Connie Willis – Bellwether
20. Bellwether by Connie Willis (1996)
Read by: Kate Reading
Length: 6h 30m (247 pages)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Humor
Started: 19 March 2013
Finished: 30 March 2013
Where did it come from? Bookmooch / The library.
Why do I have it? It’s Connie Willis!
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 23 January 2009.
Researching fads makes
it hard to tell when you’re caught
up in them yourself.
Summary: Sandra Foster is a sociologist who researches fads – where they come from, how they start, and how they spread. She’s interested in the trends of the day, of course, but her current project is to study the origins of hair bobbing in the 1920s, but she’s been getting nowhere – trying to find patterns and meaning in the chaos of human social behavior is difficult enough on its own, without having to deal with HiTek’s constant staff meetings, funding allocation forms, and the world’s most obnoxious and incompetent mailroom worker, Flip. When Flip misdelivers a package to Sandra, she has to take it over to the biology department herself, where she meets another HiTek employee named Bennett. Bennett is studying information transmission in rhesus monkeys – or he would be, if Flip hadn’t completely screwed up his funding allocation form. Sandra offers to help, and soon Sandra and Bennett are working together on a new project, looking at the herd mentality in sheep. It might not seem like much to their bosses, but Sandra knows that scientific progress often comes from the most unlikely sources and the most random coincidences… and there’s certainly plenty of those to go around.
Review: This book was short, quick, and a bunch of fun, but I’m having a really hard time categorizing it (or summarizing it, as you might have been able to tell). Connie Willis’s other books that I’ve read are all science fiction, but this one isn’t; I mean, it’s fiction about scientists, but that’s not the same thing. But at the same time, it doesn’t quite fit in squarely with what I’d call contemporary fiction, either. It’s a book about coincidences, and patterns, and fads, and the process of scientific discovery, and chaos theory, and how seemingly insignificant occurrences can have big effects on seemingly unrelated things. It’s all those things, but it’s also hugely funny, since tossed into the mix is the frenetic feeling of a farce, a dash or two of slapstick (mostly in the form of sheep wrangling), and a heaping dose of “Office Space”-style humor where our protagonists are seemingly the only sane people in a corporate bureaucracy (and larger popular culture) gone mad.
So, perhaps needless to say, I had a really fun time listening to this book. The central plot, as twisty and non-linear as it was, was enough to keep me interested, especially as all of the seemingly random elements that Willis had introduced to the storyline began to interweave and tie in to the ending. (Which is another thing I liked: the structure of the story itself actually served to reinforce the point of the plot.) I was also impressed that although this book is upwards of 15 years old, and so heavily focused on pop culture, it doesn’t show its age hardly at all. Maybe that’s because while the particular trends that Willis writes about have gone out of style again, other equally random-seeming ones have cropped up in their wake, and so her points remain valid regardless. I also always enjoy reading books about science and scientists, and Willis really seems to get how the scientific process works on a day-to-day basis, even if her characters are existing in an exaggerated version of reality. She also does a nice job of adding in a realistic touch of romance, while not making it the focus of the story.
In sum, this book was fast and fun while still being intellectually engaging, lighthearted and funny without being frivolous, and just an all-around enjoyable book. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I’m having a hard time coming up with any read-alikes for this book, and it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre or category that I can recommend. Fans of Willis’s sense of humor will for sure enjoy it, as will most readers of lighter sci-fi, as well as anyone who likes the style of comedy where all sorts of crazy things happen but somehow they all fit together into a bigger picture by the end.
First Line: It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the beginning of a fad.
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