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Fire Watch

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"Fire Watch" is a science fiction novelette by American writer Connie Willis. The story, first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in February 1982, involves a time-traveling history student who goes back to the Blitz in London, to participate in the fire lookout at St. Paul's Cathedral.

This is the first work in Willis' Oxford Time Travel series. A minor character in this story, Kivrin Engle, is the protagonist of the Oxford Time Travel novel "Doomsday Book".

92 pages, Hardcover

Published October 22, 2010

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About the author

Connie Willis

265 books4,078 followers
Constance Elaine Trimmer Willis is an American science fiction writer. She is one of the most honored science fiction writers of the 1980s and 1990s.

She has won, among other awards, ten Hugo Awards and six Nebula Awards. Willis most recently won a Hugo Award for All Seated on the Ground (August 2008). She was the 2011 recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA).

She lives in Greeley, Colorado with her husband Courtney Willis, a professor of physics at the University of Northern Colorado. She also has one daughter, Cordelia.

Willis is known for her accessible prose and likable characters. She has written several pieces involving time travel by history students and faculty of the future University of Oxford. These pieces include her Hugo Award-winning novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog and the short story "Fire Watch," found in the short story collection of the same name.

Willis tends to the comedy of manners style of writing. Her protagonists are typically beset by single-minded people pursuing illogical agendas, such as attempting to organize a bell-ringing session in the middle of a deadly epidemic (Doomsday Book), or frustrating efforts to analyze near-death experiences by putting words in the mouths of interviewees (Passage).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 75 reviews
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
June 4, 2020
I'm a Connie Willis fan, and this Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelette is one of my favorites, and the first work she wrote about her Oxford University time-travelling historians. And bonus! this story is free online here: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories...

Bartholomew is a history student at Oxford who's assigned to travel back in time to London during the WWII Blitz for his practicum, to work as part of a team that protects St. Paul's Cathedral against Nazi incendiary bombs. Bartholomew is NOT thrilled about this assignment: he studied the apostle St. Paul for years at Oxford, planning to go back in time and join Paul in his travels, but instead the history department assigned him to St. Paul's Cathedral. It looks like a bureaucratic mistake, but it's one that the history department isn't willing to undo.

So off he goes to the London Blitz. This story is written in the form of his personal journal, as Bartholomew tries to figure out WWII-era British slang and whether his co-worker Langby is a Nazi spy and WOW, look at the cat! (Cats are inexplicably extinct in modern times in this universe. I believe Willis explains in a later book that there was some kind of feline epidemic.)

It's a little slow and you have to take time to kind of sink into this world. Willis's stories and novels often meander around but she makes it up with fantastic endings. She knows how to stick the landing better than almost any other SF author I know. Like All Clear (a later book in this series), the ending of "Fire Watch" makes me sniffle every time.
Profile Image for Peter Derk.
Author 24 books331 followers
February 19, 2012
Pretty good book, quick read, all that.

The main thing I wanted to talk about is time travel because I really do want to talk about what I want to talk about. That would make a great chorus for a pop country song.

What's cool about Connie Willis is that, for my money, she handles time travel well. It's not explained in this story, but I had a kindly office mate explain to me that Connie Willis' other books that take place in the same universe involve something called "slippage." Slippage is the thing that keeps you from going back in time and killing Hitler, for example. If you tried to go back in time to change a large historical event, you would find that your ability to travel accurately, to an exact time or place, would be limited. The larger your potential for changing history, the more time keeps you from placing yourself accurately.

I like that. It's a pretty decent explanation for the way in which time travel can still work in a narrative without answering the question of why someone didn't kill Hitler, which is really the ultimate time travel question (The Hitler Paradox, as I like to call it).

I've been thinking a lot about time travel narratives lately. At first I thought that the only way time travel narratives work was in comedies, such as Back to the Future. But that's not entirely true because it can also work in things like 12 Monkeys or (on a self-contained level) Memento.

So what is it that makes a time travel narrative work, if it's not about theme?

The answer, as far as I can tell, is that the time travel is the path the writer takes in order to talk about something that he or she is passionate about. In other words, Connie Willis uses time travel, but really it's mostly about the fact that she wants to write about the Blitz. Additionally, the beauty of time travel is that you can write about something like the Blitz from a modern perspective, which means that you can discuss it while still being respectful of it.

