Saturday, 13 February 2010

Bellwether by Connie Willis or, the book that is most like me

Bellwether by Connie Willis is a book I first discovered 12 years ago. The first time I read it, I gave it to everyone for Christmas that year. I have reread at least once since, and a few weeks ago I picked the book up again. As always, I wondered: would I still love this book? Was it still funny?



I laughed out loud! I cried, wiping tears away surreptitiously at work and on the bus. I devoured this book. Most of all, I remembered why I love it so much. The heroine, Sandra Foster, is me. Not me, literally. But how she thinks, the things she does and gets caught up in, she is me. Synchronicity. Chaos resolving into a higher state of stability. Humour. Books feature in this story in a big way. So do administrative clerks and a management team who keep inventing new acronyms for the team. I don't know about you, but even in my workplace we've managed to go through three acronyms since I began there 9 years ago. Three! Since this is my first foray into business/government vs retail work, I found reading Bellwether this time even funnier. I can relate to a management team whose new iniative spells out "GRIM: Guided Resource Initiative Management". It makes as much sense as any real life acronyms!! I wish I dared suggest it in our suggestion box at work......

This science fiction novel is about the chaos that results at a science firm when an administrative assistant named Flip misdelivers a box to the wrong section. Sandra is researching what caused the bob in the 1920's - the short cut of hair that millions of women suddenly adopted, without one apparent reason for them all to do it. Sandra is a statistician, and has a theory about how trends get started. Flip's misdelivery of the box leads her to meet Bennett, who defies all popularity/trendsetting fads, including wearing coke-bottle lens glasses, and researches chaos theory. 'Bellwether' is also about sheep, but you'll have to read the book to find out more, since otherwise it might give too much of the plot away!

It is a delightful, wonderful, witty poke at modern fads and trends and the buzz words we use, all in the context of understanding why people behave the way they do. Thrown into the mix is the desire of the company to win the Neibnitz Grant, a prize of one million dollars, awarded every so often to a scientist.

Did I mention library books? Library books figure prominently, as does Barbie, fads in angels and fairies, restaurants that change names weekly, and management sensitivity exercises.

There is so much to love in the book. I was as happy and satisfied at the ending as ever, and I finished it thinking, "If anyone ever wanted to get to know how my brain works, this is a good book to start with." This is one of those books that truly delights me. It is good, it is moving, and it is funny. It really is one of my favourite books of all time.

Here is a link to a Connie Willis site and her books. I see by this that her new book, Black-Out, was released last week! I'm rushing to my bookstore on Tuesday to see if it's there!

Here is Jo Walton's review of Bellwether, written last year. I'd suggest to read this one only if you've read Bellwether already, since it does give more plot away. I also disagree with Jo when she calls it fluff; I prefer one of the commentators on the post who suggest that Bellwether unifies chaos events - I like that! there has to be some kind of new equilibrium reached, even if it's only temporary, or only chaos results, forever. And life just isn't like that. Life does have moments of equilibrium.

As science fiction goes, this is not heavy on science at all. Science plays a major role, but so does love and friendship and a Robert Browning poem. It's a book for anyone who's afraid to try science fiction, for anyone who hates winter and longs for spring (this will at least make your spirits happy for a few days), for anyone who likes a wry look at how people come to do things - anything. This is a very good novel that happens to be science fiction. So I really have given it to people who've never read this genre, as well as to life-long readers of it. Mostly, it's funny. It also gives a handy 5-answer guide for what to put down for your list at your next management strategy (new acronym time!) meeting that we all have to suffer under :

1.Optimize potential. 2.Facilitate empowerment 3. Implement visioning 4.Strategize priorities 5. Augment core structures.

Uh oh, writing that list down makes me realize I've heard all this in real life! I wonder if any of my management team have read this book? So I like Bennett's response to the list:
What is that?" Bennett said, looking at the list. "Those make no sense."

Yes, I feel like I'm having a conversation with the characters! If for nothing else, you have to read this book for Flip, who is like the worst assistant out there......

So tell me, Gentle Reader, have you come across a book that seems to reflect you on the page? Is it one of your favourite books?

This was read for part of Carl's Sci-Fi Challenge, as well as Becky's 42 Science Fiction Things challenge.


Eva said...

I didn't have a great experience w/ my first Willis (The Doomsday Book-I gave up halfway thru from boredom), but this sounds like just the thing for a second try! :)

Andrea said...

Sounds great! I'll have to add it to my TBR list. :-)

Cath said...

Annoyingly there's no copy of this in any of the Devon libraries, so will think about buying it at some stage. The only Connie Willis I own is The Doomsday Book.

Offhand, I really can't think of a book that reflects me on the page. I identify quite a lot with Granny Weatherwax though! LOL!

Anonymous said...

