Fri
Mar 27 2009 1:54pm

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.

16 comments
[da ve]
1. slickhop
"a short charming piece of fluff" sums it up, I liked it as well.

Can one hope that you'll be talking about To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book? Or Passage even. I was thinking of To Say Nothing of the Dog when you did the write up on The Anubis Gates ... I feel they have some kinship between them stylistically.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Slickhop: I already wrote about Doomsday Book at Christmas. I may re-read the others at some point, but they're not in my immediate re-read pile.
[da ve]
3. slickhop
Thanks, I'll dig up that post on Doomsday Book.
Brian2
4. Brian2
I liked the book as well, but it bothered me a bit that the idea of it seemed taken from an old short story I think was called "The Source of the Nile." Could have been a reinvention, or it could have been a case where one writer absorbs another's influence so completely that they're genuinely unaware that they're imitating. That's happened a surprising number of times.
Brian2
5. joelfinkle
Lovely, lovely book. Would make a great stage play, if it weren't for all the *#@% sheep. The word "po-mo" entered my vocabulary through this book, and it's stayed there ever since.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
This is a great book if you just want to feel happy. I really love Connie Willis' work and this is just pure fun.

I also couldn't help thinking of it when I read Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point". Willis beat him to it.
Soon Lee
7. SoonLee
A joy to read.

I think of Willis' book output as falling into two categories: the light fun romps ("Bellwether", "To Say Nothing of the Dog") or heavy affairs that tend to have high body-counts ("Doomsday Book", "Passage").
Sandi Kallas
8. Sandikal
It seems like the older Connie Willis gets, the more humor she puts in her work. "Passage" may be the heaviest book she's written, but it still has a lot of humor in it. In many ways, it shares a lot of frenetic zaniness of "Bellwether", but it also has a very serious side.
Brian2
9. Jim Henry III
The central sf idea in Bellwether is indeed the same as that of Avram Davidson's "The Sources of the Nile" (F&SF, January 1961), but what Connie Willis does with the idea is very different.
Clark Myers
10. ClarkEMyers
The library books bit is something the author actually practices. Willis also has worked to help genre bookstores by giving bits for small press limited edition chapbook publishing by the store.

I suspect there is a little deliberate confusion of chaotic and haphazard just as others confuse random and haphazard.

Still like Delaney using the shapes of catastrophe theory it's fun to see fresh science in speculative fiction.
Brian2
11. John N.
This is one of my favorites for a casual light re-read... While I love most of her novels, some are difficult to re-read often. I've probably read 'Bellwether' more often than any of her other books (even 'To Say Nothing of the Dog...' which is my favorite!)
Brian2
12. sylvia_rachel
I just re-read Bellwether this week, and yes, it's as much fun as ever. I am more apt now than I was ten years ago to notice Sandy's "facts" that are actually (or at least probably) urban legends, but I enjoy Sandy herself (and Bennett, of course! and Flip -- oh, Flip ...) so much that it almost doesn't matter. I mean, how can you not adore someone who saves library books from discarding, is kind to old ladies and encourages chocolate cheesecake?
Liza .
13. aedifica
I've always thought that Bellwether was the quintessential Connie Willis book. All her work seems to be filled with apparently chaotic events that nonetheless fit together in the end. Here there's that same pattern, but since chaos theory is the main character's field, it turns it into a unifying theme. It makes a more satisfying read for me. The others are pleasant reads, but this one has that extra layer.
Brian2
14. Michael M Jones
This is easily one of my favorite books, a fun and familiar read full of quirky situations and entertaining problems, as well as lovely characterization. It's a book which gives me a warm fuzzy feeling everytime I read it, which is at least once, if not twice, a year. There are times when I've wished I could write with that sort of casual joy.
David Lev
15. davidlev
I read this book a while back, and I remember loving it. It's still the only Willis I've actually read (although I do own the Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog), but it made me want to read more of her. I remember liking this book because it was science fiction in a eway that I'd never encountered: it was fiction about a science (chaos theory in this case), and I thought that was kinda neat. It was also a fun book and a fun story. I'm beginning to remember bits and pieces that I liked from it too, which is impressive given that I don't have a very good memory
Brian2
16. busines plan writters
i have heard alot abouut this novel but i didnt get it still but your article has increased my eager to read her novel

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