“Fire Watch”, by Connie Willis

Second paragraph of third section:

Excitement last night. The sirens went early and some of the chars who clean offices in the City sheltered in the crypt with us. One of them woke me out of a sound sleep, going like an air raid siren. Seems she'd seen a mouse. We had to go whacking at tombs and under the cots with a rubber boot to persuade her it was gone. Obviously what the history department had in mind: murdering mice.

When I last read this in 2002, I wrote:

"Fire Watch" by Connie Willis won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette presented in 1983; it also won the SF Chronicle Award. "Fire Watch" is set in almost the same universe as Willis' later novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog"Fire Watch" is sent to guard St Paul's in 1940 during the Blitz, rather than to accompany St Paul as he had anticipated. This failure to communicate vital information is a recurring theme in Willis' work; think of the incapacitated computer technician in Doomsday Book, the appalling interdepartmental assistant in Bellwether, the messages which may or may not be from the dead in Lincoln's Dreams, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage. In this case it seems a little odd that the narrator claims to have spent four years preparing for the wrong mission, and I was thrown by his reference to the time he'd wasted learning Latin – surely Greek would have been more appropriate? – but most readers are prepared to go with the flow.

Another Willis theme that one can track from "Fire Watch" through most of her later work is death; horrible, unfair, untimely death. Death is a major player in all the above-mentioned books except the comedic To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether. Death and the imminent threat of death are ever present in the London of the Blitz; every relationship the narrator forms is coloured by the knowledge that death is quite possibly just around the corner. The narrator knows, as the citizens of London do not, that St Paul's Cathedral will survive the Blitz but be destroyed in a surprise terrorist attack by Communists in 2007. (In 1982, Communist attacks on Western cities were plausible, even if the idea that major buildings could be utterly destroyed in single acts of terrorism still seemed far-fetched.)

For me, however, no matter how convincing Willis' portrayal of the Blitz or how moving her sense of the impermanence of it all, the entire story is completely ruined by the implausibility of 21st century Oxford. The narrator, who is a final year undergraduate, has a room-mate called Kivrin, a woman graduate student. In our world, Oxbridge student accommodation practices are completely different; individual accommodation rather than room sharing is prevalent; it is rare to get an opposite-sex couple sharing accommodation unless they are sexual partners (which does not seem to be the case here); it is almost unheard-of for graduate students to share with undergraduates (because their fees are different, their expected time of residence in the college is different, and they basically don't want to). On top of that, the narrator refers to himself as a "history major"; I don't know any UK or Irish university which uses the term "major" in that sense, and I confidently predict that even if it becomes fashionable in the future Oxford will be among the last to adopt it.

The result was that I spent most of the story picking up on the deliberate hints about the fate of St Paul's and at the same time wondering what the author was trying to hint about the fate of Oxford. This sort of thing happens all the time including in some of my favourite writing – in Mary Gentle's Ash, A Secret History, the historically inappropriate Gregorian calendar is used, for instance; or indeed Shakespeare has striking clocks in Julius Caesar, followed by Cleopatra playing billiards and wearing a corset – but in this case I just couldn't overlook it. By making her 21st Oxford so similar to yer standard 20th century US campus, Willis no doubt intended to propel her readers from a familiar environment into an alien war-torn city, and it probably succeeds for most of them. For this Oxbridge graduate who grew up in Belfast, it just didn't work that way.

This time around, I was even more infuriated by the academic setting. The idea that someone would spend four years preparing for (and being prepared for) the wrong mission is simply ridiculous; the investment of resources for a time trip is surely significant enough to make certain that the person sent back in time is fully prepared for their environment. On top of that, it's not even very clear what the mission is in the first place; can the narrator change the course of time, or not? If not, what's the point? It's a story where Willis has written a heart-wrenchingly sentimental account of a confected history, and it worked for Hugo and Nebula voters, but not for me in 2002 or on rereading in 2021.

"Swarm" by Bruce Sterling was also on both Hugo and Nebula ballots. Also on the Hugo ballot were "Nightlife", by Phyllis Eisenstein; "Pawn's Gambit", by Timothy Zahn; and "Aquila" by Somtow Sucharitkul. Also on the Nebula ballot were "Myths of the Near Future", by J. G. Ballard; "Understanding Human Behavior", by Thomas M. Disch; "Burning Chrome" by William Gibson; and "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman", by Joanna Russ. Both "Swarm" and "Burning Chrome" have a very strong record of republication.

The Best Novel awards that year went to Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (Hugo) and No Enemy But Time, by Michael Bishop. The Best Novella awards went to "Souls", by Joanna Russ and "Another Orphan", by John Kessel. The Best Short Story awards went to "Melancholy Elephants", by Spider Robinson and "A Letter From the Clearys", by Connie Willis. The Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo went to Blade Runner.

The following year there were two joint Hugo and Nebula winners, "Blood Music" by Greg Bear (the original short rather than the novel) and Startide Rising by David Brin, so I'll get to them next.

You can get "Fire Watch" in various places, including as the title story of a Willis collection available here. It is also online here.

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