Crosstalk by Connie Willis
(Publisher Advance Copy)
Briddie Flannigan works for a mobile phone company working on a big new release to rival Apple’s latest offering. Simultaneously, her boyfriend Trent pops a very millennial question, asking her to join him in undertaking a neurological procedure that will bring them closer by allowing them to directly feel one another’s emotions. When things go slightly awry with the procedure, Briddie must reevaluate many aspects of both her life and modern life in general, guided by an unlikely support team: scruffy and quirky anti hero C.B. Schwartz, a colleague of hers at the mobile phone company; and her precocious 9-year old niece Maeve.
One thing that has always simultaneously delighted and perplexed me about Connie Willis is her ability to have her finger on the social pulse, while often discounting or neglecting crucial technological developments. The absence of a portable phone system in Willis’s 2050 Oxford in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog is infuriating at times, but I also recognise that the grim chaos and confusion of Doomsday Book, and the extreme farce of To Say Nothing of the Dog couldn’t have happened without the plot device that the lack of mobile telephony enables. Willis makes up for this technological oversight in Crosstalk by embracing the mobile phone trope, and ramping up connectivity to an unbearable level. I don’t want to provide too many spoilers, but it is very fair to say that this is definitely a novel about connection fatigue.
And in the modern world, what better connection is there than love? I have always adored Willis’s romantic subplots, as she has intelligent, self-possessed heroines and a gorgeous line of attractive anti-heroes. Her romantic heroes are never alpha males, are often slightly bumbling and scruffy or socially inept, but reveal themselves to be sensitive, intelligent and have the kind of hidden depths and social intelligence you only encounter upon getting to know someone a little better. Crosstalk explores not only connection fatigue, but also romance fatigue in general. In many ways, this is a romance novel for readers who are sick of or suspicious of romance.
The procedure undertaken by Briddie and Trent, designed to enhance their emotional connection to each other, is supposed to eliminate the ability to lie in a relationship – no more white lies, no more affairs or emotional infidelity, anything you say must be matched by your feelings. Sounds like a dream come true, but just like mobile phone fatigue and spending too much time with our screens has taught us that that too much of a good thing can be bad for us, being overly connected to our partner could also be a recipe for disaster. The independence we aim for as modern women is a theme that is definitely explored in the periphery of this novel, but even as Willis is making a case for a romantic world in which mystery and uncertainty are still very much at play, her latest anti hero swoops in in full rescue mode to help Briddie as she reaches crisis point.
C.B. is such a nice romantic hero, though, that I don’t really mind the big rescue trope. In the era of mansplaining, I did cringe a little at the behaviour of both male leads in the first few chapters, but someone does need to play the role of educator, not only teaching Briddie more about the problems she encounters, but also teaching us the reader more about the speculative world being created (the particulars of the way Briddie’s procedure goes awry provide the speculative content that allows this book to remain a little bit science fiction). There is a nice mix of science, superstition and folk history at play here, and C.B. provides a comforting litany of textual references that help tell the story. One thing I adore about Connie Willis is her deep allegiance to celebrating pop culture across the ages. From the Victoriana that she so archly documents in To Say Nothing of the Dog, to the detailed recording of dating, food, fashion and exercise trends in Bellwether, there is little in the way of popular culture that passes Connie Willis by. In all her books, she uses a veritable catalogue of historical, social and pop culture references to build a case for her speculative premise. It is in the reading and the piecing together of all these references that lovers of Willis’s books really find that unique quality that gives her novels their strength. The only other science fiction author who I think achieves this intertextual building of plot quite so well is Neal Stephenson.
It is this deeply layered intellectual conversation within Willis’s work that allows me to forgive the slow pace that her novels often start with. Crosstalk is no different in this respect, and it did take me a good 200 pages to get really stuck in and hooked. If there is one criticism I would make of Willis, it’s that she spends far too much time on set up. Once the real romance gets going, and the pop culture clues start to drop into place, however, it’s always a fast and satisfying read and I do think that she is one of our most unique and interesting writers. She is also a writer who ultimately transcends genre definitions and is as appealing to readers of romance or contemporary or humorous fiction as she is to readers of science fiction. I think she should be much more widely read than she is and I will continue to devour everything she writes.