A fun kind of chaos: Connie Willis’s Bellwether

Bellwether is about the process of scientific discovery. A Golden Age book about that would have been about a scientist alone in his lab (and I do mean his) discovering something and cheerfully utilising it. A later book about it would have been about a scientist working for the government discovering something and being afraid of how it will be utilised and going undercover with the discovery. But this is a nineties book, and one that specifically references post-modernism and chaos theory. This is a comedy about the process of scientific discovery, and a comedy in the Shakesperean sense as well. It’s funny and satirical, but it also contains a romance and a “rewards and weddings” happy ending where everything is tied up neatly.

Sandra Foster is researching how fads get started. She works for a company called HiTek, most of the book is about applying for funding, management sensitivity training, the annoying mail clerk, and the new 28-page forms for ordering paperclips.

It’s very clever. The book’s written in first person, and it’s Sandra Foster’s account of all the events, all the butterfly wing events, that led to her making a scientific discovery. Each chapter begins with the description of a fad, and that fad is either apparent or thematic in the chapter. It’s then followed by the description of either the source of a river or a scientific discovery with all the circumstantial details.Then it gets on with the plot, or Sandra’s life, which includes going to the library, children’s birthday parties, and out for dinner, as well as work at the lab. This sounds as if it would be deeply irritating, but actually it’s charming and it’s one of the things I like best about it. She has a great way of putting things.

Prohibition, 1895-January 1920. Aversion fad against alcohol fuelled by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Carry Nation’s saloon smashing and the sad effect of alcoholism. Schoolchildren were urged to “sign the pledge” and women to swear not to touch lips that had touched liquor. The movement gained impetus and political support all through the early 1900s, with party candidates drinking toasts with glasses of water, and several states voting to go dry, and finally culminated in the Volstead Act. Died out as soon as Prohibition was enacted. Replaced by bootleggers, speakeasies, bathrub gin, hipflasks, organized crime, and Repeal.

Doctor Spock, 1945-65. Childcare fad, inspired by the paediatrician’s book Baby and Child Care, growing interest in psychology and the fragmentation of the extended family. Spock advocated a more permissive approach than previous child care books and advised flexibility in feeding schedules and attention to child development, advice which far too many parents misinterpreted as letting the child do whatever it wanted. Died out when the first generation of Doctor Spock children became teenagers, grew their hair down to their shoulders and began blowing up administration buildings.

Sandra sees everything in terms of trends, so naturally she becomes fascinated when she meets someone who seems immune to them. She doesn’t even notice she’s falling in love with him, though it’s hard for the reader to miss. They begin a joint project to do with sheep. She muddles on through the project, through her quest for spiced iced tea, chocolate cheesecake, the perfect Barbie and checking what’s popular at the library. (She also borrows library books that nobody has had out for a while, even if she already owns them, to encourage the library to retain them. I used to do this when I lived where libraries promiscuously discarded books, so I warmed to her immediately.) Sandra finally has an insight, partly to do with sheep and partly to do with her appalling assistant.

I’m not convinced that this is actually how chaos theory works, and that by making things more chaotic you can get them to reach a higher order of simplicity, an insight and a happy ending. I’m not doubting that it happens sometimes, but I’m not sure you can make it happen. I’m a Classics major, but it sounds to me a bit like Dirk Gently’s statistical prediction that since he hasn’t solved x cases in a row, he could solve this one by just sitting where he is and waiting for the solution to walk in. But I don’t care. I like the story, I like the characters. It’s fast and funny and just outright fun. This isn’t Willis’s best work, but it’s a short charming piece of fluff that’s eminently suited to reading while relaxing.


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