REVIEW: Bellwether – Connie Willis

Bantam US paperback cover (image from Amazon)

Bantam US paperback cover (image from Amazon)

Sandra Foster works for a company called HiTek in Colorado, studying fads – hula hoops, hair-bobbing, rubik’s cubes, and so on – in an attempt to find out what causes them and how they spread amongst the population. While doing so, she gets involved with colleague Bennett O’Reilly’s attempts to battle company bureaucracy so as to study chaos with monkeys. Through the acquisition of, instead, a flock of sheep, Sandra comes to realise that her work and Bennett’s is more closely linked than she first thought.

This is a relatively short novel (247 pages), and not really representative of science fiction, in my opinion – I’ve not read any of Willis’s other books, but she’s won Hugo and Nebula awards, so is evidently considered a writer of science fiction. It’s speculative, certainly, in terms of the theory that Sandra does eventually come up with, but it’s grounded in the real world, and most of what happens in the novel could happen easily. The company politics and the extraordinary bureaucracy of HiTek is nicely and amusingly drawn (a new 22-page form for ordering paperclips, for example), as is Sandra’s exasperation with Flip, her so-called assistant, and management-speak and its love of buzzwords and acronyms is satirised. Sandra’s friend Gina, a biologist, has her own ways of surviving management meetings, which Sandra later utilises, and she hires an assistant for Flip who is actually competent: Shirl’s a smoker, which in some eyes is a worse character trait than actual incompetence.

I liked the way Sandra’s initial interest in O’Reilly is sparked by his complete disregard for current fashion, and their relationship develops organically.

Bennett wasn’t rebelling. It was more like he was oblivious to the whole concept. No, that wasn’t the right word either. Immune.

And if he could be immune to fads, did that mean they were caused by some kind of virus? I looked over at Gina’s table, where Elaine and Dr Applegate were earnestly whispering to her about emphysema and the surgeon general’s warning. Was Bennett really immune to fads or just fashion-impaired, as Flip had said?

(p77 Bantam paperback)

Much of the discussion of Sandra’s narrative is to do with accidental discoveries in science, such as penicillin, background microwave radiation, and so on, as well as fads in fashion, food, drink, toys – even parenting styles, judging by an entertaining section at the birthday party of Gina’s daughter Brittany.

It’s an often amusing, informative, and thought-provoking book, but don’t expect any space-ships or time-travel.

Published by: Bantam Spectra (1996)

This entry was posted in 2013 New Reads, Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to REVIEW: Bellwether – Connie Willis

  1. A new author to me Ela but I like my SF a bit more down-to-earth so thanks for that.

    • Ela says:

      I’d heard of Connie Willis through other bloggers, and had, in fact tried to get ‘Bellwether’ some time ago, but it wasn’t in print in the UK. I found this copy in Waterstone’s Piccadilly, which has quite a good imports section now.

  2. Jenny says:

    I haven’t read this one yet, but honestly, I wouldn’t mind reading a Connie Willis book without the time travel. As much as I love time travel, I never feel Connie Willis is exactly the best writer to do time travel.

  3. Ela says:

    It’s the first book by Willis that I’ve read (I’m not so keen on time travel books, since writers often deal with the time paradoxes in a dodgy sort of way). But I’d recommend Bellwether – it’s very amusing, and nicely satirical about corporations and trends.

  4. Pingback: Connie Willis – Bellwether | Fyrefly's Book Blog

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