Can studying the behavior of sheep help scientists discover how fads start? Can people actually hook into dreams of long dead historical figures? Don’t worry; not even Connie Willis could manage to plausibly combine those two concepts into a single book. I don’t think. Bellwether and Lincoln’s Dreams are two of her earlier and therefore shorter (and simpler) books, neither of which involves time travel. Bellwether is by far the lighter of the two novels, as long as you don’t mind references to those ghastly management enhancement meetings so dear to corporate headquarters of just about any major corporation you care to name; Lincoln’s Dreams references some mildly to moderately grisly moments in the U.S. Civil War.
Bellwether, as astute readers may guess from the title, is about the chaotic theory underlying fads’ rise to popularity and fall from same. It’s also about scientific study and funding therein, and a certain amount of animal husbandry. Oh, and true love. Sandra Foster is a scientist working for the HiTek company, studying how fads start and why. Bennett O’Reilly is a new employee studying information diffusion and chaos theory. He has a spiffy computer, with which to sort data. She has access to sheep, when his funding for acquiring macaques falls through when the thoroughly faddish erstwhile department secretary, Flip, takes issue with the cruelty inherent in animal experimentation. (Apparently, it’s fine to experiment on farm animals.) The two are initially introduced when Flip delivers a package for a third and entirely different package to Sandra, telling her it’s for Bennett, who isn’t in his office, and would Sandra deliver it?
Each chapter begins with a brief reference to various fads, from mah jongg to pet rocks; these are an interesting hint at the vagaries of fads, though Foster is concentrating on fads of the ’20s. However, her encounters with co-workers, librarians, waitstaff and potential amours indicate that the trend towards (and away from) fads is just as much a factor in society when the book is set as it was in the 1920s. Po-mo pink, angels, fairies, tiramisu, antismoking sentiment1, business related acronyms, tea, coffee, personal ads, Barbie, duct tape, hair styles, the book whirls through a dizzyingly rapid succession of them…until Sandra realizes that Bennett is the only person in her milieu who isn’t affected by them. Clearly this is a match made in heaven, and fortunately, readers only have a couple of hundred pages to get through before Sandra and Bennett realize that themselves. The book ends as the pair win the Niebnitz Award for scientific research/realize they’re in love, and head off for a future together, hopefully sheepless.
The title of Lincoln’s Dreams is a bit misleading: while Lincoln and his dreams are mentioned in the book, the dreams which constitute a primary focus of the book aren’t Lincoln’s nor do they involve Lincoln in any way. They’re Annie’s, a young woman under medical treatment for sleep disturbances, and she’s dreaming about Robert E. Lee. She is convinced that she’s receiving messages from Lee, or channeling his influence while asleep, or something of that sort, but her doctor and family believe they are only uncannily vivid dreams. Jeff Johnston, research assistant for a novelist specializing in historical novels–the current one being one set in the U.S. Civil War–believes that there’s something more to Annie’s dreams than her doctor (his friend who introduced them) realizes is in them. For one thing, she’s dreaming factual events which she did not know about.
The two run off together, in a chastely friendly manner while Jeff does research for his employer and as Anne gets the hypnagogic and antipsychotic medications out of her system. As they delve deeper into both the history of the time period and into the psychology of prodromal dreaming, they uncover more about what may be causing Anne’s dreams. This one has a decidedly cliffhanger ending; it’s never mentioned conclusively what happens to Anne after the two separate, though I’ll just say that the dreams are symbolic, but have no connection to the Civil War, rather what’s happening to Anne.
Several of the themes that run through Willis’ novels appear here: convoluted bureaucracy that seems designed to/intent on thwarting the protagonists at every turn, the vagaries and potential pitfalls of scientific and medical research, quixotic bosses, friendship that may or may not deepen into something more. Neither has any science fiction aspects, strictly speaking, and thus may be something of a disappointment to fans of Willis’ Oxford time travel books. Both novels are short, seemingly undeveloped both in plotting and characterization in comparison to Willis’ later works, which may be something of a disappointment to fans of Willis’ Oxford time travel books. For those of us who dislike wading through complex plots–and any well written time travel book is going to have a degree of complexity–these two may be a more approachable introduction to her work. Especially if you’ve ever had peculiarly vivid dreams, or worked with sheep. Baaahhh.
1a later edit/clarification: I’d always guessed that Willis was targeting the people who demonized smokERS, rather than the (in my breathing-impaired opinion) the somewhat different move to ban smokING in public buildings and businesses open to the general public