Connie Willis,
Fire Watch
(Bluejay, 1985;
Bantam 1986, 1998)

Although Connie Willis is hailed as one of science fiction's finest writers, her eye for detail and skill at spinning convoluted plots populated with fresh and original characters marks her as a remarkable writer in any genre. Fire Watch gathers together twelve of her short stories, and the collection effectively displays her range and versatility.

In the title story, "Fire Watch," a graduate student in history travels back in time to London, 1940. His mission: to help protect St. Paul's from the Blitz. At first, he is resentful, having in fact prepared to travel with St. Paul, but in time, he develops an awareness of the impermanence and fragility of human history. Set in the world of Willis's novels The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, "Fire Watch" is at once funny, horrifying and poignant.

"Service for the Burial of the Dead" is a psychologically chilling tale which may or may not be a ghost story. "Lost and Found," set like many of Willis's short stories in a church community, explores the implications of misinterpreting biblical prophecy. Similarly, "Father of the Bride" looks at the literal and practical impact on the people connected to the newly awakened Sleeping Beauty. Both "All My Darling Daughters" and "A Letter From the Clearys," although written in very different first-person narratives, unfold slowly, revealing gradually dawning horror.

"And Come From Miles Around" demonstrates Willis's ability to transcend the extraordinary from the everyday. In this story, a housewife and mother of a 2-year-old has responsibilities that leave her at the fringe of the frenzy surrounding a total eclipse of the sun. In spite of this, she witnesses a far more remarkable event.

Both "The Sidon in the Mirror" and "Daisy in the Sun" are stories in which the main characters are caught in circumstances beyond their control with sad and terrible consequences. The mood lightens with "Mail Order Clone," a story about a man who orders a clone of himself with unusual results. "Samaritan" is a thoughtful piece laced with gentle humor which heightens the story's poignancy. It contemplates what it means to have faith and a soul.

The final story, "Blued Moon," is the first of Willis's stories I ever read, and it is also one of my favorites. The story incorporates specific detail and sharp wit into a looping recursive plot which must be experienced and alone makes the book worth the cover price. To describe it would be to spoil it.

Reading Fire Watch is like observing Connie Willis through a prism which reflects from many facets the very best of an exceptionally talented author.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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