Over the weekend I finished up Connie Willis’ 1996 novel Bellwether.
It was the between-semesters pleasure-read I made space for. I overheard
M. chatting about it one
day this spring; decided it’d be worth a quick read if it made both of their
lists. And so reading lists spread.
Basically, Bellwether is the story of a diffusion researcher, Sandra
Foster, and her work on fads. Foster is concerned with hair-bobbing and,
as well, with other inexplicable flare-ups of activity. She maps the
flashes of pop anomaly in space and time, works to discern the forces figuring
into the genesis and spread of fads, runs statistics to trace patterns and
trends. Each sub-chapter leads off with a blurb on a specific
fad–coonskin caps, mah-jongg, diorama wigs–and the narrative is laced with
allusions to Robert Browning’s
Pippa Passes. I was familiar enough with the Pied Piper of Hamelin; in
fact, reading Bellwether reminded me of an encounter with P.P. when I was young:
Mom had a hair appointment in Rosebush and it was the only kids book (only one I
remember, anyway) in the waiting area. Read and read and read that story.
The references to Pippa Passes were unfamiliar and something of a pleasant
surprise. Pippa, as framed second-hand in the novel, is an elusive,
fantastic figure–one who influences others from the obscure periphery, whose
passing song carries from a distance and leaves its mark without Pippa
full-knowing. In this sense, Pippa mirrors the annoying office assistant,
Flip, who unwittingly proliferates fads while fumbling through her duties as an
office assistant at HiTek, the lab where Foster works. And a third
mirroring: the bellwether itself, as an exceptional looks-like-a-sheep,
smells-like-a-sheep leader who impacts the herd without much cognizance of her
I don’t think I’ve ruined it yet–for those who haven’t read this one.
S. mentioned recently that she finished Doomsday Book by Willis;
Bellwether is the first I’ve picked up, but I look forward to reading more
of her stuff, perhaps during a future between-semesters break (now that my
summer course on genre theory has officially started–today).
Here’s just one more keeper on research-mapping models from
B’wether. There’s a place mid-way through where Foster is at a
friend’s house for a birthday party. The friend’s kid, Peyton, is in her room as
a punishment, and Foster goes in to use the telephone–a conversation with her
rancher friend who ends up providing the sheep herd for research. Rather
than skulking through the punishment, young Peyton appears to be doodling, but
instead she’s line-charting–with a series of squiggles–her Barbie’s
predilection for this or that (shopping, riding mopeds, dating) because
"everybody’s doing it."
It was a map, in spite of what Peyton had said. A combination map and
diagram and picture, with an amazing amount of information packed onto one page:
location, time elapsed, outfits worn. An amazing amount of data.
And it intersected in interesting ways, the lines crossing and recrossing to
form elaborate intersections, radical red changing to lavender and orange in
overlay. Barbie only rode her moped in the lower half of the picture, and
there was a knot of stars in one corner. A statistical anomaly?
I wondered if a diagram-map-story like this would work for my twenties data.
I’d tried maps and statistical charts and computational models, but never all
three together, color-coded for date and vector and incidence. If I put it
all together, what kinds of patterns would emerge? (122)