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Summary

Audie Award, Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2010

Pop culture, chaos theory, and matters of the heart collide in this unique novella from the Hugo and Nebula Award - winning author of Doomsday Book.  

Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennett O'Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But a series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions - with the unintended help of the errant, forgetful, and careless office assistant Flip.

©1996 Connie Willis (P)2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Critic reviews

"Connie Willis deploys the apparatus of science fiction to illuminate character and relationships, and her writing is fresh, subtle and deeply moving." ( New York Times Book Review)
"Willis's story builds slowly but is realistic and engrossing." ( Midwest Book Review)

What listeners say about Bellwether

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Gentle and interesting.

Interesting and gentle accompaniment to my morning walks. There were a surprising number of facts packed in there as well.

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Boring!

Although very well written, there is simply very little story to speak of. A story of the mundanity of somebody at work with no tale to tell.

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Unexpected find

I downloaded this book on a whim,looking for something different,and absolutely loved it.It is extremely funny( laugh out loud funny at many points).The whole concept of Sandra,the heroine,studying fads,and the regular snippets of information about this throughout the story,sounds strange but works brilliantly.So there is science,chaos theory,the quirks of the corporation where she works,mad office assistants,romance,sheep....all combined in an enjoyable and well-narrated package. Highly recommended.

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Best Listen This Year

This has been the most enjoyable book I've listened to. It is not science fiction but is set in a present day research company. The author's voice and the narrator mesh perfectly, and for anyone who has worked in the world of management the humour is sharply to the point. It's a book I shall return to more than once. I wouldn't have chosen this title but for a friend's recommendation.

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Great fun

Connie Willis is a witty and perceptive writer and Bellwether manages to be many things - biting social commentary, a thriller, a romance, a comedy - and a great story, too. Some of the characters may be (by necessity) stereotypical, but they are multi-dimensional, believable, quirky and original stereotypes. This had me laughing out loud and this is as much due to Kate Reading's wonderful narration as to Connie Willis' writing. Although I guessed the ending, it was hugely enjoyable to observe the characters antics as the story unravelled. Highly recommended.

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  • Pam
  • 04-07-12

Pattern Recognition" Meets "Office Space

Fans of William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" will see a lot of similarity here, in that our heroine is working to understand the evolution of trends in human society. And fans of "Office Space" will see a lot of similarity between that movie's Initech company and our heroine's Hi-Tek laboratory. The blend is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

Some Hi-Tek employees' names are allegories -- one incompetent assistant is named "Desiderata" and another "Flip" (for the frequent flip of her hair, or, as we learn later, maybe something else). The clueless laboratory director -- who falls for every new management fad that comes along -- is simply named "Management."

Chapters begin with just a little background on the research topic at hand, and these entries make the book's science content accessible to a general audience. I gave it four stars because I thought that these introductory segments were at times a little too long or detailed. But all in all a good book, and I couldn't put it down -- had to listen to it in one sitting.

41 people found this helpful

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  • Dubi
  • 10-09-14

A Little Bang Theory

Fascinating and droll, Connie Willis's short novel Bellwether hooked me from the start with its overarching metaphor about fads. And then it kept me hooked (and chuckling almost incessantly) with its wry observations about working in a corporate office environment and living in a world of self-policed social conformity.

That sounds like quite a mouthful, but it's not all that complicated: this is pretty much the same idea as The Big Bang Theory -- the real (and really funny) lives of scientific researchers -- with the notable difference that the main character is perplexed by fads rather than, like the Big Bang guys, devoted to (certain types of) them.

Two things I take away from this book, other than the straightforward fact of enjoying it immensely for its observations and humor: its setting and its metaphor. So many books, movies, TV shows are about people most of us can never be -- policemen, lawyers, doctors, secret agents, etc. Not really a surprise -- those are the occupations that offer up a broad range of dramatic life or death plot lines, especially for serial versions of their respective media.

