Connie Willis’s Crosstalk falls into the category of her comic novels, like To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether and Inside Job. These are basically screwball romantic comedies, with a lot of slapstick and rushing around and last-minute rescues and unlikely twists and a happy ending. Picture Bringing Up Baby, but with time travel or investigating pseudoscience or, in this case, a setting in the near future when communication and social media are at their breathlessly annoying height.
Briddey Flannigan works for a big communications company, a rival to Apple and Samsung. Everyone there is connected to everyone else all the time, by phone and text and Snapchat and Instagram and email, and indeed just by walking in on each other; there’s nowhere you can go to get a moment’s quiet. Briddey’s hectic life is further complicated by her enormous meddling Irish family, who is also constantly connected and who can’t go ten seconds without asking her a question or demanding her opinion or just marching into her office and refusing to leave. Briddey has decided to escape her boundary-free family by getting engaged to her boyfriend Trent, who wants her to get an EED, a medical device that will link them neurally so they can become emotionally closer. Briddey’s family implores her not to do it, but she’s determined to go ahead, if only she can keep it a secret from her coworkers long enough to get to the hospital and be linked to Trent.
Let’s just say that there are complications.
This is a book about what communication and privacy really mean. In a world where ways to communicate are ever proliferating, how can we close the door and (a phrase I know Willis likes) let our souls select their own society? Who can we trust? How do we know we can trust them? Willis makes some fairly subtle points here about knowing people by their actions rather than their words, though it’s mostly words we get in all these channels of communication we’ve chosen. This is one of the basic questions of the Internet, and it’s even more so when you’re letting someone into your life, or your mind.
The limited 3rd person narration of this novel means we really only get Briddey’s point of view. It can sometimes seem repetitive: we hear the same ideas, the same images, and the same voice mails from family members. I do think this book could have been shorter (a complaint I’ve been making recently about Willis’s work, though in general I’m a huge fan.) On the other hand, we see her perspective gradually shift, and her understanding of what’s happening to her mind develop. Willis does that sort of thing so well, and I really enjoyed it. Not to mention the romance part of the screwball romance!
I’ve never been particularly drawn to the idea of telepathy, as I like peace and quiet, but by the end of this novel I was totally convinced that it would be a nightmare. I’m more interested in the idea of a butler. Madam is not at home, would you like to leave a card?