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Fire Watch by Connie Willis
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Title:Fire Watch
Authors:Connie Willis
Info:Ballantine Books (1998), Edition: Reprint, Mass Market Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Permanent Collection
Tags:science fiction, short fiction, american, 2012

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Fire Watch by Connie Willis

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A collection of short stories, most of which were from the early eighties, by Connie Willis. These were quick reads and I did enjoy them for the most part. They covered ideas from time-travel to ghosts and some had religious overtones. There was only one that I really disliked (All My Darling Daughters) but if I hadn't already read and liked To Say Nothing of the Dog I might have put her other books at the bottom of my list of authors to read more of soon. Probably not the place to start with Willis.
  hailelib | Dec 6, 2014 |
• Fire Watch. 1982
• Service for the Burial of the Dead. 1982
• Lost and Found. 1982
• The Father of the Bride. 1982
• All My Darling Daughters
• A Letter from the Clearys. 1982
• And Come From Miles Around. 1979
• The Sidon in the Mirror. 1983
• Daisy, in the Sun. 1979
• Mail-Order Clone. 1982
• Samaritan. 1979
• Blued Moon. 1984
( )
  SChant | Apr 27, 2013 |
I just read the title story, not the whole collection. I've been meaning to read Connie Willis' stuff for a long time, since several friends in one of my groups are very enthusiastic about her work. Fire Watch was easy and fun to read -- available online, here, by the way. You get thrown in at the deep end a bit at the beginning: it helped me to know that it was a story about a history student going back in time as part of their studies. But it was very readable, and reasonably easy to catch on to once I'd read a couple of 'entries'.

Emotionally, I didn't engage with it until the end, until the narrator saves Langby -- and suddenly I cared, quite a lot, and was hurt that Langby gets everything wrong...

I liked the glimpses of the 'modern' (for the narrator) world. Looking forward to hopefully seeing more of it? We'll see. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
The title story is sort of a prequel to her recent [b:Blackout All Clear|6506307|Blackout (All Clear #1)|Connie Willis|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1303142060s/6506307.jpg|6697901], and also set in London during the Blitz. The other stories are also well worth reading. ( )
  auntieknickers | Apr 3, 2013 |
My reaction to reading this collection in 1993. Some spoilers may follow

“Fire Watch” -- This story was written before Willis’ Doomsday Book but takes place afterwards. There seem to be some slight inconsistencieswith Kivrin stating she went to 1349 (She went to 1348 and left in January 1349) and one wonders why the narrator needs a microfilm Oxford English Dictionary and doesn’t have Kivrin’s language implant. The narrator is sent back to the Fire Watch around St. Paul’s Cathedral in the Blitz of 1941 to learn some lesson (he doesn’t know what). He witnesses heroism, cats (something seems to have happened to them in the future), and falls in love (Willis nicely only hints at this). When he is grilled by Dunworthy (also in the Doomsday Book) who asks for various statistical data about the Blitz, who tells him that individuals don’t count except as statistical elements, he slugs Dunworthy. He can not think of his comrades on the Fire Watch, the girl he left behind, as statistics but real humans trying to save something (ironically St. Paul’s will be nuked in the future) and lead their lives. It is exactly the human lesson Dunworthy wants him to learn – the reality of the past, its humanness, that it was peopled with real individuals not datum.

“Service for the Burial of the Dead” -- Proof that authors can still find something new to do with the ghost story sub-genre. Here Willis, and this is really the only part that held my interest, has ghosts return from the dead and try to pass themselves off as the living (sometimes, as in the case of Elliott, continuing their demanding, selfish ways) and hope to avoid the service for the dead which will finish them for good on Earth.

“Lost and Found” -- Two things seem to distinguish most of the Willis’ stories I’ve read: a lack of the traditional sf world building even in her novel Doomsday Book and frequent use of Christianity (even in her stories set during the London Blitz mention is made of St. Paul’s Cathedral) and its principles, motifs, and preachings. (Willis has said in interviews that she is a practicing Christian and finds sf treatment of the religion usually simple minded). This story exemplifies both traits. Willis’ character driven stories don’t dwell a lot on background development and exposition. The major flaw of this story is that it seems contrived around a gimmick without even the window dressing of a fleshed out setting. This is set in a future England whose government has clamped down on Christianity, making them hand over any valueables they possess, while being under the sway of “cults” whose character is never really explained. (Satanic? Pagan? Apocalyptic Christians? The latter seems implied given that they read scriptures while mutilating and killing people.) Evidently they hold children against their will since the Reverend Davidson and Finney, protagonist of the story, rescue children from the cults. The gimmick, which is the only thing that is interesting in this lifeless story is that, as stated in the New Testament’s Luke, the lost shall be gathered in the fold. Specifically, the lost here are certain famous relics (mythical and real) that turn up before the end of the world (the lost crown of England’s King John, the Holy Grail, and the lost manuscript copy of T. E. Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom). Surprisingly, for a Willis tale, the characters here are boring (despite their roles as retarded girl, fugitive reporter, and government spy – it should be a good dramatic mix but it isn’t) and their interplay dull.