But we don't usually relate to them directly. By contrast, a smaller number of works are about real people working everyday jobs in the most common setting -- the office. And yet so many of those become popular because we can relate to the setting, not least of which is The Office. The Big Bang Theory is so good not because of the rare profession of its characters, but because it shows their day to day lives at the office and at home (of course, for the purposes of sit-com).

Bellwether is likewise about Ph.D. scientists, and their research provides a metaphorical background, but there is immense appeal in their office environment and politics and relationships, and in what they have to do just to get a cup of coffee or iced tea, let alone get their projects funded. Great stuff.

The other irresistible aspect of Bellwether is its metaphor -- fads. It is, in my opinion, a rare feat of literary prowess to come up with a metaphor so powerful that we are as much interested in it as in what it symbolizes. Every section of Bellwether features an exploration of at least one fad (hula hoops, Rubik's cubes, coffee houses, hair styles, etc.). The details are simply fascinating in and of themselves, but they also come full circle in their respective sections in symbolizing that part of the proceedings. Again, great stuff.

One other aspect of Bellwether is worth mentioning. It doesn't quite rise to the level of fads as metaphor, but it comes close -- the examples of scientific breakthroughs that came as the result of accident or luck or serendipity or some unexpected sequence of events. This metaphor is not quite as pervasive as fads, even though it starts off the story and plays a large role in its conclusion. Still quite interesting, but not as completely captivating.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Robin
  • 22-05-12

Laugh out loud moments

Any additional comments?

I was stopped in the grocery store and asked what I was listening to that had me grinning like a maniac. "Bellwether" takes a little while to get rolling, but the narrative voice is beautifully captured, and the ideosyncracies of the workplace, fads, and scientific discoveries enlivens a fairly straightforward storyline. Once the sheep were introduced, I found myself unable to unplug. As a sheep owner, I was similtaneously laughing and nodding over Sandy's and Ben's exploits with the ovine crowd. Brilliant fun and thought-provoking as well. Why do we embrace fads? How do they get started? Why is it that so many important scientific discoveries seem to happen by accident? What is the origin of the hoola hoop?

16 people found this helpful

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  • Nana
  • 04-04-14

Initially funny but then got stuck

Its like the knock knock joke about the banana, until they finally say orange. The story is great at first and the characters seem like they will be interesting but it becomes a broken record, the characters are very one dimensional and what was funny in the beginning is becoming tedious as I continue to listen. Two thirds of the way in I realized there seem to be no story, or climax are anything interesting beyond the beginning fascination with learning about new characters. I had high hopes after having numerous disappointments. But alas it was another let down.

23 people found this helpful

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  • Paula
  • 20-07-12

Utterly delightful!

I'm a huge Connie Willis fan so, of course, I'm biased about all her books. And Bellwether, a slightly older title, did not disappoint. It was well-researched, entertaining, and kept me wanting more -- all with that special Connie Willis lightness of touch.

The characters are delightful, I learned more about fads than I would have believed possible - and the ending was totally satisfying.

I heartily recommend Bellwether!

16 people found this helpful

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  • Barbara
  • 15-05-15

Light and Entertaining

Where does Bellwether rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Among Willis' books: not as good as "To Say Nothing of the Dog" but not as bad as "The Doomsday Book". Light entertainment; fun characters.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Jefferson
  • 05-05-15

A Research Scientist Comedy of Manners

Sociologist Sandra Foster is studying fads at a Boulder, Colorado company called Hi-Tek. She's focusing on the early 1920s hair-bobbing boom in her attempt to discover what triggers such trends. While Hi-Tek wants her to find the answer so they can make and exploit their own fad, Sandra wants to find it simply because she wants to understand why people "all suddenly decide to play the same game or wear the same clothes or believe the same thing.” Her quest is difficult because people succumb to herd mentality unconsciously and because behind any fad is an endless set of variables, each complexly interacting with others. In this, she frequently notes, fads resemble scientific breakthroughs. As a result, Willis' short novel Bellwether (1996) is packed with myriad examples of both fads (the hula-hoop, Barbie, virtual pets, coffeehouses, crossword puzzles, Ouija boards, etc.) and scientific epiphanies (penicillin, the periodic table, the benzene ring, the big bang, continental drift, x-rays, relativity, etc.).

