30 July 2011

Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Genre: Science fiction, romantic
Year of publication: 1996
Setting & time: Boulder, Colorado, USA; contemporary

Sociologist Sandra Foster is deep into a research project studying fads: how they begin, evolve and fade out. HiTek, the company she works for, has high hopes of the results, hoping that they can learn to start and control fads if they can just discover how they begin. Chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly is reduced to studying monkey group behaviour – that is if he can ever get the corporation to acquire the monkeys. An incompetent office assistant called Flip brings Sandra and Bennett together by misdelivering a package and while she tramps through the company like a colourful, sullen cloud of poison gas or the Plague, leaving chaos and destruction in her wake, Sandra and Ben find their research fields converging and things getting stirred up more and more by Management, fads, the prospect of a large research grant, a flock of sheep and Flip. The book’s title comes from the name for a sheep that leads the other sheep without actually seeming to lead them, and it is also, not at all co-incidentally, the name given to a trend leader.

No sooner had I written Thursday’s announcement than I chanced to pick up this book, which had been languishing in my TBR for a couple of years and turned out to be not just eminently readable, but eminently reviewable as well. Why I hadn’t read it before is a mystery, as I highly enjoyed both the Willis books I read earlier, so much so that I re-read the delightful To Say Nothing of the Dog earlier this month and then added it to my perennials shelf. Perhaps it was the old fear of having chosen the author’s best book first, but I needn’t have worried: Bellwether is every bit as entertaining as To Say Nothing of the Dog. Both have the same sense of chaos and a narrator who wryly observes it swirling around them before getting swept up in it, a scientific discovery waiting to be made, love to be found and a quest to be finished, but while To Say Nothing of the Dog is genuine speculative science fiction, complete with time travel, Bellwether is fiction about scientists. The theories in it may or may not be realistic – to me at least they are, and while I have not studied science myself, I do have a bit of knowledge of the social sciences and find Sandra and Ben’s bellwether theory quite plausible.

The writing is the same mixture of wry humour and tongue-in-cheek social observation and satire found in Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and the short stories in Miracle and other Christmas Stories, interlaced with obvious and not so obvious literary references and peppered with book titles (Sandra being actively trying to prevent classics in the library from being culled by checking them out). The otherwise unnamed and faddist Management is the butt of the iciest satire, while Flip would actually be rather pathetic if she weren’t such a trial to the protagonists. The story is tightly plotted and intricately woven and the characters of Sandra, Ben, and Shirl are believable while the people around them are more or less caricatures of faddists everywhere. Flip is somewhat exaggerated, but not that much – I have met her, or someone a lot like her, on several occasions.

Each chapter starts with a short, succinct and entertaining paragraph about an actual real-life trend, like the hula-hoop, miniature golf and marathon dancing, which would make a very funny mini-dictionary if collected together.

Verdict: An excellent read that would make a good starter book for someone who wants to get into science fiction but doesn’t want to jump right into full-on futuristic speculative techie sci-fi. 4 stars.

P.S. I have started reading The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby and I expect there might be another review in the offing soon.

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