‘Fire Watch’ by Connie Willis


I have a passion for long, doorstopper books that I can spend days and weeks falling in love with characters and become invested in their lives. That is probably why I have read so few short stories; you cannot truly gorge on a character when you only spend a few pages with them. But the other day this came to me: How can I call myself a true book nerd and not have read a short story outside of a school context? It is disgraceful! So I reluctantly picked up ‘Fire Watch‘, expecting the reading to be a chore. Thank God I was wrong.

Bartholomew is an Oxford historian in the 2060s. Some disaster has occurred some decades ago, involving a pandemic and the extinction of cats, but humans have invented time travel. And so historians can study history ‘live’ so to speak. Thought his first journey to the past would be to spend some time with St. Paul, and has thus diligently read up on Mediterranean law and language. However, due to a clerical error, he is sent to study St. Paul’s and how a team of fire watcher fought heroically to save the beautiful church from the Blitz. Poor Bartholomew is not really prepared. He knows little of the social codes, lingo or significant events of the time he finds himself in. All he knows is that he is in a building Hitler would love to blow up into pieces. 

The novella is written in the form of Bartholomew’s diary written during the approximately three months he spends in the past. His assignment is certainly eventful. He gets to safe the cathedral, meet his very first cat, hurt a girl’s feelings and become catch the attention of a spy. I called him ‘poor Bartholomew’ above, but really a lot of his problems, excluding the bombs are caused by him being a self-centered, self-pitying idiot on a few occasions. Some of it can be excused by lack of sleep the fire-watchers suffered from, but he still do some stupid things. I won’t spoil them for you, because his mistakes are very enjoyable. 

Connie Willies has written a series about time traveling historians in Oxford in the 2060s. Previously I have read Black Out and All Clear and some of the better books about time travel out there – well researched, good characterization and well-written. They did seem terribly slow moving at some points and with an unnecessary number of cliff hangers at the end of each chapter. The great thing about a short story, I have found out, is that too much length is not going to be problem. 

Turns out this short story was the first thing Willies wrote in that universe. When I saw the name ‘Bartholomew’ on the page, I remembered that he makes a brief appearance in All Clear. Although we only see him from the distance in that book. It was nice to strike up an acquaintance with him, even if it was a brief one.


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