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.