Sunday, 29 April 2012

Fire Watch - Connie Willis

"Fire Watch" by Connie Willis is her short story that features her time-travelling continuum that Willis uses in-depth in Doomsday Book , To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear. I've linked you to my two reviews.  I haven't read All Clear yet, that's on my immediate TBR pile.

"Fire Watch" is the story of Bartholomew, who is supposed to travel with St Paul, but because of a spelling error, is shipped instead to St Paul's - in the Blitz, in London, 1940.  Bartholomew doesn't have time to switch his history learning from the time of St Paul to the Blitz, and he only knows he is sent there to prevent St Paul's from burning down.  He joins the Fire Watch brigade at St Paul's for three months, which is the length of his time travel visit there.  And the story is him trying to do just that, save St Paul's at night when the incendiaries and bombs fall,  while he learns about the Blitz, while he tries to recall through memory aids what he needs to know about that time.  The memory aids  were implanted the fast way and so don't work until the moment he needs them.  So he bumbles about, learning everything as it happens, and then understanding what happens, almost instantaneously as the memory aids kick in. History happens and he is supposed to observe, as a historian, but like all the characters in Willis's time-travelling books, they end up doing, participating in history, and being changed by it.  There is no such thing as observing history, and part of the thrill and charm of this story and all her time-travelling stories, is that we get to experience that moment of history along with the characters.  By the way, I love the cover of the edition above - I don't own it, though I am going to try a copy now.  It's lovely, isn't it?

I had read "Fire Watch: before, several years ago.  So when I came across it in The Winds of Marble Arch, her massive collection of short stories (and still sadly no paperback editions have ever been issued, despite what Subterranean Press says, or if they did, they were so few that there weren't enough for the stores to carry), which I am currently reading from the library (because Subterranean Press refuses to publish any more in hardcover, which I would run out and buy RIGHT. NOW. if they did), I reread it again.  Since the time I read it the first time, I have been to St Paul's - if you look on my sidebar, you will see a picture I took when we were in London last in 2009, that we also have framed in our house.  I love that picture, it seems to capture the past rising up in the present, that everywhere you go in London, in England (and Europe), history is everywhere.  This sense of history is much harder to find in North America. We don't hang on to our history very well here, except in museums and in the US, the Civil War is remembered in many locations. I love that going about your every day life in London, you can see this beautiful awe-inspiring majestic church, that Christopher Wren rebuilt when it was destroyed in the 1666 Fire of London.  So much was lost in London during the Blitz, too, and this sense of loss, of history being lost, and trying to not forget it, infuses all of Willis' time travel books.  Why else do we study history, but to experience it and learn from it?

"Fire Watch" is stunningly moving. I forgot how good it is.  Here it is, online. I'm so glad it's available.   I cried as much at the ending as I did the first time I read it so many years ago.  There is something about Willis's writing that moves me, and this is why - along with her wonderful fun, zany, humorous, gentle, witty, smart writing, that I love so much. She never forgets that it's people that count.  No matter how prepared I am for her work to touch me, even in reading her short stories, I find she has the ability to pierce through to the important place where truth is kept.

Bonus review! another short story by Connie Willis:

"Letter from the Clearys" seems like such a quiet story (again, from The Winds of Marble Arch), and yet it lingers, this image of the world after it has exploded and left the survivors grimly hanging on.  It makes me realize how much in the 1980s we had to live through the threat of nuclear war - remember that Doomsday Clock, forever pointing at 1 or 2 minutes to midnight and death?  It is the story of a young girl, who goes to the corner store to fetch supplies - mostly seeds - and looks among the mail. She is looking for a letter from their summertime neighbors, who didn't come as usual the summer before last, when the end of the world started.  She is trying to hang on, and unwittingly reopens all the scars her family carries about the time - the day - the world changed. The Letter from the Clearys is also about us, as a human race, about how nuclear war might start with a bomb, and it is the small things that drive home the loss, the details, the way people don't always talk about what needs to be talked about, because it hurts too much.  The heroine, Lynn, aged 14,  reminds me of me as a child.  I was bumbling and awkward and forever saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I still don't have the greatest sense of timing.  Lynn wants to share the letter from the Clearys, because it's from before the bomb, and she doesn't realize the pain it will cause everyone to remember the way things were before. This is exactly what it would feel like to live in America after the bomb fell.  And you still have to live with people, and try to stay alive.  It's scary, and it's bittersweet, and it's supposed to be.  Brilliant, really. 

One thing Willis's writing is reminding me of, that I am discovering as I read science fiction this year, is how much science fiction is trying to find a way through the certainty of some global disaster or nuclear war or ending of the world - trying to find some way through the future, so that we have a future ahead of us. How do we survive?  what's the best way?  Do we have to leave the planet, is that our only hope?  It would be depressing fiction, if it weren't for this sense of hope infusing it, that we can find a way.  Science fiction is one way of pointing us to possible futures and outcomes. Connie Willis' writing (the time travelling series anyway) comes from a future where we do still exist,but things have changed, and they are trying to come back to see what they can save, or to see what happened.  It's beautiful and I love her writing, and this story, "Fire Watch", for showing that in the midst of war (the Blitz), there is time to care.

 "Fire Watch" won the Hugo and Nebula award for best novelette in 1983.
"Letter from the Clearys" won the Nebula Award for best short story in 1983.


Kailana said...

I really have to read something else by Willis. I have Passage out from the library right now...

Cath said...

I so need to read something by Willis. Several people whose opinions I really respect, yourself included, love her books. This connected series you mention sounds wonderful. I really must read Doomsday Book.

Susan said...

Kailana: Passage is a different kind of book by her, possibly my least favourite of all her novels! Mostly because of the subject matter and how it ends (no pun intended!) it has much less humour than any of her other books. But, still, it's good.

Cath: Doomsday Book! Really! lol in fact, anything, though if you want something fun and bewitching, Bellwether is my favourite book by her. Either one...I know i keep saying that...she's just so good and funny I want everyone to read her!

Belgie said...

I was so pleased to see Bantam re-release Fire Watch. I feel it is the definitive Connie Willis. It features the first of her Oxford Time Travel universe stories (Fire Watch), which ranks up there with the best time travel stories ever. But what really impresses me about this collection is the wide variety of the stories. They range from the poignant (A Letter from the Clearys) to the comic (the brilliant Blued Moon) to the profoundly disturbing (All My Darling Daughters). I worry that most readers will limit themselves to Willis's novels, and miss out on the short stories, which I believe are Willis's forte.

Susan said...

Belgie: She does write very good short stories, doesn't she? Do you have The Winds of Marble Arch? It's the huge collection of her best short stories (and most of her short stories too). All the stories you mention are in it. I'm glad though that you brought up that Fire Watch is her first collection of short stories and that it has been re-released. So many good stories are in it, you are right!

She is a great writer in both novels and short stories, which is wonderful to see. Thanks for your comment!

Kathleen said...

I haven't read any Connie Willis yet but I sure have read plenty of rave reviews of her work!