Bellwether

Bellwether

by Connie Willis

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553562965
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 375,047
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Connie Willis is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, including Hugo Best Novel for Blackout/All Clear in 2010. Willis' novels showcase the comedy of manner style of writing and often feature time travel, which are informally referred to as the Time Travel series. In addition to numerous novels and novellas, Willis has written short story and essay collections. Her notable books include Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog, the aforementioned Blackout/All Clear, and the short story "The Last of the Winnebagos".

Read an Excerpt

hula hoop (march 1958—june 1959)—–The prototype for all merchandising fads and one whose phenomenal success has never been repeated. Originally a wooden exercise hoop used in Australian gym classes, the Hula Hoop was redesigned in gaudy plastic by Wham-O and sold for $1.98 to adults and kids alike. Nuns, Red Skelton, geishas, Jane Russell, and the Queen of Jordan rotated them on their hips, and lesser beings dislocated hips, sprained necks, and slipped disks. Russia and China banned them as “capitalist,” a team of Belgian explorers took twenty of them along to the South Pole (to give the penguins?), and over fifty million were sold worldwide. Died out as quickly as it had spread.
 
 
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the beginning of a fad. By the time it starts to look like one, its origins are far in the past, and trying to trace them back is exponentially harder than, say, looking for the source of the Nile.
 
In the first place, there’s probably more than one source, and in the second, you’re dealing with human behavior. All Speke and Burton had to deal with were crocodiles, rapids, and the tsetse fly. In the third, we know something about how rivers work, like, they flow downhill. Fads seem to spring full-blown out of nowhere and for no good reason. Witness bungee-jumping. And Lava lamps.
 
Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.”
 
Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance. Look at Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when a spore drifted in the window of his lab and contaminated one of his cultures.
 
Or Roentgen. He was working with a cathode-ray tube surrounded by sheets of black cardboard when he caught a glimpse of light from the other side of his lab. A sheet of paper coated with barium platinocyanide was fluorescing, even though it was shut off from the tube. Curious, he stuck his hand between the tube and the screen. And saw the shadow of the bones of his hand.
 
Look at Galvani, who was studying the nervous systems of frogs when he discovered electrical currents. Or Messier. He wasn’t looking for galaxies when he discovered them. He was looking for comets. He only mapped them because he was trying to get rid of a nuisance.
 
None of which makes Dr. Chin any the less deserving of the Niebnitz Grant’s million-dollar endowment. It isn’t necessary to understand how something works to do it. Take driving. And starting fads. And falling in love.
 
What was I talking about? Oh, yes, how scientific discoveries come about. Usually the chain of events leading up to them, like that leading up to a fad, follows a course too convoluted and chaotic to follow. But I know exactly where one started and who started it.
 
It was in October. Monday the second. Nine o’clock in the morning. I was in the stats lab at HiTek, struggling with a box of clippings on hair-bobbing. I’m Sandra Foster, by the way, and I work in R&D at HiTek. I had spent all weekend going through yellowed newspapers and 1920s copies of The Saturday Evening Post and The Delineator, trudging upstream to the beginnings of the fad of hair-bobbing, looking for what had caused every woman in America to suddenly chop off her “crowning glory,” despite social pressure, threatening sermons, and four thousand years of long hair.
 
I had clipped endless news items; highlighted references, magazine articles, and advertisements; dated them; and organized them into categories. Flip had stolen my stapler, I had run out of paper clips, and Desiderata hadn’t been able to find any more, so I had had to settle for stacking them, in order, in the box, which I was now trying to maneuver into my lab.
 
The box was heavy and had been made by the same people who manufacture paper sacks at the supermarket, so when I’d dumped it just outside the lab so I could unlock the door, it had developed a major rip down one side. I was half-wrestling, half-dragging it over next to one of the lab tables so I could lift the stacks of clippings out when the whole side started to give way.
 
An avalanche of magazine pages and newspaper stories began to spill out through the side before I could get it pushed back in place, and I grabbed for them and the box as Flip opened the door and slouched in, looking disgusted. She was wearing black lipstick, a black halter, and a black leather micro-skirt and was carrying a box about the size of mine.
 
“I’m not supposed to have to deliver packages,” she said. “You’re supposed to pick them up in the mail room.”
 
“I didn’t know I had a package,” I said, trying to hold the box together with one hand and reach a roll of duct tape in the middle of the lab table with the other. “Just set it down anywhere.”
 
She rolled her eyes. “You’re supposed to get a notice saying you have a package.”
 
Yes, well, and you were probably supposed to deliver it, I thought, which explains why I never got it. “Could you reach me that duct tape?” I said.
 
“Employees aren’t supposed to ask interdepartmental assistants to run personal errands or make coffee,” Flip said.
 
“Handing me a roll of tape is not a personal errand,” I said.
 
