Do you remember when every grade school kid wanted to wear those white Nike tennis shoes with the big red swoosh on the side? Anything else was not just uncool, it was completely wrong. I do remember and, even if you don’t, Sandra Foster does, too. Foster is a sociologist out to understand the source of such cultural movements and also the protagonist of Connie Willis’ Bellwether, which explores the ridiculousness—and the fascinating play—of trends and fads in our culture. Bob hairdos, tattoos, body piercing, sensitivity training, and marathon dancing are but a few of the many special moments Willis uses. In addition, she takes a playful yet sharp jab at the bureaucracies that surround our scientific community, especially around issues of funding. “Science doesn’t happen on demand” is one refrain. The incompetent, petty administrator and assistant is another. Whatever the target, Willis makes our passing fancies seem silly at best—annoying, or even destructive, at worst.
So there is irony when the “science” of this book comes down to sketchily explained “chaos theory,” one of the hottest scientific ideas of the late nineties (Bellwether was originally published in 1996). And, as hard as it is to see a powerful fad when you’re in its thrall, Willis is too smart and too good a writer not to realize what she was doing. (If you don’t know about Willis, who has won more awards than any other science fiction writer to date, check out this post from The Angry Black Woman.) Therefore, the joke is on us, once again. It’s not fun to be told we’re following the crowd when we think we’re a one-of-kind free-spirit, but we can all use someone to help us with perspective on our “needs” from time to time. Luckily, taking your lumps is rarely as enjoyable as Willis makes it.