BOOK REVIEW - BELLWETHER By CONNIE WILLIS
Bantam Books ISBN - 0-55337562-8. Reviewed by Arthur Chappell
Sociologist Sandra Foster studies fads from the Hula Hoop to the Barbie Doll. She is struggling with her latest project, to find out why many women in the 1920s suddenly decided to cut and bob their hair. Was it because war time nurses caught head lice in their long hair? Was it the heat waves recorded for the period? Was it the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, Beatrice Bobs Her Hair? Sandra Foster is paid by the HiTek Corporation, and
' begins to suspect that they want to know how trends and fads start, so that they can use the right buttons to control people to their own financial advantage. Meanwhile, another HiTek researcher, Bennet O'Reilly is having problems with his chaos theory study of monkeys in group behaviour. Due to the chaos, caused primarily by the office messenger from hell, (known simply as Flip), he finds himself monkeyless and without funding. Sandra bails him out (she is clearly falling in love with him), by making his project part of her own and replacing his monkeys with sheep borrowed from a would-be lover of hers. Both researchers are unaware at first that they are on the brink of a major discovery. (I won't spoilt he secret by telling you what it is).
Though marketed as science fiction, this is really just a novel about scientists at work. There is nothing futuristic or fantastic about it (other than the quality of the writing). Willie's characters are warm, engaging and utterly plausible. Her scientists struggle for money, and face obstacle after obstacle, and push their research forward despite many setbacks (mostly caused by Flip, who has a habit of losing funding forms and tidying up people's paperwork for them oblivious of the fact that she has ruined careful experiments).
Poignant and often funny, as in the hysterical Management (he is always referred to derisively as Management, and never actually named) obsession with anti smoking policy. This leads HiTek staff to hound and harass the few remaining smokers on the team, forcing one poor woman to smoke outside in a howling blizzard. At one point, the workers even refuse to sit where the smoking area used to be situated, for fear of catching cancer.
The conclusions of the novel will have you cheering. "Why do only the awful things become fads? I thought. Eye-rolling, and Barbie and bread-pudding. Why never chocolate cheesecake or thinking for yourself?"
Science, Willis concludes, cannot work under too sterile a laboratory conditioning. Management in this book is as bad as science managers and funding groups everywhere, expecting inspiration, invention, and results on demand. Management only has his eyes on a prestigious award, similar to a Nobel Prize. His efforts to standardise the environment worked in by his scientists actually threatens to interfere with their projects. It is. ironically only the chaotic, farcical unpredictable carnage caused by Flip (and an amazing sheep known as a bellwether) that actually rescues the Foster 0'Reiliy research in the end. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin only when a culture he was studying was contaminated by a stray spore that drifted in through his open window, Messier was looking for comets and discovered galaxies instead. Science needs a haphazard and unpredictable element, a Flip, an agent of chaos, and a bellwether. The HiTek approach to science (used by many
real life corporations, closes the windows, and stops the penicillin being discovered. In this novel, the scientists find inspiration in the most unlikely ways, and even from their love for one another. Here is a tip from the book on what to do at business meetings where you are asked to write lists of things like your research objectives. Always write the same ones, no matter what the meeting is about. Elaine, ( a key character) teaches Foster to write
1. Optimise Potential. 2. Facilitate empowerment 3. Implement visioning. 4 Strategise. priorities. 5. Augment core structures.
Each chapter of Bellwether is preceded by a well researched anecdote on some trend or fad, Here is just one example.
"Diorama wigs 1750-60- Hair fad of the court of Louis XVI inspired by Madame de Pompadour, who was fond of dressing her hair in unusual ways. Hair was draped over a frame stuffed with cotton wool or straw, and cemented with a paste that hardened, and the hair was powdered and decorated with pearls and flowers. The fad rapidly got out of hand. Frames grew as high as three feet tall, and the decorations became elaborate and then pictorial. Hairdos had waterfalls, cupids and scenes from novels. Naval battles, complete with ships and smoke, were waged on top of women's heads and one widow, overcome with mourning for her dead husband had his tombstone erected in her hair. Died out with the advent of The French Revolution and the shortage of heads to put wigs on."
Makes you wish Willis had compiled and composed a full dictionary of fads, doesn’t it? .
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