Bellwether – Connie Willis (1996)
Sandra Foster studies fads – from Barbie dolls to the grunge look – how they start and what they mean. Bennett O’Reilly is a chaos theorist studying monkey group behaviour. they both work for the HiTek corporation, strangers until a misdelivered package brings them together. It’s a moment of synchronicity – if not serendipity – which leads them into a chaotic system of their own, complete with a million-dollar research grant, café latte, tattoos and a series of unlucky coincidences that leaves Bennett monkeyless, fundless and nearly jobless. Sandra intercedes with a flock of sheep and an idea for a joint project. (After all, what better animal to study both chaos theory and the herd mentality that so often characterizes human behaviour?)
But scientific discovery is rarely straightforward and never simple, and Sandra and Bennett have to endure a series of setbacks, heartbreaks and dead ends, and disasters before they find their ultimate answer.
Blurb from the 1997 Bantam paperback edition
This is a fairly short and innocuous novel, employing Willis’ trademark farcical style in which a researcher investigating ‘fads’ (actually ‘memes’, although the term is never used in the book) and their causes finds her life (both personal and professional) collapsing into chaos as she struggles to discover what triggered the hair-bobbing fashion of the Nineteen-Twenties.
It’s a light-hearted scientific romantic comedy, adroitly written, seamlessly plotted with excellent characterisation and dialogue, but one feels slightly disappointed by it, since more should be expected from an author of this calibre.
There is much to enjoy. Willis writes rather like one would expect an entertaining university tutor to write, especially one who was fond of a combination of cannabis and amphetamines.
It also feels like a joyfully cathartic process for Willis, as she relentlessly rants (ironically via the voice of the extremely patient and tolerant lead character) at aspects of our consumer society. Barbie Dolls, the transient quack fashions of relationship and parenting strategies, stupid teenagers, mindless business philosophies, anti-smoking jihads; all are mercilessly dissected by Willis in a subtle and humourous way, one which will no doubt strike a chord with many readers.
Oddly, there are echoes of this book, thematically and stylistically in the later, more complex ‘Passage’, particularly with regard to the lead female researcher and the elements of Pattern Recognition.
See also Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ whose focus is also very much on cultural memes.