Connie Willis,
(Bantam, 1996)

It's hard to categorize Connie Willis' Bellwether. It's a lively blend of science fiction, humor and social satire that would be at home in any decade -- or any century, for that matter.

Sandra Foster, the narrator of Bellwether, studies fads for HiTek, a private corporation; the corporation's premise is that finding out what makes something a fad will help it predict future fads and capitalize on that knowledge. Right now, the trend she's trying to track is hair-bobbing, but her research is hindered by Flip, her singularly unhelpful assistant whom she shares with nearly every other scientist in the building. Flip seems beleaguered when asked to, well, work, but to make things even more aggravating, the more incompetent Flip is, the more Management seems to promote her. (This is the same Management that conducts all-staff meetings to introduce new management "strategies," hand out revised funding allocation forms, and conduct sensitivity exercises that cause employees to sneak out of the staff room to hide in the nearest rest room.) But when Flip misdelivers a package and Sandra tries to return it, a chain of events is set off which will ultimately involve, although not be restricted to, sheep, Barbie, Robert Browning, anti-smoking campaigns, personal ads and duct tape.

When Sandra treks down to the other end of the building with the package, she meets Bennet O'Reilly, a chaos theorist who seems impervious to trends, fads and even basic fashion. After Bennet's "simplified" funding form gets lost (he made the mistake of turning it in to Flip), Sandra combines forces and projects with him, helping him acquire a flock of sheep in order to continue his work. (After all, it's not much of a stretch between fads and sheep.) At the center of everything is Flip: all roads, especially the disastrous ones, lead to her.

Willis packs the convoluted plot with tidbits of information about various fads and musings on the accidental (chaotic?) Nature of scientific discoveries, as well as laugh-out-loud humor. Sandra's world of Boulder, Colorado, turns into a postmodern pink Wonderland where the Mad Tea Party is supplanted by twenty-eleven variations of caffe latte and Flip is more of a Pied Piper than a White Rabbit. Willis maintains the lively loopy pace with substance and with characters who come alive.

Bellwether is a fast, fun read that leaves you thinking, something you can't say about every book, Pick it up and see for yourself -- for all you know, you'll start a trend!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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