Monday, April 10, 2017

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Reviewed by Kristin

Connie Willis is known as an award winning science fiction writer, but this short novel serves up something slightly different.  Rather than creating mind reading technology or traveling in time, Dr. Sandra Foster and her co-workers are making scientific discoveries for the benefit of the corporate world.  Bellwether still has the quirkiness for which Willis is known, but it is framed in a somewhat modern setting—Boulder, Colorado in (apparently) the mid-1990’s.  Willis won the 1997 Nebula Award for this work and it is well deserved.

Sandy is a research and development sociologist funded by HiTek, a huge corporation with more money than common sense, although it’s hard to see the money when you must fill out a 57 page budgetary request form for each new research project.  And that’s not even mentioning the new 22 page supply procurement form, just to get some paperclips!  Sandy is hoping to discover how fads begin, and Management is hoping to capitalize on that discovery in order to make more—you guessed it—money.

Sandy’s work life is made even more frustrating by HiTek’s “interdepartmental assistant.”  Flip is supposed to deliver mail, make copies, and generally provide assistance, but she spends 90% of her time tossing the long hank of hair sprouted from her shaved head, and sighing in such a way that everyone knows how inconvenient their requests are.  

Out in the community, Sandy has a habit of dropping by the local library, checking out favorite books to be sure they are not weeded out if a computer generated report shows that they have not been used in a year.  What library lover would dislike a character who wants to protect her favorite tales?  The offbeat humor made me laugh as I listened to the audiobook.  The characters are presented with distinct voices, making it clear who is speaking which lines of dialogue.

From Flip’s eye rolling and snarky comments, to biologist Dr. Bennett O’Reilly’s social awkwardness, to Management’s continually evolving acronyms, Bellwether moves forward quickly in an unconventional yet amusing way.  Although Sandy begins with a research project, she ends up on a journey leading her to discover more about trends, chaos, sheep, and love than she ever would have expected.

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