Fire Watch. Connie Willis. 1982. 26 pages. [Source: Online]
Fire Watch was first published in a magazine-- Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Feb 1982, and is reprinted in the collection Fire Watch (first published by St Martin's Press in 1985), and won the 1982 Nebula and 1983 Hugo awards for best novelette. It can be read online.
First sentence: September 20 - Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone. And of course it wasn't there yet. It wasn't dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940. I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn't.
Premise/plot: Mr. Bartholomew, a student historian, is sent to St. Paul's to serve in the Fire Watch at St. Paul's in 1940. His practicum was supposed to have him traveling with St. Paul--not visiting St. Paul's during the Blitz. His roommate, Kivrin, has been there, done that. Her practicum didn't go as planned either. But she urges him to give Dunworthy a chance--not to hate his guts just because of a mix up.
Initially he struggles A LOT with his time travel assignment. It is hard work--harder when you are out of your element and unprepared for the culture shock and how to go about fitting in with the locals. But soon he finds himself CARING deeply and passionately about St. Paul's--determined to protect the cathedral from going up in flames because of bombs--and the people he's meeting. The past becomes all too real for him--way more than just statistics, numbers, facts.
My thoughts: I believe this technically is the first work within Willis' futuristic world where historians LEARN the past first hand--up close and oh-so-personal--via time travel. The character of Kivrin is revisited in 1992's Doomsday Book. Her story may occur before this novella. But the world has developed-grown-shifted a bit when her story is revisited. Kivrin's character isn't developed all that deeply in Fire Watch. Mr. Dunworthy has evolved as well.
The page numbers for the quote below come from the paperback edition I reviewed previously. As I mentioned I read it this time online.
There are no guidelines for historians, and no restrictions either. I could tell everyone I'm from the future if I thought they would believe me. I could murder Hitler if I could get to Germany. Or could I? Time paradox talk abounds in the history department, and the graduate students back from their practica don't say a word one way or the other. Is there a tough, immutable past? Or is there a new past every day and do we, the historians, make it? And what are the consequences of what we do, if there are consequences? And how do we dare do anything without knowing them? Must we interfere boldly, hoping we do not bring about all our downfalls? Or must we do nothing at all, not interfere, stand by and watch St. Paul's burn to the ground if need be so that we don't change the future? All those are fine questions for a late-night study session. They do not matter here. I could no more let St. Paul's burn down than I could kill Hitler. No, that is not true. I found that out yesterday in the Whispering Gallery. I could kill Hitler if I caught him setting fire to St. Paul's. (12-13)
I am looking forward to rereading all the time travel adventures. I am over halfway through a reread of The Doomsday Book.
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