I recently reread Connis Willis’s Bellweather, one of my all-time favorite books. I read it originally in Hebrew. Then in English. Five times.
Every time, I remember how much I love it again. But I also remember my head-canon about how it was written. I imagine Willis wondering what she should write. Sometime, a while ago, she heard there is something called “science fiction”. She has never read any, but it seems cool.
She decides she is going to write some science fiction! She’s a smart person, she can figure it out. Just some fiction about scientists, right?
Academia is too boring of a setting. Any senior researchers already have tenure. If we have scientists, we gotta have stakes. Their research must be on the line.
Luckily, the US has a lot of research institutes. Private company trying to find a public good? That’s some great stakes, not to mention built-in conflict.
Next, she had to come up with a science. Physics? Chemistry? Those are going to be hard for most to relate to. Sociology is cool though. Everyone lives in a society. The year is 1996, and Chaos Theory is super-hot, so we gotta get that in.
Two sciences? Sounds like the plot for a romance over a scientific collaboration almost writes itself. I’m cutting Willis some slack for her stereotypical gender norms, this is 1996, so the sociologist is the woman and the chaos theory is the man.
Finally, she needed a good research project. Again, the main criteria here is relatability. This, I believe, is when she struck gold. “Fads!”
Remember the stupid fads of the 90s? Tamagotchi, Pogs, not to mention just recovering from things like beanie babies, cabbage patch kids, and pet rocks. No, seriously, they literally sold rocks as pets.
She realized she can put all her frustrations with fads into a book. Every chapter opens with the protagonists’ “research notes” on a fad, talking about what it was, how it started, and how it ended.
Even if the rest was worthless, for that alone, it is worthwhile to get the book. Willis’s research into fads for the book was impressive.
She also managed to capture really well the extreme frustration that accompanies scientific research. It is not obvious what the answer is, or how to find it. One failure leads to the next failure. That’s the best case scenario! The worst case scenario is that the scientist gives up.
It is telling that the only two people who are frustrated by the science in the book are the two protagonists. Nobody else in the research institute even cares. They all are just there to fill out grant applications and watch the clock. There are only two people who are actually trying to make discoveries.
But a hero or heroine is only as good as their villain. Boy, does Willis do a great job on the villains. Like any good Marvel movie, one of the villains is the “hero but bad”. The evil scientist tries to go after a thinly-veiled MacArthur fellowship by doing “science on demand”.
A villain is only as good as their henchpeople of course. On one side, a stereotype of a millenial assistant. Yup, Willis did those before it got cool. She doesn’t care about working, or accomplishing tasks well, but is good at complaining about smokers.
The other minor bad is “Management”. It takes a few chapters before the big reveal about Management, and I do not want to spoil the book. I will just say that the Six Sense has got nothing on Bellweather when it comes to last-minute twists.
Of course, like any fairy tale, or Marvel movie except “Infinity War”, all’s well that ends well. But as for the details? You’ll have to read them yourself.