Time Travel Tuesday: Connie Willis’ “Fire Watch”

Connie Willis

This week’s Time Travel Tuesday story comes from Connie Willis, a woman who has been a rather prolific contributor to the science fiction and fantasy genres since the 1980s, so prolific in fact, that I’m a little embarrassed to admit that “Fire Watch” may be the very first piece of her work that I’ve ever read. She has won several Nebula and Hugo awards in the process, and is the author Remake, a novel whose premise intrigues me so much that I know it’s in my reading future. (Remake considers retroactive censorship – political correctness brought to its sadly logical conclusion if technology ever makes it possible.)

“Fire Watch” tells the story of one history student of the future who is ready to complete his graduate degree by traveling back into the time period assigned him so that he can report on what that period was really like. The young man has been preparing for four years to travel with St. Paul on his journeys, but he suddenly learns that a transcription error has been made in his orders and he is now scheduled to time-travel to St. Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz of 1940 instead – and that he will be leaving in just two days.

Argue as he might, the man gets sympathy from no one he whines to, including his girlfriend who herself had her practicum suddenly changed from fifteenth-to-fourteenth-century England. On a level of 1-10, he felt that neither century rated more than a five in difficulty, so he believes that she still got off lightly – while he is faced with trying to keep St. Paul’s from being destroyed by bomb, a task that has to rate at least an eight on the same scale of difficulty. And come to think of it, now he’s not even certain that he’s expected to intervene in St. Paul’s past because no one can tell him what’s expected of him in 1940 London.

If nothing else, the young man is clever enough to get himself assigned to the nightly fire watch team that scrambles around the roof of the cathedral stamping out fires started by German bombs before they can spread enough to consume the ancient church building. Much of what he sees is what he expected, but his reaction to the little things around him (including his first sighting of a cat – a species extinct in the student’s time) sometimes arouses the suspicions of the fire watch captain, aka the Verger of the Pillow. The ultimate irony, as it turns out, is that the captain’s scrutiny arouses the student’s own suspicions and the two men spend as much time watching either other for false moves as they do putting out fires.

As the German bomb blitz intensifies, the student begins to worry that he will not survive this final academic test, that he will either be arrested as a spy or that a stray explosion will be the end of him – but in the end, both he and St. Paul survive the best the Germans can throw at them. And only when he returns to the present does he figure out why he was sent back to a time he was so unprepared to handle, a lesson that can be boiled down to two basic ideas: (1) The only way to keep the past alive is in memory, and (2) All the millions of anonymous people of the past were valuable, every single one of them.

“Fire Watch,” coming in at thirty-eight pages, gives Willis the room to develop her characters and plot to such a depth that the story could easily be expanded into novel length. That said, I think that it is exactly long enough as published, and I recommend it to fans of time travel fiction. Now I’m off to find (I hope) a copy of Remake.

Herbert Mason Photo

2 thoughts on “Time Travel Tuesday: Connie Willis’ “Fire Watch”

  1. I do like Connie Willis. I am in the middle of reading her book Passage at the moment. Have you read To Say Nothing of the Dog or the Doomsday Book? both are great time travel novels. Is this story part of a bigger collection? Your description of Remake sound really good.

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    • I can’t believe I haven’t read her before that story…but that’s easy enough to fix. This particular story is included in “The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century” edited by Harry Turtledove in 2005. “Remake” does sound good, doesn’t it? My library doesn’t seem to have a copy, though, so I’m on my own with that one.

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