Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Judging by the novels and short stories by Connie Willis which I have read, I tend to enjoy her shorter fiction to her novels. I found Remake much more enjoyable than Doomsday Book or To Say Nothing of the Dog and I think that "Even the Queen" is a classic of short sf. Willis's Bellwether is a short novel which reads like one of her extended novellas.
Written in a very chatty style, Bellwether tells the story of Sandra Foster, a researcher for HiTek who studies the origins of fads. Foster's foil is "Flip," an mailroom clerk whose ineptitude leads Foster to meet Bennett O'Reilly, a chaos theorist. Over the course of this relatively short novel, O'Reilly and Foster join forces, both professionally and personally.
Flip is only the latest in a long series of Willisian foils, epitomized by Meyer in Remake and Lady Schrapnell from To Say Nothing of the Dog. One of Willis's talents is to write this type of character in an exceedingly annoying fashion but still make the reader believe that someone as mind-boggingly incompetant might really be able to survive.
Many of Willis's works can be summed up as the existance of the competent in an incompetent world, and Bellwether is no exception. Foster is surrounded by people like Flip, but also works for an anonymous company (as evidenced by Management, used as a name for whoever is heading an all-hands meeting) where simplified forms are sixty+ pages long, filled with incomprehensible jargon and lack any insturctions.
Eventually, Foster and O'Reilly begin to conduct chaos and fad formation experiments on sheep (hence the title of the book). As she tries to study ovine behavior, Foster comes to realize how little she actually knows about motivation, both of fads and of herself.
Willis's inclusion of epigrams on a variety of fads allows her to show off some of the research she did in writing this book. Rather than being annoying, which could easily have happened, these short essays add to the general flavor of the novel and even reflect strongly on Foster's character.
Bellwether is an easy read and Willis's characters in this book seem to understand scientific method better than her historians in other works understand historical method, although my view of that may be more indicative of my own acquaintance with historiography.
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