Bellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I initially marked this book as science fiction. Connie Willis is best known for writing SF. But, there are no science fiction elements in this book. Some of the science is fictional, but it's too modern-day and plausible to be classified in the genre.
Sandra Foster is a sociologist working for a research corporation, studying fads. HiTek wants to know what starts them, so they can start the next one. The incompetent office assistant, Flip, misdelivers a package, and Sandra meets Bennett O'Reilly when she tries to return it. He's a chaos theorist, and she's so used to analyzing fads that her entire thought process grinds to a halt when she sees he's not following a single one. Intrigued, she sticks close, even combining their research projects when his funding hits a major snag.
The plot is fairly light, with few surprises. Sandra researches trends, is stymied by Flip or HiTek's management, grows closer to Bennett, and accidentally reaches a goal almost every background character is striving for. She spends a lot of the book musing about the happy accidents of science, so the ending manages to feel nothing like a deus ex machina.
Sandra's voice is dryly sarcastic. She presents the people around her like an ongoing sociological observation, noting their quirks and patterns while remaining curiously unaware of her internal world. Her lack of self-awareness plays a part in the overall plot, so it's entirely forgivable.
The book is social commentary with a lot of insight into human nature. While the book's answers to what causes fads is too pat for the real world, the insights about their spread and how people regard them is spot on.
Sandra's observations about HiTek's management are satire at its best. She pokes fun at corporate speak, red tape, team-building exercises, useless meetings, and the disconnect between management and the people doing the work. Through Flip, Willis illustrates how the least competent are often the best rewarded.
Flip stands for a lot more than that, though. She has even less self-awareness than Sandra, and she actively undermines a lot of HiTek scientists' efforts. Every bit of progress is stymied by Flip's carelessness, and she lobbies to get rid of the only person who can neutralize her disasters. Not out of jealousy, but because the woman is a smoker when the fad is to treat smokers like second-class citizens.
The subject of fads has interested me for a long time: how they start, why people pick them up, why they die. Despite its status as fiction, this book had a lot of answers for me, and many of its views coincided with my own. I found it hilarious and entertaining, and the theme is one I can get behind.
I listened to this on audio, narrated by Kate Reading. I've listened to books she's narrated before, and she's always impressed me with her crisp, professional delivery. She gets across Sandra's voice well, and captures Flip's attitude by giving her a lazy drawl. Some of the other characters sounded similar to one another, but it was forgivable, because Sandra rarely talks to large groups of people at a time. I could always tell who was really speaking.
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