January 5, 2009
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Bellwether, by Connie Willis
8/10, an enjoyable contemporary story of science research
In Passage, Connie Willis tells a story whose stakes are literally life and death. In Bellwether, the stakes aren’t as high, but the story is still enjoyable.
Dr. Foster studies fads, and one of the enjoyable touches in the book is the beginning of each chapter, which lists a (sometimes relevant) trend, its birth and its demise. Willis does her research for these books, and it shows. Dr. Foster works for a high tech company (amusingly called HiTek) that sponsors scientific research with one hand, while the other seems to do everything possible to impede it. There isn’t the urgency of “Passage” here, but the plot is similar: female scientist struggling against bureaucracy and her peers to accomplish a breakthrough, who meets a like-minded scientist whose help becomes essential.
“Bellwether” is a light, enjoyable read. Like all Willis’s books, the characters are a delight to get to know, and you will put down the book knowing more about the subject than you did when you picked it up. The subject matter more or less forces her to root the book firmly in the mid-nineties, which is a good thing in this case. I remember the anti-smoking fad, the various beverage fads (still going on today), although for good measure, Willis throws in several other fads of her own invention that don’t seem too outrageous. You’ll also learn a little bit about chaos theory, something about libraries, and just a pinch about fairy godmothers.
Though you can see where everything is going before it gets there, that doesn’t make the book any less fun to read. Like her earlier work, “To Say Nothing Of The Dog,” “Bellwether” plays for comedy more than drama, and she proves equally adept at both.