Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bellwether (audio book) by Connie Willis, read by Kate Reading

I think this book was originally published in 1997, which accounts for the slightly dated feel it had each time Sandra's rancher boyfriend's cell phone came up.

I did my best to keep this post spoiler-free.


Sandra is a researcher working at HiTek. Her area of study is fads and, currently, her particular focus is hair bobbing. She knows a lot about different fads, but the one thing she doesn't know and is hoping to find out is how they start.

While banging her head against the wall that is her research topic, Sandra also has to deal with her company's fondness for acronyms, meetings, and creating "streamlined" funding allocation forms that no one can figure out how to fill out.

Sandra's research appears to be going nowhere. What she doesn't realize is that, somehow, Bennett, a biologist at HiTek who has an interest in chaos theory, Flip, HiTek's annoyingly careless interdepartmental assistant, sheep, and a bunch of fads she sees every day will combine into an epiphany about fads and scientific breakthroughs.

It's been almost three years since I last read a book by Connie Willis – I had forgotten how enjoyable her writing can be.

As I was writing my synopsis and trying to avoid spoilers, I realized how little actually happened in this book. There was a lot of HiTek workplace drama, and frequent breaks in the story allowed for brief histories of fads (such as dance marathons, hair wreaths, hair bobbing, and Rubik's Cubes – sometimes I Googled the more bizarre ones, just to see if Willis was making stuff up). There were also a lot of moments dealing with Sandra's fascination with Bennett's apparent immunity against fads, which I could immediately see would develop into a romance, despite the existence of Sandra's rancher boyfriend. I found all these little things fascinating, which was good, because they all added up in the end.

I'm actually kind of surprised this worked so well for me as work-time listening, because there really were so many little things I needed to keep track of that didn't necessarily know I needed to keep track of. I think perhaps the repetition of certain details helped. Romantic Bride Barbie came up a lot, as did the color of people's clothing, duct tape, etc.

One of my minor complaints about this book is that I figured out the answers to some of Sandra's questions long before she did, probably because of all that repetition, so I spent much of the book saying, “I can't believe you don't remember that that color came up before. Think. The answer is right there, you've practically worked it out for yourself already.” My annoyance increased as the book neared its end and it started to seem like Sandra was being willfully dense. Still, there was more that I enjoyed than didn't enjoy, so I was willing to write off her denseness as the result of being too close to all of the data.

Although my job isn't tenure-track and I therefore don't have to worry about research and finding funding for that research, I could still sympathize with the things Sandra, Bennett, and the others had to go through while simultaneously dealing with management and Flip. At times, it was a little like reading a Dilbert comic in novel form. One of Sandra's friends gave her advice on how to survive staff meetings and convince management to agree to let her and Bennett work together. Management didn't seem to understand anything but management buzzwords, and most of the assistants at HiTek were  completely incompetent and still managed to believe they were vital to the company.

The book occasionally got my back up a bit, because of the way those who follow fads were presented (as idiotic sheep), and some might take similar issue with most of the assistant characters (not just Flip and Desiderata, but also various waiters, cashiers, and more). There was a slightly insulting feeling to all of that. I ended up deciding that Willis had just taken situations and people that exist in real life and ramped them up a few notches, to create a world almost entirely made up of people who felt put upon when others asked them to do their jobs and people who followed fads only because everyone else was following them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and need to see about reading more of Willis' works. So far, the only other ones I've read are To Say Nothing of the Dog and Remake. I like her sense of humor, and I enjoyed the slight romance in Bellwether. I loved the “must be scientifically compatible” line, as well as all the other explanations for why Bennett had done things that made Sandra think he was interested in someone else. As far as this audio version goes, I thought Kate Reading did an excellent job.

A few additional comments:

I know nothing about sheep. While listening to the last disc or two, I couldn't help but wonder, are sheep really that stupid?

Also, Sandra's final graphs, incorporating everything that had happened around her and everything that a particular character had done: how would one even do that? And wouldn't it have taken hours, days, or even weeks?

  • Going Postal (book) by Terry Pratchett - I'm sure Pratchett must have a book that deals with meetings, overly long funding forms, and management-speak, but I either haven't read it or can't remember it at the moment. Instead, I'll recommend this one, in which a con man is forced to become the Postmaster and get the Post Office running again. Something about Willis' writing and humor reminded me of Pratchett's books. Going Postal should be an okay starting point for newbies to the Discworld, and, for those who like audio books, Stephen Briggs is a fantastic reader. I've written about it, if you'd like more information.
  • Peeps (book) by Scott Westerfeld - I think this would be classified as YA contemporary sci-fi. The main character is hunting down his former girlfriends after having unknowingly infected them with parasites that cause them to, among other things, crave blood and hate sunlight and anything they used to love. Those who enjoyed the parts of Bellwether detailing the histories of various fads might like this book - it does something similar with parasites. I've written a post about this one.
  • Pattern Recognition (book) by William Gibson - The main character of this book, Cayce Pollard, is a "cool hunter" - she's allergic to brand names and uses her allergy to evaluate potential products and advertising campaigns. Something about Sandra's research into fads and her feelings about them and those who follow them reminded me of Cayce.

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