Bellwether, Connie Willis

Bantam Spectra, 1996, 247 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56296-7

The human mind is a fascinating thing. Witness the phenomenon of fads, fashions, celebrities, popular entertainment and other temporary manifestations of insanity. Men and Women of this technological society always crave the cool, the hip, the new.

Almost as entertaining as these manias are the explanations concerning them. Especially interesting is the concept of “memes”, or self-replicating ideas… a ideological analogue to biological viruses. Considering the anti-communist paranoia of the fifties as being a sociological plague is oddly appealing. In this context, fads may just be a harmless (?) analogue to the flu. Makes you reconsider grunge, right?

While Connie Willis doesn’t use “memes” anywhere in the narrative, Bellwether is at the same time an enjoyable character study of an enormously likable protagonist, a touching love story, and a genuine present-day science-fiction story.

Sandra Foster is single, literate, funny and a sociologist. Her area of study: Fads… and what causes them. But the way to scientific discovery is chaotic at best, and Sandra will have to battle management, acronyms, incompetent secretaries, sheep and shortsighted libraries to attain her goal… if she can figure out what it is.

Bellwether is told in a quick, humane, light tone. This isn’t the manipulative tearjerker that Doomsday Book was, nor is it the meaningless tale that Unexplored Territory was. A hasty judgment on this novel would (rightfully) blast the incoherent treatment of science, management or administrative assistants (which ranges from dead-on to way-off) but of course… that would be ignoring the satiric tone of the novel.

Bellwether is a surprising book. As Uncle Bob would say: “No nekkid boobs, no bullets, 00 on the vomit-meter.” Only a few “rapid-movement” scenes, and they’re more funny than exciting. And yet… this reviewer was glued to the book during his rare free moments on an otherwise hectic day, staying up way too late to finish it. Higher praise is almost impossible.

No extraterrestrials or fancy futuristic high-technology are included here. Indeed, despite the satiric mode, Bellwether might contain one of the most realistic depiction of scientific research ever included in a SF novel. Even if half of it’s implausible (everything connected to the Niebnitz grant, for instance), it’s the other half that counts.

No comments are necessary on the romance subplot… except that it’s mature, quiet and should appeal to even the most cynical hard-SF fan.

Said SF-fans should relish the lumps of exposition scattered here and there in the novel. Did you know that color fads are usually caused by technological progress? Or that the most popular fads require a low ability threshold? (A most telling anecdote happened a few days after reading Bellwether: While walking through downtown Ottawa, this reviewer heard bongo drums played by a couple a street musicians and immediately thought back to the corresponding passage in the novel: “Oh yeah; low ability threshold!”)

Bellwether redeems Connie Willis after the overrated Doomsday Book and the overpriced, underwhelming Remake. The potential appeal of this book is enormous, even reaching far outside the usual boundaries of the genre: This might even be one book you’d want to give to SF-challenged relatives who are always asking why you keep reading “this Buck Rogers stuff”.

Thoroughly recommended.

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