Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Publication Date: 1996 (First Edition)
Paperback: 248 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
Pop culture, chaos theory and matters of the heart collide in this unique novella from the Hugo and Nebula winning author of Doomsday Book.
Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions.
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: Connie Willis is my new author-crush.
If you have been keeping up with this blog you will know that I only recently discovered the books by Connie Willis and have been trying to catch up with her backlist. Bellwether is the third book I read by her and upon finishing it, I was so shaken that I uttered the words “this is genius”, in public. It is now set in stone: Connie Willis is my new favourite writer.
Fads and chaos are the two main themes of Bellwether. On one hand, we have sociologist Sandra Foster, studying fads – those short-lived, crazed trends that we have all been guilty of following at one point or another in our lives. More specifically, she is trying to determine how those fads start, what or who sets them in motion and is currently concentrating on figuring out the beginning of the fad of hair-bobbing which took over America in the 20s. On the other hand, there’s chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly now working with information diffusion amongst monkeys, after losing his funding to study the causes of chaos.
Even though both work for the HiTek Corporation, they never met before, a fact that changes when Flip, the interdepartmental assistant (From Hell) misdelivers a package and Sandra takes upon herself to take it to Bio.
Thus begins Bellwether and what happens next is a clever mixture of Science Fiction, Romance and even a bit of Screwball Comedy as Sandra observes all the fads going on around her: from stupid Management trends to anti-smoking enforcement and Barbie dolls and types of coffees to being incredibly taken aback when she realises that Bennett seems to be completely immune to all of them; as, due of those new stupid Management trends, something happens that catapults Sandra and Bennett to work together in a new project that involves sheep (hey, what could be more relevant to working with fads than sheep right?) and dim dim dim halleluiah, cue title reference, a bellwether which turns out to be not only an important element for said project but also an idea that will grow and well, I shan’t disclose anymore. And then of course, there is Flip, the most Incompetent Assistant From Hell of All Times – all of this combined for maximum awesomeness effect.1
And believe Bellwether is pure, undiluted Connie Willis’ own brand of awesome. In terms of storytelling it is reminiscent of both To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book with several plotlines that run parallel and appear chaotic at first only to have all threads coming together perfectly in the end. In terms of writing it also reminded me of both books in the way that Sandra is constantly thinking about fads and talking about them and the effect they have in people, a lot like the way the time travellers are constantly thinking about events and how they progress or not.2 In terms of tone, it is definitely lighter fare, with quite a few comedic elements and a sweet romance to boot.
Furthermore, what to me is the best aspect about the book is how the two aforementioned themes are incorporated in the storytelling: they are plot and characters themselves as well as part of the novel’s own structure. The story goes back and forth about them at all times in a way that is not only satirical but also thought provoking. Is Sandra immune to trends because she observes and analyses them? IS Bennett really immune? Are any of us? How does Chaos theory fits in all this? Plus, even though this is not one of Willis’ time travel books, some of the ideas circulating here are part of the same proposition that both random acts and single individuals may influence historical events.
Not to mention all the little things: how Sandra goes to libraries and takes home books that no one does just so they are not removed from the library forever; how she is completely oblivious to the fact that she is falling in love with Bennett whereas we totally know it and have fun with all the misunderstandings that happen; and how words beginning with “i” are thought of, used, discarded and replaced until eventually one word is chosen to describe the meaning of Flip’s “i” brand on her forehead (don’t ask, just trust me on this).
Bellwether is short, sweet and I loved it. If you are already a fan of Connie Willis, you will only find more of the same quality. If not, this is a good place to start. As for myself, when everything “clicks” in the end of this novel, I had the revelation that my love for Connie Willis’ books is anything but a fad. I am reading Blackout/All Clear next.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the beginning of a fad. By the time it starts to look like one, its origins are far in the past, and trying to trace them back is exponentially harder than, say, looking for the source of the Nile.
In the first place, there’s probably more than one source, and in the second, you’re dealing with human behaviour. All Speke and Burton had to deal with were crocodiles, rapids, and the tsetse fly. In the third, we know something about how rivers work, like, they flow downhill. Fads seem to spring full-blown out of nowhere and for no good reason. Witness bungee-jumping. And Lava lamps.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading next: The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell
- I have read several reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and quite a few of them moan about how this book is Not Science Fiction. Pray do tell, what is a book about chaos theory which incorporates chaos theory in its own storytelling if not Science Fiction? Although I will grant that it is not Hard Science Fiction but I don’t think any of her books really are Hard Scifi ↩
- I detect a pattern and I wonder if this is after all, simply Connie Willis’ style of writing regardless of theme? I can’t wait to find out although with a bit of caution, in fear that I might get bored with it. No signs of that just yet though, I totally dig it ↩