Another book I must add to the wish list. I used to work for the Bureau of Statistics and if ever a department was in love with acronyms they were it. Aside from the fact that this sounds like a great read I was interested in stuff about 1920s fads; my daughter has a current obsession with the 1920s and is considering getting her red locks cut into a bob, reviewing her plans for a pre-raphaelite fantasy for her formal this year and considering going with a 'flapper' image instead. She has this habit of completely immersing herself in whatever her current obsession is. I suspect she would also enjoy this book. Thanks for letting me know about this one, previously I was only familiar with Willis' Doomsday Book but this one sounds like it should not be over looked.

Bybee said...

I read a short story by Connie Willis once called "Even The Queen". It was really funny, but for some reason, I haven't read anything else by her.
Glad to see you back here!!!

Gavin said...

Can you believe I have never read Willis? I will start with this one. Thanks for a wonderful review!

GeraniumCat said...

Yes yes yes yes! I love it too! And everything else that I've read by her. Might have to go and read it again...if I do, I shall think of you being Sandra.

Memory said...

I've heard so many good things about Connie Willis's stuff that I'm near rabid to give her a go! This sounds like an awesome read.

I know I must have read a total me-book at some point, but I can't think of one off the top of my head. Not one that I could point to without blushing, at any rate!

Susan said...

Eva: I'm sorry you didn't enjoy The Doomsday Book! Do you know what you found so boring? It's one of the best time-travel books I've come across.....this one is a little different, and funnier. I hope you like it!

Andrea: I'm being bad for your TBR list, aren't I? :-D

Cath: Have you read The Doomsday Book yet? And I'm not surprised although disappointed that a Nebula winning author isn't on the Devon bookshelves! There are many authors that should be on ours, that aren't, and we're a major city.

I will have to try Terry Pratchett again! I tried him many years ago and he didn't make me laugh as much as he seems to be making everyone on the blogs now!! Maybe if I picture you as Granny!

BookPusher: Oh I hope you can get this book! It sounds like you would really relate to everything it's about! and your daughter. I just gave it to a very good friend who doesn't read SF and she really enjoyed it too. If I told you my current section's shortened form is PP would that tell you about my department? lol Pretty awful, isn't it? GRIM is better....

Bybee: My inner sci-fi girl is determined to get you reading Willis then!! I think I've read Even the Queen also, but it's been so long since I read short stories by her, and I'm still mad that Subterranean Press hasn't come out with the soft cover of her short story collection that I really really want....she is a tremendous short story writer. Can you find much - any? - SF in Korea?

Missed you too.

Gavin: If I can get you to read and like Willis, then isn't that the best thing about these blogs after meeting one another? Fingers crossed you enjoy her.....I certainly love her. Let me know!!

Geraniumcat: Hurray!!! You have and you do, love her!!!
and you've read it! Somehow I'm not surprised, very delighted though.....we read so much of the same kind of books. She has a new book out, have you got it over there yet? I'm debating if I can wait until my birthday in May to pick it up. Dunworthy is back!

And yes, let me know if you see me as Sandra!

Memory: I'm sure your library will have something by her, well I was sure until Cath said her library in Devon didn't have this one. Hopefully your library will have some books by her. I've read all her books and have most of them. They are original SF, and funny and heart-breaking and good. Whatever you pick up is worth it, though Doomsday Book and Bellwether are my two favourites.

Mmm, those heroines/books like sound kind of interesting! lol

Bybee said...

Yes, there's a small but well-developed section of SF at What The Book? Both new and used.

Susan said...

Bybee: any Connie Willis there? Her new one - Blackout- is getting good reviews, so far. It's hard cover though, hate to think how expensive that will be other there!

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Eesti said...

You know, it really irks me when a wonderful book like Bellwether comes out and all these "well-read" types come out of the woodwork to tell you how awful it was because it wasn't like her other work, didn't turn out how they wanted, maybe wasn't as deep as something else she'd written....Please read it anyway! I loved this book! I have read it many times, loaned it to many friends, bought it for name it! I love the fact that it's not like her other books. I love that Connie Willis can allow herself to branch out. She is a fine author in any incarnation, and just because it doesn't focus on spaceships or aliens or time-travel, doesn't mean it can't be science fiction. You got your science. You got your fiction. Voila! And if nothing else, the ending will make reading the book all worthwhile.

Susan said...

Eesti: I'd like to know who is recommending not to read it, since it was nominated for several scifi awards, it's obviously very good! It's more a matter of liking it particularly or not. Some people don't like Willis' style, which is ok. Not everyone like the same thing. I happen to love Willis, and have read just about everything by her, and yet there are many science fiction authors I haven't read yet. Only so many hours in a day!

Thanks for your comment, and I am happy to see you give away as many copies of this one too as I do! lol