 
“Flip sighed. “I’m supposed to be delivering the interdepartmental mail.” She tossed her hair. She had shaved her head the week before but had left a long hank along the front and down one side expressly for flipping when she feels put-upon.
 
Flip is my punishment for having tried to get her predecessor, Desiderata, fired. Desiderata was mindless, clueless, and completely without initiative. She misdelivered the mail, wrote down messages wrong, and spent all her free time examining her split ends. After two months and a wrong phone call that cost me a government grant, I went to Management and demanded she be fired and somebody, anybody else be hired, on the grounds that nobody could possibly be worse than Desiderata. I was wrong.
 
Management moved Desiderata to Supply (nobody ever gets fired at HiTek except scientists and even we don’t get pink slips. Our projects just get canceled for lack of funding) and hired Flip, who has a nose ring, a tattoo of a snowy owl, and the habit of sighing and rolling her eyes when you ask her to do anything at all. I am afraid to get her fired. There is no telling who they might hire next.
 
Flip sighed loudly. “This package is really heavy.”
 
“Then set it down,” I said, stretching to reach the tape. It was just out of reach. I inched the hand holding the side of the box shut higher and leaned farther across the lab table. My fingertips just touched the tape.
 
“It’s breakable,” Flip said, coming over to me, and dropped the box. I grabbed to catch it with both hands. It thunked down on the table, the side gave way on my box, and the clippings poured out of the box and across the floor.
 
“Next time you’re going to have to pick it up yourself,” Flip said, walking on the clippings toward the door.
 
I shook the box, listening for broken sounds. There weren’t any, and when I looked at the top, it didn’t say FRAGILE anywhere. It said PERISHABLE. It also said DR. ALICIA TURNBULL.
 
“This isn’t mine,” I said, but Flip was already out the door. I waded through a sea of clippings and called to her. “This isn’t my package. It’s for Dr. Turnbull in Bio.”
 
She sighed.
 
“You need to take this to Dr. Turnbull.”
 
She rolled her eyes. “I have to deliver the rest of the interdepartmental mail first,” she said, tossing her hank of hair. She slouched on down the hall, dropping two pieces of said departmental mail as she went.
 
“Make sure you come back and get it as soon as you’re done with the mail,” I shouted after her down the hall. “It’s perishable,” I shouted, and then, remembering that illiteracy is a hot trend these days and perishable is a four-syllable word, “That means it’ll spoil.”
 
Her shaved head didn’t even turn, but one of the doors halfway down the hall opened, and Gina leaned out. “What did she do now?” she asked.
 
“Duct tape now qualifies as a personal errand,” I said.
 
Gina came down the hall. “Did you get one of these?” she said, handing me a blue flyer. It was a meeting announcement. Wednesday. Cafeteria. All HiTek staff, including R&D. “Flip was supposed to deliver one to every office,” she said.
 
“What’s the meeting about?”
 
“Management went to another seminar,” she said. “Which means a sensitivity exercise, a new acronym, and more paperwork for us. I think I’ll call in sick. Brittany’s birthday’s in two weeks, and I need to get the party decorations. What’s in these days in birthday parties? Circus? Wild West?”
 
“Power Rangers,” I said. “Do you think they might reorganize the departments?” The last seminar Management had gone to, they’d created Flip’s job as part of CRAM (Communications Reform Activation Management). Maybe this time they’d eliminate interdepartmental assistants, and I could go back to making my own copies, delivering my own messages, and fetching my own mail. All of which I was doing now.
 
“I hate the Power Rangers,” Gina said. “Explain to me how they ever got to be so popular.”
 
She went back to her lab, and I went back to work on my bobbed hair. It was easy to see how it had become popular. No long hair to put up with combs and pins and pompadour puffs, no having to wash it and wait a week for it to dry. The nurses who’d served in World War I had had to cut their hair off because of lice, and had liked the freedom and the lightness short hair gave them. And there were obvious advantages when it came to the other fads of the day: bicycling and lawn tennis.
 

