Connie Willis’s love of old movies has been evident throughout her career (see the novella Remake, for example), and her skill at deploying the resources of screwball comedy – the ping-pong dialogue, eccentric secondary characters, missed connections, and endless exasperation – has been a recurring feature of her short fiction, often even showing up in her serious novels. With Crosstalk, her love of the old Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks comedies moves fully to center stage, but there’s a good deal more going on here than mere homage. For one thing, the humor harks back as far as Thurber (whose family in My Life and Hard Times, eccentric to the point of lunacy, is echoed in the main character Briddey Flannigan’s Irish-obsessed family), and is as current as Silicon Valley corporate satire (the company she works for, Commspan, is desperate to come up with a new smartphone gimmick before Apple releases its next iPhone). So while the characters and their relationships follow a familiar rom-com pattern, there’s also a fair amount of acerbic commentary on a society already overwired and overconnected, but which seems to want to get even more overwired and overconnected. The two SF elements crucial to this commentary, and in fact the only real SF elements in the book, are a new minor brain procedure called EED, which purportedly allows a couple already emotionally bonded to become super-empathetic with each other – and telepathy.
Telepathy is one of those ideas that SF seemed infatuated with 60 or 70 years ago, probably under the influence of J.B. Rhine’s dicey experiments at Duke (which are discussed and debunked in Crosstalk, along with an entertaining amount of other trivia about past reports of mindreading), and as a theme it produced its share of classic stories and novels. Since then, it’s largely fallen out of favor, and for good reason: as any sort of reasonable speculative science, it doesn’t work. Like time travel (another favorite Willis theme), it’s a convenient impossibility that nevertheless can generate terrific stories, and what Willis has figured out here is that few story types seem better suited to telepathic miscommunication than the screwball romantic comedy. She also reasons that telepathy might come with its own hazards, such as a constant cacophony of unwanted and often unpleasant voices that could lead to madness if not filtered out somehow – a problem also suggested in earlier stories by John Brunner, Lester del Rey, and others. But for Willis, it’s the least comic part of a novel that in most ways is one of the funniest SF novels in years.
The theme of overcommunication is evident in the novel’s opening sentence, as Briddey arrives at work to find 42 texts on her phone, not only from her epically annoying family, but from Commspan’s own internal gossip network. Almost everyone wants to know about her big date with her corporate-climbing boyfriend Trent, who – instead of proposing as expected, suggested they sign up for the EED procedure, which supposedly will improve their mutual empathy. Though Briddey hopes to keep the plan secret, she faces a storm of warnings, most vehemently from the company’s reclusive design genius C.B. Schwartz, whose disheveled basement office is so isolated it doesn’t even get cell reception. Meanwhile, Briddey (the name seems to allude to Bridey Murphy, whose famous fake reincarnation case also comes in for some discussion) has to deal with her sister Kathleen and Kathleen’s apocalyptically bad boyfriends; her Irelandobsessed Aunt Oona (who affects a B-movie brogue despite never having been to Ireland); her other sister Mary Clare, equally obsessed with her daughter Maeve’s online activity (which she sees as inevitably leading toward a nameless doom) and the precocious Maeve herself, who sees in Briddey an ally against the family nuttiness.
When the EED procedure is finally performed, by a celebrity doctor who himself is a parody of media gurus, Briddey finds herself connected not to the ambitious Trent, but instead to that antisocial genius C.B., from whom she receives clear telepathic messages. The rom-com conventions begin to fall into a familiar pattern: the smart but put-upon professional woman faced with a choice between a starchy, self-absorbed boyfriend and a rumpled but good-hearted tech wizard, just like Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set (and it does help to think of Briddey as a sort of sharp-edged Katharine Hepburn, or otherwise her put-uponness could get on your nerves). But Crosstalk comes in at nearly 500 pages, far more than any rom-com requires, and it soon becomes apparent that Willis has plot developments in mind that complicate matters considerably, and that add weight to a narrative that otherwise might seem fluffy. As in her earlier novels, her research plays a significant role (and is presented at some length, mostly by C.B., who knows a lot about the history of telepathy), and characters who at first seem merely comic relief turn out to play crucial roles in a plot that unfolds to be a good deal less trivial than it initially seems. For all its shotgun comic invention (some of my favorite bits involve Briddey telepathically overhearing unwanted earworms from anonymous sources who can’t even get the lyrics right – like ‘‘Joy to the world, the Lord has gum’’), Crosstalk is a thoroughly plotted piece of work – hardly an advance in SFnal thinking about telepathy, but a thoroughly enjoyable example of what it’s really good for these days – as a way to tell a tale.