Because (as I understand it) characters are not allowed to time travel backwards within their own lifespans, the other problem of time travel is dealt with as well. You know, that whole thing where you run into yourself and then you explode or something? I call it the Hitler Paradox II, not because it has anything to do with Hitler but because I name all my time travel paradoxes that way just so I can index them properly.

And if you think about it, the idea of traveling back to see your own young self makes no sense.

Normally, it goes one of two ways:

Alpha Pete travels back in time. He runs into his young self (who is supposed to also be Alpha Pete) and then changes time somehow.

That doesn't make sense because what has happened there is, essentially, cloning. Because the universe now exists in such a way that there are TWO Alpha Petes, yet the only process that occurred was time travel, not cloning. So rather than being one consciousness that is Alpha Pete, there are two iterations of Alpha Pete. But why?

Okay, here's the other common scenario:

Alpha Pete travels back in time. He is wearing a red sweater. He sees his young self (Beta Pete). This fulfills a pattern that Alpha Pete remembers from his childhood (when he was Beta Pete), a time when a mysterious stranger in a red sweater (Alpha Pete) showed up.

This works a little better for me, although if this is the case time travel is very pointless because once young Beta Pete sees grown Alpha Pete, in this scenario, this event will ALWAYS happen for Petes Charlie through Zebra and on and on. Not only that, but it will have always happened in the past as well. In other words, this event is replicated infinitely in the "past" and "future" and is therefore kind of silly and pointless.

Anyway, time travel rant over, thanks to Connie Willis for figuring a decent workaround that's good enough to satisfy, yet nebulous enough that it's not fully explained. Because if you ask me, fully-explained science fiction is not only boring, it's not really science fiction anymore. It's just a fictionalized textbook.
Profile Image for Данило Судин.
489 reviews157 followers
July 8, 2019
Не дивно, що це оповідання отримало і Hugo, i Nebula 1983 р. Звісно, тут є демонічні комуністи, які підірвали пів Лондона наприкінці ХХ чи на початку ХХІ ст. Але оповідання написано в розпал "зоряних воєн", тому нічого не зробиш з цим контекстом.
Оповідання ж показує, як Вілліс може писати оповідання водночас іронічно-сатиричні й дуже серйозні - майже пафосні.
Але опис сюжету зовсім хибний. Не просто студент-історик чергує в пожежній варті, щоб скидати з даху собору св. Павла запалювальні бомби. Це студент-історик з майбутнього проходить практику. Так, практика в майбутньому - це жити в досліджуваній епосі. Не те, що тепер ;) і от головного героя відправляють рятувати собор св. Павла, бо в навчальній частині наплутали. Він мав супроводжувати св. Павла в подорожах - спеціально вчив латину, грецьку, арамейську, закони і звичаї східного Середземномор'я. А тут в скеруванні написали замість "св. Павла" - "собор св. Павла". І от наш герой має 2 дні, щоб підготуватися. Ясна річ, йому це не вдається. І от він потрапляє в кумедні ситуації: не знає, як розшифровуються абревіатури, якими сиплють лондонці, не знає, як поводяться коти, бо тих в майбутньому немає тощо.
І ось ця комедія ситуацій виявляється зав'язкою до дуже серйозного оповідання. Де кумедного стає мало, а от важливого та сумного - дуже багато. Але як так - цього не поясню, бо це будуть спойлери.
Profile Image for Chris.
2,856 reviews203 followers
November 17, 2014
Pretty good short that introduced us to the time-traveling historians of Oxford. When comparing this to Blackout/All Clear, you can really see how much Willis has honed her craft over the years.
Profile Image for Veeral.
358 reviews133 followers
August 26, 2016
This novelette which won the both Hugo and Nebula, serves as a good primer to Connie Willis' works.

I just read To Say Nothing of the Dog a few days ago, so I thought it would be good to read this novelette before reading Doomsday Book.

But my advice to anyone interested in her books would be to start directly with To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book. Arguably, these two books could be considered to be her best efforts.
Profile Image for Teleseparatist.
982 reviews117 followers
September 4, 2016
Very good, but damn if the bit about Russia/Communists (who, you know, bombed places left and right) didn't age. The moment I got to it I knew when it must have been written.
Profile Image for Scott.
170 reviews5 followers
June 7, 2013
I read this after I finished Blackout and All Clear. There are some minor discrepancies but nothing that a little willing suspension of disbelief won't cover up. It was nice to see Kivrin again.

