9 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Title: Bellwether

Author: Connie Willis

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Publication Date: 1996 (First Edition)
Paperback: 248 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

Pop culture, chaos theory and matters of the heart collide in this unique novella from the Hugo and Nebula winning author of Doomsday Book.

Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions.

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: Connie Willis is my new author-crush.


If you have been keeping up with this blog you will know that I only recently discovered the books by Connie Willis and have been trying to catch up with her backlist. Bellwether is the third book I read by her and upon finishing it, I was so shaken that I uttered the words “this is genius”, in public. It is now set in stone: Connie Willis is my new favourite writer.

Fads and chaos are the two main themes of Bellwether. On one hand, we have sociologist Sandra Foster, studying fads – those short-lived, crazed trends that we have all been guilty of following at one point or another in our lives. More specifically, she is trying to determine how those fads start, what or who sets them in motion and is currently concentrating on figuring out the beginning of the fad of hair-bobbing which took over America in the 20s. On the other hand, there’s chaos theorist Bennett O’Reilly now working with information diffusion amongst monkeys, after losing his funding to study the causes of chaos.

Even though both work for the HiTek Corporation, they never met before, a fact that changes when Flip, the interdepartmental assistant (From Hell) misdelivers a package and Sandra takes upon herself to take it to Bio.

Thus begins Bellwether and what happens next is a clever mixture of Science Fiction, Romance and even a bit of Screwball Comedy as Sandra observes all the fads going on around her: from stupid Management trends to anti-smoking enforcement and Barbie dolls and types of coffees to being incredibly taken aback when she realises that Bennett seems to be completely immune to all of them; as, due of those new stupid Management trends, something happens that catapults Sandra and Bennett to work together in a new project that involves sheep (hey, what could be more relevant to working with fads than sheep right?) and dim dim dim halleluiah, cue title reference, a bellwether which turns out to be not only an important element for said project but also an idea that will grow and well, I shan’t disclose anymore. And then of course, there is Flip, the most Incompetent Assistant From Hell of All Times – all of this combined for maximum awesomeness effect.[1. I have read several reviews on Amazon and GoodReads and quite a few of them moan about how this book is Not Science Fiction. Pray do tell, what is a book about chaos theory which incorporates chaos theory in its own storytelling if not Science Fiction? Although I will grant that it is not Hard Science Fiction but I don’t think any of her books really are Hard Scifi]

And believe Bellwether is pure, undiluted Connie Willis’ own brand of awesome. In terms of storytelling it is reminiscent of both To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book with several plotlines that run parallel and appear chaotic at first only to have all threads coming together perfectly in the end. In terms of writing it also reminded me of both books in the way that Sandra is constantly thinking about fads and talking about them and the effect they have in people, a lot like the way the time travellers are constantly thinking about events and how they progress or not.[2. I detect a pattern and I wonder if this is after all, simply Connie Willis’ style of writing regardless of theme? I can’t wait to find out although with a bit of caution, in fear that I might get bored with it. No signs of that just yet though, I totally dig it] In terms of tone, it is definitely lighter fare, with quite a few comedic elements and a sweet romance to boot.

Furthermore, what to me is the best aspect about the book is how the two aforementioned themes are incorporated in the storytelling: they are plot and characters themselves as well as part of the novel’s own structure. The story goes back and forth about them at all times in a way that is not only satirical but also thought provoking. Is Sandra immune to trends because she observes and analyses them? IS Bennett really immune? Are any of us? How does Chaos theory fits in all this? Plus, even though this is not one of Willis’ time travel books, some of the ideas circulating here are part of the same proposition that both random acts and single individuals may influence historical events.

Not to mention all the little things: how Sandra goes to libraries and takes home books that no one does just so they are not removed from the library forever; how she is completely oblivious to the fact that she is falling in love with Bennett whereas we totally know it and have fun with all the misunderstandings that happen; and how words beginning with “i” are thought of, used, discarded and replaced until eventually one word is chosen to describe the meaning of Flip’s “i” brand on her forehead (don’t ask, just trust me on this).

Bellwether is short, sweet and I loved it. If you are already a fan of Connie Willis, you will only find more of the same quality. If not, this is a good place to start. As for myself, when everything “clicks” in the end of this novel, I had the revelation that my love for Connie Willis’ books is anything but a fad. I am reading Blackout/All Clear next.

Notable Quotes/ Parts:

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 behaviour. 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.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection

Reading next: The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell

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  • Andrea
    February 28, 2011 at 3:15 am

    Ah, you’re making me want to re-read my Connie Willis books. Trying not to indulge in any re-reads for a while.

    Blackout/All Clear really didn’t work for me (for multiple reasons), but hopefully it will work better for you.

