Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review: Connie Willis, Bellwether

Author: Connie Willis
Publisher/Year: Bantam, 1996

Even readers who are not fans of fantasy or science fiction novels will find something of interest in Connie Willis’ crisply written Bellwether. In this novel, Willis takes on the fad phenomenon, using it as a plot device to examine chaos theory, love, and sheep. Yes, sheep. With Bellwether, Willis once again proves why she is a master of the science fiction genre, winning over new and old readers with her trademark satire and originality.

Sandra Foster is a statistical scientist whose new project is to determine the base cause for fads. She is single mindedly focused on figuring out why all her research about hair bobbing leads to Ohio and why exactly her assistant Flip is everything an assistant should not be.

It is Flip who brings Sandra in contact with Bennett O’Reilly, a chaos theory scientist who works at the same lab. Sandra immediately tags him as being anti-fad and she soon finds herself studying him instead of her fads. Through the antics of one ‘unhelpful’ assistant, the two are eventually thrown together into a research project more by need rather than want (at least initially).

Both are anxious to win the prestigious Niebnitz grant and they place their hopes on a flock of sheep. Bennett wants to understand the principles of chaos theory while Sandra’s focus is on determining what makes people ‘follow the leader’. What occurs is a series of perceived failures and dead ends that ultimately lead them directly to the answers they are looking for, and something that they are not.

Bellwether is a treasure chest of trivia on fads, a masterful touch that would have required quite a bit of research on Willis’ part. But this is most characteristic of Willis; she never backs away from providing a tremendous amount of background in her novels in order to assist the reader in understanding all the nuances she disperses throughout the plot. Sometimes this background can bog her writing down, such as with To Say Nothing of the Dog, but with this novel she has created a wonderful balance between research and story.

Willis is a highly imaginative and innovator author, as her numerous Hugo and Nebula awards can attest. She likes to take on different topics and throw a fantasy spin on them that always renders her stories interesting and original. And with Bellwether, she has created yet another classic Willis tale — intelligent, fun, refreshing, and fulfilling.

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