I looked forward to reading Bellwether. I read Doomsday Book several years ago and really enjoyed it. As I soon found out, however, Bellwether, while it is an enjoyable story, can’t be compared to Doomsday Book. Their stories are too different and Connie Willis’ goals for the two books are far away from one another. Still, Bellwether was a good way to spend a couple days; it’s a smart book with a clever plot and interesting characters.
Bellwether has a rather fun premise — a sociologist studying fads forms an unlikely partnership with a man studying chaos theory, and end up doing their study with a flock of sheep. Sandra, our sociologist, is studying the fad of hair bobbing in the 1920s. She works at HiTek, a science company — it literally has taken scientists from all fields, put them in one building, and now treats them like office workers. There’s more pointless rules and hoops to jump through than any sane person should put up with.
Since they’re treated like office workers, they’re expected to fill in forms with the best of them. When Bennett, our hapless chaos theorist, loses his funding forms (by turning them in to the person he was supposed to), he also loses out on his macaque money. Sandra, who has developed an interest in Bennett due to his complete immunity to any and all fads, offers a unique solution — share funding by studying the movements of sheep — they’re less complex and easy to track for Bennett and are creatures who like to follow others for Sandra.
Mixed into this is the Niebnitz grant, an astronomical sum awarded to scientists considered to be doing work above and beyond their colleagues. HiTek is determined to have a winner among their scientists, even if it means studying the past Niebnitz winners and manufacturing projects that match the pattern.
The most enjoyable part of this book is the interplay between Sandra and her employer, her coworkers, and the outside world. She studies fads for a living, but she’s not exempt from having to experience them in real life. The management always has new procedures (with a new acronym). Flip, the irresponsible mail girl, constantly surprises Sandra with something new she’s wearing, saying, or doing. Trends in food come and go, much to Sandra’s chagrin; she just wants chocolate cheesecake and iced tea.
There are, however, some problems with the book. It feels a little slap-dash. Maybe part of that is its length — it’s only 247 pages. There is also a feeling of disconnection, to a certain extent. Sandra’s job is fads, something that is inherently human, but it seems as if they are something she detests in personal life. She appears to feel as if she’s above others, which is a little uncomfortable to read. It’s not so great when the hero of the book thinks that most people are dumb.
Bellwether also contains what appears to be an obligatory romance between Bennett and Sandra. It is particularly irritating to me because their behavior so clearly indicates their feelings, but those feelings aren’t acknowledged in the book until pretty close to the end.
Other than those couple of things, Bellwether is a perfectly pleasant read. It was a fine way to spend my reading time for a couple of days, but I don’t think the story will stay with me for a long time.