Why I Read It: Connie Willis is one of those authors that I don’t allow myself to buy another book of until I read the one I’ve already got. I picked up Bellwether last year when Borders closed, because it’s Willis, and I’m always going to get something good out of Willis. Thanks to the Mount TBR challenge, I finally got around to reading it, and now that I have, I’m officially allowed to get another Connie Willis book!
The premise: ganked from Goodreads: Pop culture, chaos theory and matters of the heart collide in this unique novella from the Hugo and Nebula winning author of Doomsday Book.
Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a mis-delivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. It’s a short book that it’d be a shame to spoil the story, so feel free to keep reading unless you’re in a hurry, and in that case, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be just fine. Everyone else, onward.
Discussion: It’s been a few years since I’ve read Willis last, and while I wasn’t super in-love with the award-winning Blackout/All Clear, Willis still has a way of gripping the reader even through the most infuriating of plot devices. Since then, I’ve become aware (despite having read quite a bit of her work) how how Willis uses misdirection and miscommunication to create tension in her work. So when it popped up here in Bellwether, I kind of sighed and accepted the fact that yes, miscommunication is a rather a trademark of hers, and I might as well get used to it.
The funny thing here is that in this book, that misdirection and miscommunication is not only utterly vital to the plot, but in many ways, it also the actual plot itself.
Also vital to the plot and yet still a hallmark of Willis’ writing are characters, usually in the supporting cast, who are complete and total obstacles to the main character’s goals. And Willis crafts these infuriating people in such a wonderful way that you can just imagine them acting just so in real life. The end of the first chapter was classic Willis. Some context: Sandra is researching fads, and as such, she has a lot of papers and clippings all over her office. The character speaking is Flip, the office assistant who’s responsible for delivering the mail but is utterly bad at her job. In this section, she’s referring to a package she mis-delivered to Sandra’s office (page 15):
“I looked all over your office for it,” she said virtuously, “While I was waiting for you, I picked up all that stuff you left on the floor and threw it in the trash.”
The story that then unfolds is utterly entertaining. Willis starts out each chapter with the details of a particular fad and then segues into rivers or a particular scientific discovery. And what took me most of the book to realize is that this story is a fiction (hell, it’s practically a romantic comedy in the best sense) about science and scientists. Ergo, it’s science fiction, but in the most literal sense, which is rather fun.
Also fun is just the playfulness of the narrative, of Sandra’s observations about life and human nature. As she says on page 90:
The bad thing about studying trends is that you can’t ever turn it off. You sit there across from your date eating tiramisu, and instead of thinking what a nice guy he is, you find yourself thinking about trends in desserts and how they always seem to be gooey and calorie-laden in direct proportion to the obsession with dieting.
And then there’s this section on Esteem Enchancement Parenting, which I’m sure was a real thing back there and probably everything that’s wrong with society today (page116):
“We use EE.”
“”EE?” I said.
“Esteem Enhancement,” Lindsay’s mother said. “EE addresses the positive peripheral behavior no matter how negative the primary behavior is.”
“Positive peripheral behavior?” Gina said dubiously.
“When Peyton took the Barbie away from Brittany just now,” Lindsay’s mother said, obviously delighted to explain, “you would have said, ‘My, Peyton, what an assertive grip you have.’”
While reading, I was so delighted by the humor and the mix-ups and the typicalness of corporations that it took me a while to realize I wasn’t sure what the book was about. Of course, once I figured it out, it was obvious in the best way. I loved how the realization made the story click together, even though it took Sandra to realize what I did. And I have to say, while it was convenient, I loved how everything about this plot just clicked together to form a shiny happy picture by the end. It’s fun to follow the cause and effect of the events of the story, especially given what the big picture is and how entertaining that picture is.
It’s also quite an interesting book, which is about fads, to think about what you learn and apply it to fads in fiction and marketing.
Also: Flip. What a character.
My Rating: 8 – Excellent
This is such a fun, enjoyable, and happy book. It’s science fiction in that it’s a fictional story about scientists. And fads, and corporate b.s., all mixed together with a healthy dose of humor that Willis really knows how to do well. When I finished reading, I found myself looking forward to the day I read this again, and that’s always a good sign. Of the lighter-hearted Willis stuff I’ve read (To Say Nothing of the Dog being the other), I think this is my favorite. It’s short and sweet, and just plain adorable. A good place for Willis novices to start too, or for fans of her work who just haven’t gotten around to this one yet. Definitely do. I can’t stress enough how enjoyable this is.
Cover Commentary: It’s eye-catching in its own way, and though it seems busy, it does reflect the story quite well, and I have to say, I was impressed when I realized that.