Monday, 24 February 2014

Bellwether by Connie Willis

As you may know, I have an up-and-down relationship with Connie Willis books. I think some of them are astoundingly good. I think some of them are very weak. So I always start a new one wondering which it's going to be. And then there's Bellwether, which is barely even science fiction, and it's fun, but a bit forgettable. This one didn't disappoint me, but it wasn't anything more than fine.

So, why do I say it was barely science fiction? Well, there are almost no science fiction elements in it. Tech is present day, ideas being explored are more or less present day, and if they come to a discovery at the end, it's interesting, but not really one that opens up new vistas. It's more of a domestic comedy centered around a high tech research division at a company.

Sandra Foster is a sociologist working on fads for HiTek Corporation, which is as bad at managing scientists as you might expect, with increasingly arcane funding forms and hugging-it-out weekly morale workshops. She can't, for the life of her, figure out what got bobs going as a haircut fad in the 1920s. None of her factors seem to work out, and there's this weird bump in Ohio that makes no sense at all.

On the other side of the complex, chaos theorist Bennet O'Reilly is waiting for his monkeys to arrive so he can get to work. Of course, given the funding forms, he may grow old and die before the macaques are approved.

Brought together by fate (in the form of the incompetence of the administrative assistant, who refuses to deliver mail to the intended recipient if it's too far a walk,) Sandra and Bennet bounce off each other for a while, but it's not until Sandra thinks of a way of combining their research that they get hold of a flock of sheep and really start cooking.

In the meantime, they have to survive Flip, the aforementioned administrative assistant, ultra-prone to fads and thoroughly incompetent, as well as management, and a fellow scientist who is spending more of her time trying to handicap the odds of getting a fabled Niebnitz Grant than doing any work.

The start of every chapter is a brief description of a fad, which was mostly entertaining, until it rubbed up against the stuff I actually know well, and dated prohibition as a fad from 1895-19something. This isn't really a huge issue, but temperance advocates were working for prohibition as early as the 1850s, when the first Maine Law was introduced in the eponymous state. If it was a fad, it was one that lasted well over 70 years. (Of course, she also only talked about prohibition in terms of women, but I'm used to that by now.)

The book is amusing in talking about the fads that are sweeping through as Sandra as doing her research, and I enjoyed those parts quite a lot, although the general disdain for the younger generation was a bit much at times. In the end, this is just kind of a slight book. Entertaining, but not much more.

No comments:

Post a Comment