Crosstalk: The perils of over-communication

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Crosstalk by Connie Willis science fiction book reviewsCrosstalk by Connie Willis

In Crosstalk, Connie Willis’ new near-future science fiction novel, Briddey works for Commspan, a smartphone company that is anxious to compete with Apple. For the last six weeks Briddey has been in a whirlwind romance with Trent, a hot young executive at Commspan, who swept Briddey off her feet with his suave charm and his Porsche. Now Trent has invited Briddey, as a prelude to getting engaged, to get a popular “minor” neurological brain surgery, called an EED, along with him, to enhance their ability to sense each other’s emotions. Emotional telepathy, if you will. Briddey’s co-workers are thrilled for her, but her Irish relatives and her co-worker C.B. Schwartz are urgently telling her not to get the EED: her relatives because they dislike Trent, and C.B. because it’s brain surgery and unintended consequences are always a danger. Briddey, however, in the throes of her infatuation with Trent, refuses to listen. When their surgeon unexpectedly has an opening in his schedule and shifts their surgeries forward several months, Briddey and Trent sneak off to the hospital without telling anyone.

Briddey gets WAY more than she bargained for. When she wakes up from surgery, she hears an actual voice in her head. True telepathy, not just sensing emotions. And it’s not Trent whose thoughts she is hearing. Briddey is horrified, but her communication problems are only just beginning.

In a post on her blog, Connie Willis explains:

The novel was partly inspired by our wildly over-connected world, in which we’re constantly bombarded with communication, most of it unwelcome, and partly by the misconceptions people have about what being telepathic would be like. They always assume it would either be profitable (finding out people’s computer codes or social security numbers or blackmailable personal secrets) or fun. 

But Willis sees the many downsides of telepathy: hearing things we really would be happier not knowing, being subjected to others’ boring or unpleasant or repugnant thoughts with no guarantee that we would be able to effectively tune them out. Crosstalk explores the perils of over-communication, along with miscommunication, gossip, deception and the many other ways communication can go wrong… and sometimes, thankfully, go right. It’s a timely topic for the Information Age, where electronic communication, along with its risks and limitations, too often replaces face-to-face communication.

Crosstalk starts off a little slow and then shifts into that farcical comedy-of-errors mode that Connie Willis so often employs in her novels. I tend to think that Willis overuses it, especially when it continues for multiple chapters, but that may be because it tends to make me rather antsy and frustrated as a reader when the main characters are ineffectually and confusedly running around, with miscommunication at every turn. The plot tends to stall in these chapters, as well as the characters’ development. But Crosstalk turned a corner for me along the way. There were some unexpected and imaginative developments in the plot, and as various plot threads began to tie together, it developed into a truly enjoyable reading experience.

There are a few elements of the plot that require some suspension of disbelief: The characters who have the dubious gift of telepathy need to build durable mental images of safe places ― castles, courtyards, and other enclosed places where they can cut themselves off from the unwanted flood of others’ thoughts. These safe places become so real to the characters as they visualize them that they see themselves as actually in these places, rather than in their real-world settings. But it was such a delightful element of the plot that I didn’t really have any difficulty just rolling with it.

Similarly, Briddey’s nine year old niece Maeve, a computer genius with a zombie obsession, is unbelievably precocious for her age. She can program mobile software better than, apparently, anyone at Commspan. But she’s such an enjoyable character that it’s forgivable. Maeve is responsible for much of the humor in Crosstalk:

Mom’s having a fit. She says nobody can fall in love that fast, but I think they can. … I mean, Rapunzel and Flynn Rider fell in love in two days, and in The Zombie Princess Diaries, Xander fell in love with Allison in like five minutes, but that’s because there’s not much time when there are zombies chasing you.

In the end, Crosstalk is not simply a novel about communication with romantic comedy elements. It’s also about families, trust, and risking yourself to help other people. Not to mention show tunes and zombie movies.

Publication date: October 4, 2016. Science fiction icon Connie Willis brilliantly mixes a speculative plot, the wit of Nora Ephron, and the comedic flair of P. G. Wodehouse in Crosstalk—a genre-bending novel that pushes social media, smartphone technology, and twenty-four-hour availability to hilarious and chilling extremes as one young woman abruptly finds herself with way more connectivity than she ever desired. In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal—to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely—in a way far beyond what she signed up for. It is almost more than she can handle—especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love—and communication—are far more complicated than she ever imagined.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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