I first read this years ago, and it became one of my favourites. I read, and enjoy, a lot of books – but only very few get filed on the “favourites” shelf.
On re-reading, a number of years later, the story hasn’t lost anything. In fact, I probably enjoy it even more now than I did then, being older and more cynical.
Sandra works for Hi-Tek, researching trends. She wants to find the origin of hair-bobbing. She also wants her mail correctly delivered, her photocopying done, and her stapler returned.
Bennett also works for Hi-Tek, under the impression that he has moved away from studying chaos. He wants some macaques so he can study information diffusion.
Flip attends at Hi-Tek, in the sense of: “Do you work here?” “No, I just attend.” She is the cause of chaos in other people.
It’s quite difficult to describe this book, because there actually isn’t a great deal in the way of plot. In some ways, it almost operates like the nineteenth century roman a clef in which ninety percent of the fun is that you know who the characters are supposed to represent. In the case of Bellwether Willis takes the whole book to poke fun at people who mindlessly follow trends without even known that they’re doing it, and at corporate-management-jargon.
This book was first published in 1996, and so certain aspects are rather dated (e.g. one character’s cellphone, which keeps going out of range, and the computer equipment) but the story as a whole has stood the test of 20 years. Given the subject matter, that’s rather depressing – but not surprising.
Anyone who has worked for a large company will immediately recognise Management (who is never named!) who comes up with a new acronym every week and is incapable of telling the difference between people who sound good and those who can actually do their jobs.
But the main portion of the book is about trends – good ones and bad ones. Why do people flock to a particular pursuit, or thing, in droves – and then abandon it a short while after? Everyone can probably think of a few (e.g., Pokemon Go, at the moment – with people getting mugged, or crashing their cars, because they’re playing the game and not paying attention to their surroundings. Or even wandering into landmines). But to some extent, these trends are (mostly) harmless, if rather irritating for those not caught up in them. But Willis also points out that other things are also trends: intolerance of a particular group being one. It used to be Jews. Now it’s Muslims.
Ultimately, I think Bellwether is one long (amusing!) rant by Willis about the ridiculousness of people who blindly follow what’s “in” – and about the very real damage that people can do by simply following the crowd. What would society be like if people stopped just following, and actually stopped to think?