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Bellwether Mass Market Paperback – June 2, 1997
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A sociologist who studies fads and a chaos theorist are brought together by a strange misdelivered package. This book has all the wit and clever writing that characterized Willis' earlier Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Doomsday Book. --This text refers to the Preloaded Digital Audio Player edition.
From Kirkus Reviews
Here-and-now speculative yarn involving chaos theory and statistical prediction, from the author of the fine Doomsday Book (1992), etc. Employed by the HiTek company, Sandra Foster is trying to develop a theory that can predict how and why fads and trends begin. But her attempts to computerize her data (mostly in the form of magazine and newspaper clippings) are constantly frustrated by the awful Flip, the erratic, forgetful, careless interdepartmental assistant. Still, Flip does lead Sandra to meet biologist Bennett O'Reilly, who thinks he's discovered a hidden factor within current chaos theories. As Flip blunders about--ghastly black lipstick, weird clothes, faddish accessories, attitude problem and all-- Sandra and Bennett decide to set up a joint project to test their ideas on the behavior of a flock of sheep. HiTek's management heartily approves--such a project might well win the coveted Niebnitz Grant. Sandra and Bennett learn that a bellwether sheep unconsciously acts as a catalyst to determine the entire flock's behavior. Bingo! Flip, while seeming totally incompetent, unknowingly acts as a human bellwether, causing fads and trends to crystallize around her as she lurches chaotically through life. Willis's intriguing notion comes across with the authority of a genuine insight--and probably merits a more dramatic and thoroughgoing workout than the agreeable but bland treatment it receives here. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Preloaded Digital Audio Player edition.
Top customer reviews
Sandra Foster works for one of those think tanks that suck up as much grant money as they can while urging scientists to develop anything that might turn a profit. Sandra is a "soft" scientist, a statistician who researches fads. Her value to her employer, of course, is that predicting a fad before it becomes a fad is a key to vast wealth. Who wouldn't have wanted to be in on the ground floor of the hula hoop?
Sandra becomes stuck as she ponders the origins of the bob, a hairstyle that was fashionable during the early 1920s. She decides to help another scientist who would like to be studying chaos theory but, in the absence of grant money, is studying information diffusion. He eventually does that by trying to teach the leader of a flock of sheep (known as the bellwether) a simple task to see how that knowledge is transferred to the other sheep. The project is complicated by the fact that sheep are too stupid to learn anything.
The story has a bit of romance and a lot of humor, most of it focused on Flip, a whiny office assistant who is about on the same intellectual level as the sheep. Bellwether does, however, make two serious points. The first comes from Willis' exploration of fads. Every chapter is introduced with a fad, ranging from fashionable colors to dance crazes to chain letters to coonskin caps. The sheep become a metaphor for human behavior, as people follow a fad until it loses it trendiness and then give their loyalty to the next fad that comes along. The serious point, of course, is that independent thinking is a valuable but scarce commodity.
When Bellwether is not discussing fads, it explores the nature of scientific discovery, which leads to the second serious point. Happenstance figures prominently in "eureka" moments (a spore drifted through a window and contaminated a culture, leading to Fleming's discovery of penicillin), although a variety of unexpected factors have contributed to scientific breakthroughs. Science is about hard work but inspiration is not so easy to explain. Willis attempts an explanation in Bellwether, and her thoughts (which partially derive from chaos theory) may have some merit.
Serious thinking aside, it would be difficult to read Bellwether without smiling, so you may need to take some breaks to give your smile muscles a rest. This isn't by any means Willis' best novel, but her second-string novels are better than the best efforts of most writers.
So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as "one of science fiction's best writers." Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I'm a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn't cut it.
The novel's protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and "how scientific discoveries come about." (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital "M")—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the "interdepartmental assistant" who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.
Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there's entirely too much of it.
Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O'Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn't have to read this book to figure it out.
The book reads a bit like the memoir of a social scientist, who works for a private research firm trying to understand fads. Somewhat cynical but also very human, she has a good sense of humour and enduring optimism. She interacts with equally fascinating and sometimes mysterious characters, progressing towards her final discovery, though not necessarily in a straight line.
A great story, very original and well written. Highly recommended.