Bellwether is the fifth book I’ve read by Connie Willis, and once again, I’m struck with how different her books are from each other. Several have been profoundly sad; most have something to do with science or research or both; this one was light-hearted and whimsical. The only things they appear to have in common are her excellent writing, her sense of humor, and the huge amount of research she obviously puts into each of her books.
This kind of originality is hard to find. Most authors find a prizewinning (or at least publishable) formula and stick to it. Willis writes speculative fiction, or maybe science fiction, or perhaps fantasy; each of her books is different; she’s not easily pigeonholed, which makes her less marketable. The fact that she’s sold so many books and received so many awards is a curiosity. I like to attribute it to her interesting plots, her good writing, and her likeable characters, but who really knows?
Bellwether is about a trends researcher studying the origin of fads, and a chaos theory scientist studying information diffusion in herds. The book is thick with fads real and imagined, from dance marathons to crossword puzzles, and light-hearted questions about why people do the silly things they do in groups. Willis asks some sly questions about “aversion fads” (anti-fur, anti-smoking, anti-religion) and in the end, she suggests that chaos brings about order, and that order brings about love. The book is charming, witty, and at 250 pages, a quick read. I’d recommend it to anyone, with pleasure.