Bellwether by Connie Willis

I have read this book a few times before and I loved it. Connie Willis just has this lovely, refreshing writing style. My favourite book is actually written by her – To Say Nothing of the Dog. Though I’m not so keen on her short stories. and some of her other novels, like Doomsday Book and Lincoln’s Dreams.

This is a humorous book about fads and chaos theory. There is just this nice flow to this story with all this great interconnectedness. And it makes you feel better about your life when you see other people having to endure incompetents, even if it is fictional.
It is a proper sci-fi book. Not the type that involves hover cars or aliens but the type that actually involves science. That’s one thing I love about Connie Willis – she does the research and understands what it is that she’s writing about. In that way, she can convince you that the fiction is true. None of this gobbled half-researched crap that you commonly get on TV shows like Heros, Dr Who and even my beloved Stargate. Some of the ‘science’ in these shows are seriously cringeworthy.

The fad aspect of the book is pretty interesting. It makes you look at the real world and the fads you follow. Like the global warming fad. Not that I think it’s a bad fad (neither is the anti-smoking fad, but Bellwether certainly makes you think about it). Saving energy is certainly good for the bills. Then there are the stupid fads like 99.9% anti-bacterial crap. Even my washing machine claims to be anti-bacterial. People need to realise that exposure to bacteria is generally a good thing. Besides, do we really want to create more superbugs?
One fad I’d like to see is people cooking meals instead of resorting to take-away or packet crap (including many premade sauces). I don’t care if it says “healthy choice” or whatever (that’s another fad…). Maybe I’m just too distrustful. But there is the financial advantage to consider. I find it so much cheaper to get fresh ingredients and make up something yummy than having packet crap. It really helps if you have a fresh food market place nearby. I save so much money going to Vic market. But cooking has a high ability threshold so it’s unlikely to become a trend. That makes me feel sorry for future generations of kids.

But anyway, if you don’t want to read the book for the science then read it for the story itself. The way the book flows, from chaos to order, is delightful and, in my opinion, well worth the read.

Science is big on following trends. One person makes an interesting discovery and suddenly there’s people all over the world jumping on the bandwagon, trying to one-up the previous research. For population genetics, you are probably more likely to get a grant if you include something about studying the effects of climate change in the application form, regardless of the truth (and if you don’t include then bye bye grant). Methods of analysis seem to be very trendy. No one does NJ trees anymore, they’re soooo useless. You simply must include Bayesian analysis, which is far superior to ML (trying to place emphasis on words like Flick does…failing…).
In terms of genetic research, I don’t think what I do is very trendy. As my friend said last year –”it’s not real genetics”. Real genetics is causing mutations and transforming them into organisms and I certainly don’t do that.
In terms of population genetics itself, I think what I’m doing is pretty trendy. Since I’m looking at Swordfish, my research has great potential in applications to the fishing industry. So there is human benefit in identifying genetic structure and deciding conservation status. Whereas for bats…who really cares about bats? Damn trends…

I think I can see why Connie Willis wanted to write a book on trends/fads.


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