“Bellwether” by Connie Willis – great fun

BEllwether

I’ve just re-read Connie Willis’ 1997 novella “Bellwether” and enjoyed it tremendously.

I first read it about twenty years ago, when Chaos Theory was still relatively new to non-mathematicians like me, and what I remember most is how exciting I found the ideas around the relationship between chaos and fads or trends.

This time around I found that, while the ideas still stand up, what impressed me most was the gentle, wise wit that powers this book on how science works. It was a delightful, easy, clever read that made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

I’m very glad that I did my reread as an audiobook. Kate Reading’s performance is remarkable and captures every ounce of humour and wisdom in the book.

The book itself is a kind of science fairytale, complete with a Cinderella scientist, a not so handsome and distinctly fashion-challenged Prince and a fairy godmother. Our heroine’s research into the causes of fads and her knowledge of the history of scientific breakthroughs delivers a fascinating mix of humour and education.

You can forsee (most) of the outcome as you barrel towards it but that’s part of the fun. Along the way you’ll get to enjoy satire, slapstick humour, thought experiments and a love story, as well as encounters with recalcitrant sheep, a secret benefactor and an annoying but remarkably believable agent of change called Flip who unthinkingly creates chaos and possibility wherever she goes.

Despite being twenty-one years old, this book feels fresh and current. Having just spent three years working with engineers, scientists and mathematicians on digital technologies and artificial intelligence, I found myself smiling in rueful recognition at Connie Willis’ description of Management using acronyms and marketing hype to  try and wrangle creative people into producing “science on demand” (in my case it was called digital disruption or the fourth industrial revolution but it seems nothing much has changed).

If you’re in the mood for a light, witty, well-paced, literate fairytale with real scientists (and a lot of sheep) at its heart, this is the book for you.

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