Customer Reviews

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Bellwether 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bellwether was not at all what I expected it to be. It is classified as science fiction, but what that implies to me is a futuristic setting and/or cutting edge technology and/or robots and/or space travel, yadda yadda. There was science in Bellwether, but the science was explained so that a liberal arts major, such as myself, could easily understand it. The story sucked me in and I loved reading it. The parts about chaos theory as related to fads were fascinating. The characters were interesting and the book was very funny in parts. I recommend Bellwether highly.
zbth More than 1 year ago
I love Connie Willis's stories and her voice, Bellwether is no exception. But I was completely irritated with the number of typos in the nook version. It was distracting, irritating and made me wish I'd just bought the paperback instead. Kudoes to Ms Willis on another great book, -5 pts to whoever created the ebook for poor proofing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Some of Willis's shorter novels are not her best efforts, but this is really a gem. It's aromp through why people do what they do, fads and views and it's really a hoot. It's fun and engaging especially if you have no idea what a bellwether is!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book three years ago and loved it! Now I am in a psych class at high school and I have found ways to relate the book to many sociocultural influences of behavior. Its great.
paisley1974 on LibraryThing 29 days ago
I'm becoming a fan of Connie Willis--her story "Even the Queen" is one of the few funny feminist stories I've ever read. This novel was particularly timely for me, in its sadly true depictions of Management's love of acronyms and nonsense phrases involving the word "facilitate". The confluence of chaos theory with the origin of trends was quite insightful.
allreb on LibraryThing 29 days ago
This might very well be my favorite book of all time. When I first read it, I felt like it was written for me -- it's the story of a statistician who studies trends in culture and is trying to figure out just where trends come from. Through the course of the book, she meets a choas theorist, deals with an incompetent mail-room assistant, and discovers that coffee has recently become a lot harder to order. The fairy godmother conclusion is subtle and wonderful. This is a quick read, and well worth it.
lewispike on LibraryThing 29 days ago
A mysterious benefactor leads two scientists from disparate disciplines to discover things between them (romantically IIRC, but more specifically scientifically) and to determine bellwethers in other fields.A bellwether is the sheep that (mainly accidentally) ends up leading the flock, or rather having the flock follow it.
grizzly.anderson on LibraryThing 29 days ago
One of my favorite Connie Willis books. I picked it up while wandering the mall in Boulder, which seems so apropos. The science part of it is a bit of chaos theory and sociology, but it is the well drawn characters and settings that really make the book work.
denelirate on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Bellwether is by far one of the most superb, funny novels I have ever read. It takes place somewhere around Boulder, Colorado, a town not too far from where Connie Willis (and I) live, and the entire plot follows several months in a scientist's life - several extremely eventful months, involving staff meetings, acronyms, trends, hair bobbing, sheep, a cafe called the Earth Mother in the beginning of the book but then changing its name throughout the rest, frustration with assistants, and naturally enough, love. It is truly unputdownable, unfathomably wonderful, and with that special, extremely planned twist at the end that Connie Willis puts in all her books. Bellwether really makes you rethink the concepts of the Bandwagon.
Jax1976 on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Connie Willis combines her love of chaos theory, science, literature and screwball comedies into an entertaining romance set in the world of high-tech research.Sandra Foster is a sociologist researching fads, and Bennett O'Riley studies chaos theory at a commercial research insitute called Hi-Tek. When the incompetent and outrageous departmental assistant, Flip, misdelivers a package and fails to hand in a research funding form on time, she sets off a chain reaction of events that forces Drs. Foster and Bennett to combine their studies into one. As the remaining scientists at Hi-Tek try desperately to figure out how to win the coveted but mysterious Niebnitz grant, Foster and Bennett try to study information diffusion in higher mammals. Unfortunately, the only higher mammals on which they can get their hands are a flock of sheep, which bear a surprising resemblence to the people who inhabit Dr. Foster's day-to-day world. In the process of trying to find out why people behave as they do, Drs. Foster and Bennett rediscover their love of science and discover their love for each other. Along the way, they are helped out by the strangely competent Shirl, who no one else wants around because she smokes, but who seems to understand science, sheep, and perhaps a whole lot more.Connie Willis successfully conveys a joy of science and literature, while wryly looking at the trials and tribulations of trying to be trendy and successful. It's hard to describe this melange of sheep, Barbie dolls, personal ads and science adequately, but if you like intelligent and literate humor with a touch of romance, this book is for you.
goldenphizzwizards on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Hmm, I'm still not sure what I think about Bellwether. I started and finished this book in one day and it was enjoyable, but not very memorable. The characters were insubstantial for the most part; no one inspired anything more than a mild affinity for or dislike of them. Flip was by far the most interesting and real character, if the most annoying.The dialog and factoids were witty and flip (ugh, sorry), but there was little character or plot development to make this a real story. Perhaps it would work better as a short story.Wishing I could like this more!
grizzle on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Sandra is a sociologist who studies the fads, trying to understand where they come from. Through a series of chaotic systems, revolving around the irritable, irritating, and incompentant mail clerk (sorry, interdepartmental communications liason), Flip, Sandra meets Bennet, a chaos theorist who wants to study the chaotic systems of information dispersal in monkeys. Due to Flip's failure to turn in his paperwork, Bennet looses his funding. In order to help him keep his job, Sandra decides to incorporate their work by watching a bunch of sheep walk around in circles eating grass and getting their heads stuck in fences.It's very clever, with random amusing facts and fads both real and futuristic. I also found the ending rather sweet.
hoxierice on LibraryThing 29 days ago
Quick, fun, silly, entertaining and informative. Although they talk about flappers I have another story on why that name came about...
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pave3e More than 1 year ago
I love this book, my wife loves this book, her best friend loves this book. Everybody that we've recommended this book to has enjoyed it.
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