Sunday, April 16, 2006

Science fiction - "Bellwether"

This book, written by Connie Willis, is a borderline science fiction story. It is fiction and it is about scientists and some speculative science, but it is not typical of the genre. This actually made "Bellwether" fun to read, as I did not know what to expect and where the story would end up.

The main character of the story is a statistician, named Sandra Foster, who is analyzing fads. In particular she is trying to understand where and how the idea of hair bobbing started. Accidently she meets another scientist who works at the same company as she, who happends to study chaos theory and is trying to set up some experiments on how information propagates in a population of monkeys.

However, due to various management actions the chaos theorists looses his funding and winds up working together with Sandra Foster. Instead of monkeys, they borrow a flock of sheep to be the experimental subject. This is where the title of the book comes from. A bellwhether is a sheep that other sheep in a flock follow. Typically such a sheep would be marked with a bell (since sheep all look alike to humans).

There are number of things that make this book fun to read. First of all, each chapter begins with a short history of some fad. For example, hoola-hoop, Rubik's Cube and poulaines. Second is the recurrring parody of coorporate life. Every few chapters the Management revises some important forms, makes employees go through "sensitivity exercizes" or promotes someone incompetent.

I also liked this book, because the end is left somewhat open, with just hints of explanations. I like these types of endings better then ones that leave nothing to the imagination.


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