I read Bellwether (by Connie Willis) again and finished it the other day. Each time I read it — this is the 6th or 7th time — I learn something new.

I frequently lament that I don’t understand why we have become so stupid, but I think, to a large degree, this book explains exactly why.

It’s because most people — not everyone, but more than half of us — follow “bellwethers.” These are people who have an inexplicable ability to will others to do their bidding. Sometimes, they don’t even have to ask. Something in us recognizes them and we are drawn to them. We follow because they are our “direction.” Without them, like a flock of sheep, we circle randomly.

Bellwether grabbed me from page one. From sentence one. Not merely was delighted by the story itself, but I learned a lot about chaos theory, fads, sheep, and the meaning of “bellwether,” a term I’d heard and used — and misused — for years but never understood.

It was the bellwether and sheep connection I never got. What do I know about sheep? It turns out, sheep and humans have an unnerving amount in common.

A bellwether is a leader of sheep, an über ewe, the sheep who the flock follows. There’s no reason why a bellwether leads and or any obvious reason why the flock follows. There is just something about that ewe that the other sheep sense.

In our current world, that seems to be exactly why we follow political leaders who — if we were to apply rationality to the equation — are leading us to disaster. Yet many will follow them to the death — recently, that’s a literal death rather than a figurative one.

What the bellwether does, other sheep do. Automatically. Without thought — assuming sheep think or for that matter, whether people think. The flock will follow her. Without a bellwether, the flock will circle without even knowing where to find the grass. Add a bellwether and she will lead. The rest of the flock will follow her, over a cliff if that’s where she goes. The flock doesn’t know they are following the bellwether. They just do it.

We no more recognize our bellwethers than do sheep. Wherever they lead, we follow. Mindless. Stupidly. An atavistic instinct, embedded in our DNA? Some are born to lead, others to follow? A few of us will never follow. Some of us were born to walk a singular path.

The book is laugh-out-loud funny. Erudite, witty, and replete with trivia guaranteed to upgrade your anecdotal skills.

Bellwether suggests answers to previously unanswered questions. Why do people vote against their own self-interest? Why do we do so many moronic things? We’re following a bellwether. They are loose amongst us, invisible shakers and movers. Sometimes unaware of their effect on the people around them, but often they know exactly what they are doing and revel in their power.

You should read this book. Even after you know all the facts of what happened, most history doesn’t make sense. If you add in a few bellwethers, it suddenly comes clear.

Human life, history and relationships are illogical. They happen. We can explain them in retrospect, but really we don’t actually know what happened or why. That’s what historians are for, to make sense of the past because it doesn’t make sense on its own. Human society is chaotic. The only predictable thing is its unpredictability.

I think, confusion notwithstanding, we have run out of time. We can’t be sheep anymore. We need to THINK. We need to REASON. We need to understand and make decisions based on facts and evidence, not on some pol’s popularity or speechmaking ability. We have to recognize bellwethers and find the strength to resist them. If we don’t, the end of our road is not far ahead. I will not live to see it, but our grandchildren might — or their children.

I found Bellwether original, insightful, amusing and thought-provoking. Highly entertaining and funny. I can’t imagine what more anyone could want from a book. I recommend it both in print (Kindle or paper) and audio. It is a book you will read and remember.

After you read it, read it again.

Categories: Book Review, Books, Humor, Sci Fi - Fantasy - Time Travel

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16 replies

  1. Very interesting and informative.
    I have never come across this term bellwether before . I am so glad I read this because it makes so much sense.
    Thank you


  2. We need better bellwethers. You make a good one.


    • Except that no one follows me. I don’t have that “thing” that makes one a natural leader. I’m not sure I want it anyway, but it doesn’t not seem to be something one “cultivates.” More like something with which one is born.


  3. thanks for this, I now look forward to reading it!


    • It’s about 250 pages and aside from being really interesting and informative, it’s also very funny. I think you’ll enjoy it. I think this was the first of her non-time travel books I read. At this point, I’ve read all of her work. A couple I didn’t like as much, but most of her work is really great. She also wrote a series of time travel books which are in such a different style, it’s hard to believe the same author wrote both!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. One of the things my mother hated more than anything was copycat behaviour. “Don’t be one of sheep.” she’s always say. I’m sure she’d never heard of bellwethers but she knew what people are like.


    • I think one of the things that struck me the most was that many bellwethers don’t know they ARE bellwethers. They do what they do and everyone follows them — which they may not even notice. I don’t come from a sheepish family. However misguided we may have been, we were always individually and uniquely misguided.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Adding this one t my #mustread list!


    • On my kindle and moving it up!


      • It’s not a long book, but it’s really good. it’s always classed as science fiction, but it really isn’t. Not set in the future, no spaceships, no time travel. It’s a bout a researcher trying to figure out what and why there are ‘fads.’ The weird thing is that since I first read it, it has become increasingly more relevant. Sometimes, a bit frighteningly relevant. It’s also really well-written and often hilarious.


  6. This makes perfect sense to me, Marilyn. I don’t follow other people and I prefer they don’t follow me in this sense of the word. My family say I’m a multicoloured sheep.


    • And that indeed is what the book is about. Those who follow — who often don’t even know they ARE following — and those who lead, many of whom don’t know they are leading. It’s a very smart book and it explains a lot. I suspect that most of we bloggers are not followers. I think that is probably WHY we are bloggers. We don’t want to be lumped in with everyone else. We have individual opinions — and moreover, we like hearing other people’s opinions as long as they keep their opinions civil. It is not a long book and although it is considered sci fi because the author wrote mostly science fiction, this particular book is not really science fiction. Aside from the characters, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like fiction!

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    • It’s available as an audiobook and as a Kindle. I have it in both formats. I think you will like it. You might like more of Connie Willis’s books too. She was a brilliant writer. I think she is retired at this point, though I always hope she has one more novella stored away somewhere.


  8. I don’t believe that they make stupid. I believe we are stupid, sometimes we need a scapegoat, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That instinct to follow is not something you create. it seems to be something with which some of us are born. I’ve never followed anyone and neither has Garry. Both of us intensely dislike being pushed to follow anyone or anything — but we are the OTHER people. It also doesn’t seem to have anything (inherently) to do with intelligence. I assume it doesn’t mean you HAVE to follow, but I think it is such a subconscious urge most people just do it and don’t know that’s happening. It’s why I recommend the book. It’s packed with ideas that make more and MORE sense with each passing year. Anyway, I LOVE books with ideas!

      Books can’t make you do anything, but they sure can make you think in new directions!

      Liked by 2 people

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