“All My Darling Daughters” -- I recall reading some remark by Willis that she occassionally writes a story that cuts against her “nice” image. This seem to be such a case. This case is drenched in vulgar (in terms of the way the narrator’s terms and language) sex (lesbianism, bestiality, and incest as well as the usual hetereosexual stuff). There’s no reference to Christian things here. There is world building of a sort in the trashed out, quirkly designed, occassionally malfunctioning L-5 colony (or Hell-Fire as students call it) modeled after its owner’s memories of his college days in Ames, Iowa. The background provides the only real humor in the story. Essentially this is another story of incest (a vein well-tapped recently, too well-tapped) which probably dulled my appreciation given the recent popularity of this theme. (The story is original to the collection.) This story is about the cravings on the part of males (or at least all the males in this story – Willis is not a radical feminist) to rape, in an incestuous manner, things that are helpless, defenseless, and can give cry to their pain and fear. This theme is explored in three ways. There is the male administrator who offers narrator Octavia a secretarial job and freedom in exchange for sexual favors. She refuses fearing he may be her trust father (men who donate their sperm to have offspring. They support them via a trust but do not know the children’s identity). There is Zibet who, along with her three sisters, has been raped by her father. And lastly there is the strange, disturbingly perverted (even for bestiality) practice of some male college students; they rape tessels – long, brown, toothless, clawless animals – who scream in pain. What makes this a particularly twisted thing is they refer to the tessels as their daughters and prefer sex this way to sex with say Octavia or her friend Arabel. (Most of the character names owe something to The Barrets of Browning Street, the inspiration for this story.) The emotional payoff to this story comes from more than just sex. Zibet sends a tessel home to her father to save her sisters from further abuse. Zibet, at one point, tells Octavia she’s a good person for refusing the administrator’s advances and that saving yourself at the expense of someone else is a sin. Zibet, by sending the tessel home to her father, has committed sin.

“The Father of the Bride” -- A short, clever treatment of a simple notion: what happens to some of those fairy characters after the tale ends. Here the central characters are the parents of the girl from “Sleeping Beauty”. Things have changed during their sleep – new weapons (longbows, cannon), new spices, new fashions, new medicines, water mills and saw mills, less forest, more people, growing urbanization. The mother takes to all this change. The father is leery of it. And rightly so for the tale ends with news of English troops near Crécy and a strange “black spell” (already, in this 1982 tale, Willis is getting interested in the Black Death) from the east killing men.

“A Letter from the Clearys” -- An interesting reversal of the usual post-apocalypse tale. The Colorado family of this tale is doing, physically, pretty well. They seem to have seen the last of looters. They have shelter and enough firewood and food and seeds (and a greenhouse) to survive. But they’ve suffered. The family has lost a daughter-in-law, grandchild, and daughter. The neighbor woman who lives with them lost a husband to looters. Their psychic survival is threatened when the fourteen year old daughter, who narrates the story, brings back a letter from the ruins of the Post Office from the Clearys, old friends, dead friends now, from Illinois, a letter from before the war talking of future plans, full of small talk and teasing, and apologies for postponing their visit (which may have saved them). The letter is not happily greeting. Son David cries at the reminder on his dead Carla, gets angry at Lynn for bringing the letter. The neighbor, Mrs. Talbot, breaks into tears. The mother blames herself for not telling the Clearys to visit when planned and turns on the father for philosophically, black humoredly suggesting it was for the best they didn’t come. Some other signs of familial tension become apparent at story’s end. Son David not only refuses to cut firewood short enough to keep Lynn from burning herself when cramming it into the stove, he also lashes out at Lynn for taking “potshots at everybody” with the letter. She lashes back by bringing up an incident from the previous summer when David killed her dog and almost, accidentally, shot her after paranoially thinking (it was dark) she was a looter. Lynn, in her narration, seems a realistic fourteen year old in her grudges and failure to assess the soberness and seriousness of the situation and unwillingness to forgive her brother’s mistake. (On the other hand, the way he refuses to cut firewood to the proper length shows his callousness towards her.) The ending implies that Lynn has spent a great deal of effort and time looking for the Clearys’ letter and may have hoped for exactly the effect it had. It’s a good story that shows that physical survival may not be the only problem in the post-apocalypse world. There are family strifes and psychic ills to survive too.

“And Comes from Miles Around” -- An atmospheric (here a carnival atmosphere), dryly humorless tale about aliens coming to see a sight unique to our solar system, a solar eclipse. (

“The Sidon in the Mirror” -- An interesting story that I’m not entirely sure works. I liked Willis’ linguistic playfulness here with the dialects, naming the planet Paylay (a pun on Pelee, fire goddess), using the word Sidon three different ways (an an unpredictably dangerous alien; an unpredictably dangerous atmospheric tap into a star; and just anything, like the narrator, that may become suddenly dangerous – I haven’t been able to find any allusion to “Sidon” except a city in ancient Phoenicia but it sounds good), and the planet Solfatara. The idea of living on a burned out star sounds barely plausible but not the bit with dangerously mixed oxygen and atmosphere being free in the atmosphere. There isn’t a whole lot of explanation given to the background of this story. No background or rationale is given on the alien mirrors, only their existence and need to copy others. This is a story of mirror whose caught up in old plots of revenge and suicide, who kills and hopes it is not because he has been manipulated by others into copying them but that he wanted to. It’s an interesting notion but perhaps a bit overplotted.

