Connie Willis is 71 years old, with eleven Hugo awards, seven Nebula awards, and almost 40 years of experience writing science fiction. I have fallen in love with her books over and over again since I was a preteen. She is most famous for her meticulously researched time-travel historical epics: Doomsday Book, which takes place during the black plague, and Blackout/All Clear, set during WWII. Now In her 70s, Willis has published perhaps her most youthful novel yet, Crosstalk.
The world of Crosstalk is recognizable, set either in a not-too-distance future or a slightly different version of our world. It’s a culture with Disney’s Frozen and Beyonce, one with smart phones, and one with fierce competition between tech companies. There is only a slight difference – where the story begins. There is an increasingly popular medical procedure called an EED, which allows couples to be more in tune with each other’s emotions. It’s not mind reading, just heightened sensitivity to each other. A new way to be constantly connected.
Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent both work for a mega tech and software company, comparable to Apple. While working on the company’s new smartphone release, Trent is inspired to convince Briddey to have the EED procedure done. Although she’s already overwhelmed by work and family, Briddey agrees, hoping it will lead to their engagement. The procedure is supposed to start working within 24 but for Trent the procedure doesn’t seem to work. For Briddey it works… too well. The only person Briddey can turn to for help is another coworker, the awkward C.B. who works alone in his basement lab.
From here, Crosstalk launches into a whirlwind of action as Briddey and C.B. try to figure out what’s happened to her, and what she can do to stop it. Briddey desperately tries to keep her new telepathic skills a secret from Trent until she knows what has caused them, but soon her powers are too strong to keep hidden. The novel has a very small cast of characters and is told all from Briddey’s point of view, leaving the reader often as confused as she is. Willis is very aware of her reader and weaves foreshadowing into the story, which seasoned sci-fi fan will be able to pick up on. I had some of those moments of great pride while reading it, when I realized that I knew more than Briddey did about her own situation.
The novel has such a specific and bizarre plot, so I can’t explain too much without spoiling it. Willis mixes sci-fi themes with folklore traditions and a hefty amount of pop culture references to create a world that is both familiar and terrifying. Willis’ storytelling is so feverpitched from the first page on that it can be hard to keep up. While some reviewers referenced the near-hysteria of the writing as the novel’s crippling flaw, I saw it as a deliberate choice on Wills’ part. She is a seasoned and talented writer, and it seems to me that for this novel she not only wanted to write something more lighthearted, but something that encapsulated the frenzy of trying to keep up with all your social media at once.
Crosstalk is not a morality tale, in which telepathy equals the consequences of an overly connected society. It’s more nuanced than that. Instead it’s a clever pairing, as Briddey goes from being overwhelmed by her emails and text messages to being overwhelmed by the voices in her head. The underlying message is not that being connected with other people is bad, but rather that we should focus on being connected closely to those we care about, yet remembering to shut out the other noise if it overwhelms us.
For a writer who has lived through so much technological change, Willis is never overly critical of technology. As a sci-fi author, she has clearly embraced it and writes very knowledgeably about inboxes, memos, and feeds. What I found most delightful about Crosstalk was that the sci-fi aspects were never more technologically advanced than the real technology we use daily. I am not even sure if I would call Crosstalk a sci-fi novel, when it felt more like a modern fantasy. Willis’ explanation for Briddey’s telepathy was an archaic, beautiful bit of lore (instead of science), and it was that unexpected and elegant juxtaposition between our known scientific advancement and the unknown depths of folklore which made Crosstalk such a rewarding read.
Sarah V Diehl