I think Connie Willis has it correct. How often have you romanticized about traveling to the past? I never really take into consideration language differences - let alone differences in norms and folkways - in my flights of fancy.

I looked up The Battle of Britain on 29. December 1940 on the internet and found this link. What a time! Living in the United States where, until September 11th 2001, there has been no enemy invasion or destruction; it is hard to imagine what life in London would have been like in the fall and winter of 1940. As I scrolled through the images of the destruction it really hit me how much of a psychological punch that must have been for the whole nation night after horrible night. And then I got to the image with the little boy - not much older than my son - sitting on a pile of rubble clutching a misshapen stuffed animal looking as if he is either too scared to cry or he is summoning every last bit of his fortitude in effort not to cry. I completely lost it and started crying myself. I am tearing up right now just thinking about that image.
Profile Image for Beth.
355 reviews6 followers
July 7, 2015
Quite possibly the best bit of time-travel fiction I've ever read. 'Scuse me while I devour the rest of the series...
Profile Image for Thomas.
Author 1 book27 followers
April 16, 2020
Powerful time travel story.

Apparently, this is only the beginning of a series of huge books. If this is any indication, it going to be good.

See you at the other end of Doomsday Book.
Profile Image for Daniela De Los Santos.
59 reviews52 followers
October 3, 2021
Otra gran historia de Willis sobre los Historiadores de Oxford. Gran reflexión y cuestionamientos sobre el tiempo, la historia, los historiadores, los catedráticos, la Universidad, el conocimiento y los seres humanos:
"Las preguntas no tenían sentido. Tras cada pregunta solo dejaban un pequeño espacio, como mucho para una cifra corta [...] ¿Cómo iba a ponerlo todo en un espacio tan pequeño? ¿Dónde estaban las preguntas sobre Enola, Langby y el gato? [...]
-¿No les importan nada?
-Son importantes desde un punto de vista estadístico -ha dicho-, pero como individuos no son muy importantes para el desarrollo de la historia
-¡Claro que son importantes! -he gritado-. Ellos son la historia, ¡no esos malditos números!"
Profile Image for Isabella.
418 reviews35 followers
March 21, 2023
Rating: 3.5 stars

While in some ways you can tell Fire Watch is the first story in Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel universe, in others it is barely noticeable. Some of the concepts present in the later full length novels are here in this sub-hundred-page novelette. It's like with Tolkien's works, where you just know there is so much more underneath the surface that you can't see - and in some instances you will never see, for the author has chosen not to divulge it to the reader - but you can feel the wider effects of it throughout the story. Every now and again you get hints of something bigger, something grander than the story you are reading, but it's always just out of reach.
Profile Image for Ali.
55 reviews
December 27, 2022
Every part worked beautifully: the difference between historian's and live witnesses approach, and how long does it take when the latter overpowers the former. It would have been overwhelming as a full-blown novel, but as a novella it hits exactly as hard as it should.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
938 reviews33 followers
October 2, 2020
3.5 stars

"Fire Watch" is a science fiction novelette first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in February 1982 and later included in the short-story collections Fire Watch in 1984 and The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories in 2013. The beginning of the Oxford Time Travel Series, "Fire Watch" features [John] Bartholomew (only mentioned on the page by his last name) whose time-traveling portion of his course of study at Oxford University has been accidentally assigned to the fire watch at St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz in 1940 London.

Having requested "St. Paul" and done all his preliminary preparations for visiting Paul the Apostle — the computer seemingly autocorrected and his assignment was switched to St. Paul's Cathedral —Bartholomew is severely distressed to discover not only his location change, the upgrade in danger, but also that he now only has two days to properly prepare for his new location and year. Once there, Bartholomew only allows his growing distress, lack of sleep, and uncertainty about his purpose for his practicum to cause him further alarm and increase his suspicions in a fellow volunteer for the fire watch.

