The fads that we follow
In her science-fiction novel Bellwether, Connie Willis effortlessly twists us right into wondering about common fads, the flash trends which appear suddenly and after a while, die away almost as suddenly. Where do they come from, who starts them, and why do we follow them, anyway? Willis leads off her chapters with capsule descriptions of some notorious fads, from the hula hoop to hot pants, from the tulip mania to mesmerism. There really are a lot of fads which seem to come out of nowhere to sway our everyday culture. Perhaps it is the silliest which best point up the problems of why and how. For some we can pinpoint the takeoff point — but not explain the takeoff fuel, nor find who pressed the button.
Connie Willis is a master at portraying everyday American realism, her characters coping with their daily business and its hassles, applying intelligence, patience, and mostly good humor. And then she adds a touch of otherness, a glimpse of unreality that seems to call our humdrum existence into question. Or is it a glimpse within reality, but just pulling back the conventional curtains a little so we see better how reality actually works?
Bellwether is narrated in first-person by its heroine, a statistician working at a research company, dealing with her everyday work amidst the unhelpful helpfulness of management, and like her colleagues dreaming a bit about winning a prestigious and valuable, but unpredictable, Niebnitz Grant:
It's almost impossible to pinpoint the beginning of a fad. By the time it starts to look like one, its origins are far in the past, and trying to trace them back is exponentially harder than, say, looking for the source of the Nile.
In the first place, there's probably more than one source, and in the second, you're dealing with human behavior. All Speke and Burton had to deal with were crocodiles, rapids, and the tsetse fly. In the third, we know something about how rivers work, like, they flow downhill. Fads seem to spring full-blown out of nowhere and for no good reason. Witness bungee-jumping. And Lava lamps.
Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year's winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, "The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation."
Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor — messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance. Look at Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when a spore drifted in the window of his lab and contaminated one of his cultures.
From this start we have an engaging romp through the workings of a research institution, some odd and unlikely fads and fashions, and the study of sheep. As always with Connie Willis, the characters are people you might meet tomorrow, the situations recognizably normal — with just those annoying, inexplicable little challenges peeking around the curtain of everyday.
Bellwether is a fine novel, funny and thoughtful.