  • Charlotte
    February 28, 2011 at 4:58 am

    This is just about my favorite Connie Willis–I’m glad you liked it too!

  • Rebecca
    February 28, 2011 at 6:20 am

    I cannot imagine ever being bored by Connie Willis. Besides the Doomsday Book I love her newest two books the best, Blackout and The All Clear about time travel to World War II. The books were brilliantly executed and such an interesting study of everyday life during the war.


  • Chris
    February 28, 2011 at 7:00 am

    I loved this book. When I was in book club about ten years ago, I actually got them to read this (an achievement, since they were very anti-genre) and we had one of the best discussions we’d ever had, because no matter what tangents we ended up on, everything could be tied back to the book.

  • Gerd D.
    February 28, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Reminds me that I still have to get “To say nothing of the dog” (<- love that title!), and yes, I think Connie is one of those authors that push the envelope of what we call SF. I only read Lincoln's Dreams and a few of her short stories so far, though, but from that she strikes me more as a historian who has set out to smuggle dry historical facts into our brains by packaging them up in riveting time travel and near time travel stories. 😀

  • raych
    February 28, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Oh good. I have been on tenterhooks ever since you mentioned you were reading this, because I’ve read FIVE Willis’ now and I keep waiting for her to FAIL me. I haven’t read Bellweather yet but I’m pleased to think it won’t be the one that lets me down.

  • Weasel of Doom
    February 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Glad you are enjoying Connie Willis! I really liked “Bellwether,” too. It’s a great book to re-read when you are in the “science fiction – love story – learning new and interesting stuff – funny – quick read” mood 😉 I love “Doomsday Book” and “Passage,” but they are emotionally draining for me, so I don’t re-read them as often.

  • kelly
    February 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Yay! Bellwether is one of my comfort books. My copy is falling to bits from multiple rereads. So glad you’re enjoying Connie Willis!

    @Weasel of Doom – I agree on all counts. Passage is the only Connie Willis book I can not, nor will not reread. It’s beautifully written but emotionally exhausting.

  • T
    February 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    It is sf, trust me, I am a scientist. (by training, used to be, though not “practicing” exactly)

    Of course the science on it is sociology which is as soft as sciences can get and not my field at all, but it is a great book about *science* and scientific thought and process. It is more about science and how researchers think and live and how conclusions can be taken than big space battles (With sounds and explosions).

    Her novella All Seated on the Ground is also pretty impressive about scientific method and discovery. Willis is one of the few authors who seem to get *what* scientists spend their time on.

  • T
    February 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    just to add, I am not really convinced about the chaos theory and attractors as she describes, but I do not think the maths is necessary for it to be about science. It is about sociology very clearly and well researched, but what makes it sf is that the essential for “science” is the scientific method and way of thinking. Though maybe that is wrong in it not being what people usually consider sf, but to me it is. Other authors who tend to have believable settings of science getting made right, Ted Chiang, Neal Stephenson and even Terry Pratchett.

  • Erin Hoffman
    February 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Ahh, once again validating BookSmugglers as a trustworthy source… 🙂 This is one of my favorite Willis…es. It was genius and especially beautiful for being so compressed in its space. Idea SF in a whole frontier space that is still largely unexplored.

  • QuestJan
    February 28, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    I am a huge CW fan! I have read all of her books and keep praying for a new one. One of the things that I like about her books is that you can trust her research. She is impeccable.

    I look forward to you reading Passages. Her allegory of the Titanic is wonderful.

  • Colleen
    February 28, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    I love this book – it’s one of my all time favs. I just loved the zaniness of it; it’s truly one of the funniest books I own and serves as a tonic whenever the world gets too heavy. So glad you love it.

  • Mostraum
    March 1, 2011 at 5:45 am

    I adore CW and have for a few years now. After you’ve read Blackout/All Clear I would recommend that you take a look at her short stories. I read the title story of “The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories” on a flight to London and fell in love with the city before I’d ever been there.

  • Kate @ Candlemark
    March 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Oddly, this is one Connie Willis book I HAVEN’T read, even though I’m madly in love with her work. I need to correct that. Especially because one of my dreams in life is to get to be a corporate cultural anthropologist (shush, I’m weird and I know it).

  • April
    March 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Great review! My friend has been begging me to read this book for ages now and hopefully I’ll finally get around to it soon.

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  • Susan
    March 30, 2011 at 7:09 am

    I’ve been meaning to ask – have you read Fire Watch yet? It’s a novella she wrote, I believe in the same universe as “To Say Nothing of the Dog”, and it’s available for free online. If you have, I apologise for the intrusion, if not – it’s a really good short story, and I enjoyed it a lot!

  • Sarah Allen
    November 7, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    I always love finding people who feel like I do about Connie Willis 🙂 And this is definitely my favorite of hers!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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