Originally published in 1991, Connie Willis’ Bellwether is a book about patterns; how and why things come to pass in our lives. Dr. Sandra Foster is a statistician studying fads at a Boulder think-tank called Hi-Tek, but her lack of success is discouraging: she cannot come up with the cause of the hair bobbing craze. Could her lack of success be due to a flaw in her method, to time wasted on management time-saving practices, or to the incompetence of Flip, the world’s worst administrative assistant? Or maybe it’s colleague Dr. Bennett O’Reilly, whose complete immunity to fads makes him a distracting data point.
The absolute best thing about this book is the first-person voice. Living in Sandra’s head is like having a brilliant professor along to annotate anything in your daily life that catches your eye. She’s a font of trivia on scientific breakthroughs (but occasionally these are apocryphal: it is, for instance, an unsubstantiated legend that Alexander Fleming’s medical schooling was paid for by the Churchills, let alone that it was because Fleming’s father saved a young Winston from drowning). The prose is quite lively; you have the “diorama wig” trend of the court of Louis XVI, which “died out with the advent of the French Revolution and the resultant shortage of heads to put wigs on.” If you, like me, get a kick out of books that integrate crash courses in things like chaos theory into their plots, you’ll love eavesdropping on Sandra and Bennett.
The shortcomings of this book? Well, the occasional false origin story makes you doubt the other great anecdotes Sandra drops. I had some stress issues with the chaos in the story, too. Sure, there is an element of slapstick/farce to things like Flip’s utter hostility towards anything in her job description, and I promise it all works out in the end, but I wanted desperately for someone to slap her, or fire her, or maybe both. I had the same feelings about the management at Hi-Tek: I’m not saying they’re unrealistic, but my blood pressure rose ten points every time a meeting started. That’s a personal thing, though. The overall quality of the humor is uneven – for every clever turn of phrase, you had a joke that didn’t quite live up to it, like the seating host constantly getting names wrong at restaurants.
I devoured Bellwether in an afternoon. It’s fun and fast-paced, and is genuinely delightful at the end when all the wild plot threads (including the romance) come together. I can see why it was nominated for a Nebula, and I’ll definitely look for more by Connie Willis.