Oh my goodness, Connie Willis knows how to make me laugh. To Say Nothing of the Dog is among the funniest books I’ve ever read, and Belwether is awfully funny, too. It also has me thinking about how we define science fiction. You see, I was going to talk about how I’ve always thought of Willis as a science fiction author but that this isn’t science fiction—it’s a comic novel set in the present day (or the novel’s present, meaning the early 1990s). But as soon as I thought about it, I realized that it’s a book all about scientists. So there’s science and there’s fiction. Science fiction. But not futuristic science fiction. No one is going into space or traveling through time. They’re filling about paperwork and trying to figure things out (often paperwork).
The narrator, Sandra Foster, is a sociologist who studies fads—hula hoops, ouija boards, mesmerism, and hot pants. Where do they come from, how do they spread, and when and how do they end? She works in R&D for a company HiTek. HiTek funds all sorts of research, but they mostly have meetings where they engage in sensitivity exercises and learn about new management schemes (always in the form of an acronym—PESTO or GRIM, for example). Her bigger problem, however, is Flip, the interdepartment assistant who refuses to do anything more than deliver the mail, and she rarely does that correctly.
Flip’s misdelivery of a package puts Sandra in touch with a biologist named Bennett O’Reilly who is studying chaos theory. He also appears to be entirely impervious to trends. As a student of fads, Sandra doesn’t know what to make of him, but she can’t stop trying to figure him out.
There are also a bunch of sheep.
This book is a lot of fun to read. Each chapter begins with a short description of a fad that may or may not relate to events in the chapter. And we get Sandra’s observations of the fads around her and the way people quickly jump from one bandwagon to another, pretending that their previous favorite thing had never been any good at all. It’s all exaggerated for humorous effect, and for me, it was effective humor. I especially appreciated how Willis was able to use the fact that the book is all about fads to include a lot of 90s fads without making the book seem dated. And then there are the ones that I’m pretty sure she completely made up.
It helps, too, that I really liked Sandra as a narrator. She’s smart and observant and cynical without being unkind. In fact, her kindness proves to be the key to her success, if it can be called success. One of the book’s main interests is what leads to scientific break-throughs. Is it all hard work? Flashes of inspiration? Pure luck? Sandra contemplates lots of stories of scientists who made great discoveries by chance. For instance, it was an untidy office and accidental contamination that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin’s healing power. In their studies of fads and of chaos theory, both Sandra and Bennett are trying to get at where ideas come from. And HiTek is trying to make ideas happen. So is there a secret? And can it be harnessed?
Every time I read Connie Willis, I want more. I’ve read To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Doomsday Book, and now Bellwether. So what should be next?