase “once in a blue moon”, and just goes from there.  When a chemical company figures out how to repair the ozone layer, the chemicals they spray into the atmosphere turn the moon blue and very odd coincidences start to happen, despite the characters’ best efforts to avoid them.  Some are for the better and some for the worse, and some have lasting consequences.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this, and I was surprised, despite how old it is, how well most of the stories stood up.  Science fiction can sometimes age as things that were merely dreamed of 20 years ago are now reality, but Willis wisely avoids too much gadgetry and sticks to people and circumstances and building their worlds without relying on objects.  That’s a lesson a few contemporary writers could learn something from–it makes these seem somewhat timeless and still engaging and fresh long after they were published.  Highly recommended.

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