Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Bellwether by Connie Willis
Published : Bantam Spectra, 1996
Awards Nominated : Nebula Award

The Book :

What makes something become a fad?  That’s the question Sandra Foster wants to answer through her research for HiTek Corporation.  HiTek’s bureaucratic atmosphere isn’t making her task any easier. Sandra is constantly derailed by overcomplicated paperwork, meetings, HiTek’s obsession with acquiring a prestigious grant and her supremely incompetent fad-following office assistant, Flip.

Thanks to a mis-delivered package, Sandra gets to know her fellow HiTek researcher Bennet O'Reilly, who works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory.  Sandra is initially interested in him due to his strange immunity to fads, but their acquaintanceship quickly moves towards a closer collaboration.  As their research spirals out of control, Bennet and Sandra search for the link between chaos theory, romance, fads, and a flock of sheep…” ~Allie

I’ve read a lot of Willis’ work, though this is the first book I’ve read outside of her time travel novels (Doomsday Book, Blackout/All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog).  Bellwether is definitely characteristic of Willis’ style, but it is also a light, silly romantic comedy.  This is also the third novel I've reviewed for the Grand Master Reading Challenge, hosted by, a fantastic website I recommend highly for any fans of speculative fiction.  

My Thoughts :

Bellwether does feature scientists, but it doesn't really seem like a science fiction story.  I can’t help but wonder if it was simply labeled that way out of habit, since most of Willis’ work is science fiction.  Bellwether is mostly a light, satirical romantic comedy about fads, scientific discoveries, and office politics.  Willis’ familiar style is present here, as she draws humor out of obnoxious side characters, miscommunication, incompetence, and all the little frustrations that crop up in everyday life. Bellwether is more in the vein of To Say Nothing of the Dog than Doomsday Book or Blackout/All Clear.  It is by far the shortest and fluffiest Connie Willis novel I’ve ever read, but it was a very pleasant, light read.
Throughout the story, Willis includes little facts about real fads and circumstances around unexpected scientific breakthroughs.  I really enjoyed these inserts, though I think this attention to historical and recent-to-publication (1990s) fads dates the book.  It happens to be just the time period to invoke nostalgia for me, but I’m not sure how well this would fly with people who aren’t in my generation.  There are a lot of ‘current’ fads introduced in the novel as well. Most of these are believably ridiculous, but some of them seem unlikely to occur in our current times. I think that it is the nature of fads to become obsolete very quickly, and the fad-focused setting causes the book to be very much a product of its time.

Aside from the fads, there was a lot of satire of office culture.  Having dealt with bureaucracy extensively, I found this satire ridiculously stressful to read.  To ‘help’ their employees’ productivity, HiTek had constant meetings and workshops, and a lot of time was spent describing their required paperwork, which was so ridiculously complicated that it actually obstructed employee progress.   Included in this satire is also one of the major ‘obnoxious characters’, the office assistant Flip.  Flip is a trendy young woman who doesn’t really do anything useful, and instead seems to damage productivity everywhere she goes.  Sandra tries to make the best of things by befriending her, but this only makes her behavior worse.  I think many people who’ve worked in an office environment have probably been stuck at some point with someone as lazy and incompetent as Flip.   

Most of the plot featured Dr. Sandra Foster as she went about her daily life, attempting all the while to find the origin of hair bobbing.  This may sound boring, but I think that describing daily life in a light, humorous way is Willis’ forte.  Sandra goes through children’s birthday parties, cafes, libraries, and HiTek, observing everything with an eye towards fads and absurdities. The romance in the story is pretty obvious and predictable, but adorable all the same.  The conclusion was as chaotic and ridiculous as expected, and the whole story left me in a cheerful mood.  Bellwether is certainly a light read, but it was a lot of fun.     

My Rating : 3.5/5

Bellwether is a satire of fads and office culture and a romantic comedy, but it didn’t really seem like a science fiction story.  The story is much lighter, shorter and more carefree than many of Willis’ other novels, but her style was still here in full force.  There’s no time-traveling Oxford (as in Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, etc.), but her characters still come up against irritating minor characters, minor frustrations, and ridiculous bureaucracy.  The focus on fads, and some of the attitudes of the main characters, left the story feeling firmly set in the 90s, and it will likely feel even more dated to readers who haven’t lived through that decade.  The writing was light and humorous, the characters were likeable or likeably obnoxious, and the predictable eventual romance was very cute.  It may lack the depth and gravity of some of her other works, but Bellwether is a funny, cheerful book that made for pleasant light reading. 

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