Fire Watch – Connie Willis (1984)
These stories cover a writing period of about five years in the early eighties and contain some of Willis’ best work. There are loose themes of women and religion running through the tales
Willis helpfully provides short introductions to each story, revealing where some of the ideas came from and her methods of working. In the main this is a first rate collection. I’ve always considered ‘The Sidon in the Mirror’ in particular to be one of the finest examples of short SF I have ever come across. The stories range from dark and disturbing (All My Darling Daughters) to the light and humorous (Blued Moon) but all are cleverly conceived and very much character driven.
Fire Watch (Asimovs – February 1982)
Service For The Burial of The Dead (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – November 1982)
Lost and Found (Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine – January 1982)
Father of The Bride (Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine – May 1982)
A Letter From the Clearys (Asimovs – July 1982)
And Come From Miles Around (Galileo Magazine – September 1979)
The Sidon in The Mirror (Asimovs – April 1983)
Daisy, in The Sun (Galileo Magazine – November 1979)
Mail Order Clone (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – August 1982)
Samaritan (Galileo Magazine – May 1979)
Blued Moon (Asimovs – January 1984)
Set in the same world as her ‘Doomsday Book’ this story sees a researcher sent back in time to a London of World War II to become a warden at St Paul’s Cathedral
Service For The Burial of The Dead
Unsurprisingly, many of Willis’ main characters are female. here, a young woman at a funeral has to come to terms with meeting the deceased at the church. It’s an homage to the Victorian ghost story in which the reader is never sure what is real, and what is manufactured in the guilty thoughts of the protagonist.
Lost and Found
A story inspired by a verse from the Book of Revelation; ‘the Son of Man is come to save that which is lost’, set in a near-future of Religious Fundamentalism.
Like many of Willis’ short pieces it manages to compress a surprising amount of depth, characterisation and historical background into a brief number of pages. Where the last two stories dealt obliquely with religious themes, this confronts the subject head-on.
All My Darling Daughters
The inspiration for this tale comes from the story of Elizabeth Barrett who ran off with Robert browning to escape the tyranny of her father, leaving behind her other sisters. (The story was romantically dramatised as ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’)
A new girl Lizbet is sent to a near-future school (against the wishes of her father) where the boys have begun to behave oddly, and seem to have lost their desire for sex. The boys, it transpires, have found a new interest; strange ferret-like creatures called Tessels.
Willis skilfully combines comic and witty moments with the subject of incest and the dark and disturbing secret of the Tessels.
Once more, the female characters are centre-stage, with the males pushed firmly into the background.
The Father of The Bride
A post-modern look at a fairy tale. Willis explores what happens to the rest of the family when Sleeping Beauty awakes after a hundred years. She may have lived happily ever after but her father is finding ‘modern life’ rather hard to come to terms with.
A Letter from The Clearys
A post-apocalyptic story focusing on a small girl and her denial of the situation in which the family find themselves. A wonderful viewpoint to choose from which to tell this tale, and one which makes it all the more poignant and powerful.
And Come from Miles Around
A subtle clever story featuring one of Willis’ ‘housewife heroines’ who proves herself to be extremely clever and resourceful in a story which combines weather control gathered to watch a solar eclipse.
The Sidon in The Mirror
I have always considered this to be one of the greatest ever Science Fiction stories. I have read it several times and it never ceases to fill me with awe that Willis packs more characterisation, plot, science and background into this short piece than many authors manage in entire novels.
A new piano player arrives at St Pierre on Paylay. Paylay is a dead star ‘with a crust two thousand feet thick’ but still hot enough for its surface to roast the unprotected body. St Pierre is a mining town where the miners tap hydrogen from the core of the star.
Jewell, who meets the piano player from the shuttle, is the keeper of a bar/brothel where the miners spend their free time.
The piano player is not human, however. He is a Mirror, a humanoid species which consciously or unconsciously mimics not only the features of someone else, but their personalities and desires.
There’s a very odd ‘Old West Saloon’ feel to this story which somehow works beautifully well. Every interaction is sublimely plotted and written so that the story unwinds like a piece of clockwork automata, cause and effect building to a powerful end.
The Sidon of the title is a red-furred alien creature, one of which was brought to the star by a miner and which Jewell tried to make a pet of. But Sidons are unpredictable and can never be tamed. After a year of docility it attacked her and scarred her for life… and with that tale, the story begins.
Daisy, in The Sun
A minor piece, again featuring a female protagonist, in this case a young girl, Daisy, who has to come to terms with not only what has happened to the sun, but what has happened to her.
Mail Order Clone
A humorous piece featuring a man who sends off $29.95 for a mail-order clone after seeing an ad in a magazine. His clone duly turns up, looking nothing like him, and a farce ensues, to the true nature of which the narrator remains oblivious.
Willis returns to the religious theme in a tale featuring a female cleric who wishes to have an orang-utan baptised. It raises questions about intelligence and faith, its main target being the absurdity of some Christian ethics, highlighting specifically the issue of whether anyone or any institution has the right to determine who or what does or does not possess a soul.
Something Willis loves to do is construct these complex cause-and-effect tales, in this case a beautifully humorous piece in which a Research facility is firing hydrocarbons into the stratosphere as part of a process to repair the ozone layer.
One of the side effects of this is that it makes the moon look blue.
Also, we gradually discover, the number of coincidences and peculiar mishaps anyone experiences occasionally, begins to rise.