“Daisy in the Sun” -- A complex, dreamy story (in more ways than one) of the literary sort with all the symbols, metaphors, and thematic variations neatly tied up at the end. At one level, this story’s sf rationale – that the sun has gone nova and the entire story is playing in the atoms that retain the young viewpoint character’s (a girl who has just entered puberty) memory – is rather trite and perfunctory. On another level, the attempt at writing a story in the literary style succeeds very well. The rationale is perfect for weaving a complex narrative that is dream and memory, jumping back and forth in time. The characters work well for all that they’re symbols. Willis again manages to capture that mix of obliviousness, pettiness, meaness, and naivete that marks teenagers. The central motif here is the symbolic connection between the soon-to-nova sun and sexual initiation. In a nice touch, Daisy (her very name associated with the sun and like a flower she’s attracted towards the sun) revels in the sun, looks forward to the apocalypse everyone else fears, for the embrace of the sun. Her dreams are filled with sexual symbolism (flaming hoops) that include the sun. What she fears is Rob or Rob or Rod (at story’s end she makes the symbolic decision to just call him Ra), the know-it-all-high school student who represents sexual initiation (“blood and darkness” as Daisy thinks of it) and who clearly wants her sexually (and gives Daisy plenty of verbal and physical cues to this effect). The story is wrapped up in the end when Daisy speculates about their disembodied condition (there are enough clues in what her brother says, the darkness outside with falling ash, the falseness of some of the story’s images, to think we’re to believe her) and comes to realize that what she fears (Ra) and what she loves (the Sun) are the same thing. Beyond making the common connections between fertility and the sun, warmth and lust, darkness and fear, heat and pain, this is ultimately a story about sublimation. Perhaps Daisy does fear the lethal sun and sublimates her fear to Ra or, perhaps, she desires Ra and sublimates her passion to the sun. The problem I have with the story – besides what I feel to be a perfunctory rationale to wrie a story, however good, in this style – is that Ra and Daisy still, though they now recognize their situation and status, consummate (it is as least strongly implied) their love. Why in this state? Because of old biological habits? Or to put a nice bow to the story’s package of ideas?

“Mail-Order Clone” -- Obviously inspired by Willis’ days writing confessionals, this is a humorous tale of a dumb man (who keeps insisting he’s not) who orders an alleged clone of himself.

“Samaritan” -- Another entry in the does-it-have-a-soul game (usually played with robots, computers, and aliens but here played with an orangutan who knows sign language and works to be baptized). Willis comes up with a satisfying answer that’s as good as any: “God chooses to believe that we have souls because He loves us.” The orangutan is loved by the ministers of this tale so they assume he has a soul. Willis adds to the biblical resonances by naming the orangutan Esau. She also takes a swipe at charismatic Christians who, in this future, have decided the end is nigh, and the Beast resides (this is a 1979 story) in the “liberal” churches which, under this onslaught, combine to form the United Ecumenical Church. The characters in this story (the main ones, at least) belong to it.

“Blued Moon” -- An intricately plotted comedy that mixes a bunch of the traditional elements – bureaucratic/scientific jargon, obsessed characters (including Charlotte whose NOW cant seems all too familiar now though this is a 1984 story), physical comedy, coincidence, a scoundrel’s comeuppance (when all three of his fiancées discover each other), word games, and romance – into a fairly funny mix. I think other types of humor work better on the page than Willis’, but it has its moments. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Feb 8, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Connie Willisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bergendorff, RogerCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Palencar, John JudeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553260456, Mass Market Paperback)

Fire Watch collects 12 stories from one of science fiction's most decorated authors. Although the stories are thematically unrelated, an undercurrent of mortality weights many of the tales with a powerful sense of humanity's frailties. Two of the best pieces are "A Letter from the Clearys" and "The Sidon in the Mirror," both of which show people reacting to death in characteristically odd (and disappointingly human) ways. Fans of Willis's time-travel books, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, will be delighted to find that the title story tells of another hapless Oxford history student sent back to World War II Britain to learn a hard lesson. Just when the book threatens to leave you morose and depressed, Willis reveals her wonderfully absurdist side in "Mail Order Clone" and "Blued Moon." Willis is a master of the novel, but her short stories are superb reading as well. This is a nice collection for a fan's library and a great introduction for those unfamiliar with her work. --Therese Littleton

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:11 -0400)

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This book collects 12 stories from one of science fiction's most decorated authors. Although the stories are thematically unrelated, an undercurrent of mortality weights many of the tales with a powerful sense of humanity's frailties.

(summary from another edition)

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