Monday, April 20, 2015

Where do fads come from?

When we think of science fiction, we usually have images of space travel, aliens, robots and the like. But fads? Can you imagine a sci-fi novel about the origins of fads? Well, Connie Willis could, and her light-hearted 1996 novel Bellwether is a true joy, something to delight even those who don't normally like science fiction.

HiTek wants to live up to its name, acting as sort of a corporate think tank for researchers in the hope that some of their projects will pay off for the company. Two obstacles keep getting in the way, however. One is management, which like management everywhere regards paperwork and meetings as the highest priorities, then wonders why employees aren't getting more work done. The other is Flip, whose job it is to deliver interdepartmental mail but seems to be involved in everything but that, including tying to get smoking banned on the premises. She takes packages to deliver elsewhere and loses them, destroys research materials she views as clutter and lobbies for an assistant because she's working too hard.

Against these obstacles, Sandra Foster tries to discover how the fad of bobbed hair started sweeping the nation after World War I and, for that matter, how any fads get started. Meanwhile, Bennett O'Reilly is doing research on chaos theory. Eventually, foiled by both Flip and management, they try pooling their efforts by studying sheep, who behave in chaotic ways, which also seem a lot like fads. This brings us to the book's title. A bellwether is a sheep, no smarter than any other sheep, that nevertheless almost imperceptively leads the herd.

After 20 years, the novel does seem a trifle dated. Sandra regards both smoking bans and tattoos as temporary fads,when passing years have shown they have staying power. Yet fads remain as seemingly chaotic and unexplainable as ever. Reading this book should have become a fad, but it didn't. How do you explain that?

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