Complicating Sandra's research is Hi-Tek management's constant interference with its scientists, forcing on them lengthy and opaque funding forms, absurd interpersonal relationship building activities, new acronyms and dress codes, and so on. Still more chaotic is the unconscious sabotage of the Hi-Tek mail clerk from hell, "Flip." Ignorant, self-centered, rude, lazy, and obnoxious, Flip is an anti-guardian angel who, like a warped avatar of Robert Browning's Pippa, spreads gloom, destruction, and chaos wherever she goes. Flip is a creature of fads, dying her hair blue, branding her forehead with the lower case letter "i," wearing an outfit that looks like but is not a waitress uniform, and so on. Thanks to Flip delivering the wrong package, Sandra meets Bennett O'Reilly, who, despite being a chaos theorist studying the transmission of information among monkeys because chaos theory is no longer trendy, is immune to fads. And chaos theory soon becomes part of Sandra's research: “Fads are a facet of the chaotic system of society.”

Willis' novel is fun, full of talk of fads, scientific breakthroughs, chaos patterns, human foibles, and contemporary American culture. She has an amused and accurate ear and eye for how adults and kids talk and live and for how scientists work and think. Sandra's frustration with Flip is comical: "This is just what I needed, to discuss the sex life of a person with a pierced nose and duct tape underwear."

Three flaws mar the novel for me. First, it pushes an anti-anti-smoking agenda, as Sandra says that people who try to ban smoking from public places are bigots following an "aversion trend" which is going to die out sooner than McCarthyism did. To equate smoking with eating chocolate cheesecake and reading books, to make light of the dangers of secondhand smoke, and to imply that anti-smokers are cruel, morally righteous fad-followers all feels off. Second, Willis makes it too easy for us to guess too soon the true roles of Flip (and the assistant she hires) and the true feelings of Bennett, so that it is not believable that Sandra (who is quite intelligent) would not have caught on by the time we do. Third, as a result I began feeling impatient waiting for the climax of what is a short novel, and, indeed, I bet the novel could have been a novella but Willis probably wanted to elongate it to work in all her cool fad and scientific breakthrough nuggets.

The reader, Kate Reading, does a fine job with all the voices; she's especially good at talking like rude, bored, impatient, and ignorant waitpersons and store workers. And her efficient, weathered Shirl is savory.

Of what genre is Bellwether? Although Willis has won numerous Hugos and Nebulas, this book is more fiction about science than science fiction. Perhaps it is a romantic comedy of research scientist manners. If you like Willis' humor in To Say Nothing of the Dog and or if you are curious about fads and scientific breakthroughs treated in a light comic light, you would like this book, but I prefer her more substantial and moving Domesday Book.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Thomas J. Hart
  • 25-04-09

Willis Does it Again

Bellwether is a highly amusing riff on the same theme as William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition." Very witty. Willis is one of the very few science fiction writers with any sense of humor, yet alone a highly developed one.

17 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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  • Ruthann
  • 07-07-09

Takes a bit, but turns out being great!

This was a delightfully quirky novel, that starts slow but makes up for it in the second half. The humor and unique characters made this book. Flip (the office clerk) and other crazy characters in the office made this book more tangible too. The description of past fads spread throughout the book were interesting and added to the story. The geeky love story wraps this book up for a little bit of everything from science to fiction to fashion. It is very enjoyable.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Gentle Reader Jill
  • 10-04-09

Clarity and Chaos

In this funny, ain't-it-the-truth story, Connie Willis immerses the reader in the frustrations and chaos encountered by a likeable pair of researchers. Kate Reading's fine performance keeps events clear to the reader even when the characters are bewildered.

20 people found this helpful