What is so interesting in this reread (I read this short story previously from Fire Watch) after having experienced all the other time traveling stories to date, is seeing the early broad strokes Willis had already for her Oxford series. And she allows cross-connections to help maintain this anchor even when the stories later get a little beyond what began here.

For instance, Kivrin is Bartholomew's roommate (in their present time, not 1940) — the precise date is not mentioned, but she is the main character in Doomsday Book, which takes place in 2054 and those events have already happened at the start of this story, as alluded to at the beginning of "Fire Watch." The character of Professor James Dunworthy plays a role in every book/story. And even dear Bartholomew is mentioned again in All Clear, which is actually where you finally learn his given name is John.

What Bartholomew learns by the end is what all the historians learn at Oxford, in each book or story— that history and its events are not (just) about the data, numbers, and statistics, but history is about the people and their stories — especially the everyday people and their small stories.

The story won both a Hugo Award for Best Novelette and a Nebula Award for Best Novelette.
826 reviews20 followers
August 7, 2020
I don't know how I would feel about this story if I had never been to St Paul's Cathedral in London. I have, though, and been awestruck. Among other things, this
story celebrates the courage and dedication of the people of the fire watch at St Paul's during World War II. (There is a great photograph of St Paul's surrounded by smoke taken during a German attack on London in 1940. It was taken by Herbert Mason and titled "St Paul's Survives." It can be found on Google under the title of the photograph.)

"Fire Watch" is basically a time travel science fiction story and it works very well as that. It is part of a series written by Connie Willis, which includes the novels Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout, and All Clear. Like "Fire Watch," Blackout and All Clear (which really make up one novel in two volumes) are also largely set in World War II England.

I think "Fire Watch" is a fine and moving story,
Profile Image for kris.
936 reviews181 followers
October 10, 2018
"Of course they're relevant!" I shouted. "They are the history, not all these bloody numbers!"
Profile Image for Sara J. (kefuwa).
514 reviews43 followers
January 8, 2019
That was - perfect! All the feels! Man I did not expect that. And I've read Doomsday Book & Blackout/All Clear! T_T Great start to my 2019 short stories/novelettes reading!

First read: 4jan19
Profile Image for Chris Cutler.
Author 1 book33 followers
January 11, 2013
A great introduction to Willis' Oxford Time Travel series. A short story, this excursion into WWII concisely introduces the ideas, feeling, and ethic of her approach to "History" in a way that converts her readers, rather than just informing them. Which, of course, is the whole point.
Profile Image for Angela Demott.
511 reviews14 followers
January 23, 2019
This short story isn’t as developed as the novels in the Oxford Time Travel series in terms of characterization or even plot, but it does still offer that unique and identifying style that is all Connie Willis. Some readers hate it, but this reader can’t get enough.
Profile Image for Naomi Ruth.
1,551 reviews45 followers
September 8, 2019
I enjoyed this little novella about a time traveling historian and St. Paul's Cathedral. I found it gripping and didn't want to stop until I found out how it all worked out. I'm curious about Connie Willis' other books now.
Profile Image for Laura.
146 reviews
June 3, 2021
It’s Connie Willis, so of course I liked it.
Profile Image for Ryan Dash.
411 reviews18 followers
September 18, 2022
4 stars. This novelette started off slow and hard to understand. Fortunately, it picked up drastically and by the middle I was highly invested in the protagonist and the mystery.
Profile Image for Courtney.
34 reviews
September 16, 2013
This novelette is a tad more techy than the Oxford Time Travel novels, so more satisfying. There were no annoying children--a plus. Willis's talent sparkles most brightly in her shorter works. I chuckled at several points, not a common occurrence for me with the OTT books.

The story is structured kind of like a diary, as we follow Bartholomew on his assignment. It's a very useful frame for a time travel story and the diary-style writing make for a much more intimate view of events.

It's apparent that Willis revamped things between FIRE WATCH and THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, there are elements in FW that appear nowhere else in the series. The Dunworthy of FW and the Dunworthy of DOOMSDAY, BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR have only the spectacles and love of St. Paul's in common. Kivrin, however, acted as one might expect.

Final caveats:
Do not read before any of the other OTT novels, there are spoilers. Also, Willis changed her mind about the structure of her story universe, so things possible in FW are not so in the novels.

A personal observation: if you love cats, FW contains a very difficult scene.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 75 reviews

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