Science fiction icon Connie Willis brilliantly mixes a speculative plot, the wit of Nora Ephron, and the comedic flair of P. G. Wodehouse in Crosstalk a genre-bending novel that pushes social media, smartphone technology, and twenty-four-hour availability to hilarious and chilling extremes as one young woman abruptly finds herself with way more connectivity than she ever desired.
In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely in a way far beyond what she signed up for.
It is almost more than she can handle especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love and communication are far more complicated than she ever imagined.
The world of Crosstalk is very similar to our own, with the notable exception of an advance in technology. Connection is everything, and now there is a way for people in a relationship to take a step beyond, by means of a simple surgical procedure called an EED. Through this procedures — which is BRAIN SURGERY — two people with an emotional bond open up a neural pathway between them, so that they can each feel and experience the other’s emotions. It’s not mind-reading, as the doctors are quick to point out; rather, it’s a way to reinforce the connection already developing in a relationship.
After all, why just tell someone you love them when you can let them FEEL for themselves that the love is strong and true?
Briddey works for the telecommunications company Commspan, a company obsessed with beating Apple at its own game. Briddey’s true love, Trent, works for Commspan too. After a whirlwind six-week relationship, Trent pops the question. Not a marriage proposal, but one that causes just as much gleeful celebration — he asks Briddey to get an EED with him. The gossip flies through the company almost instantaneously, and then Briddey has to find a way to inform her overly-involved family about her decision. Meanwhile, her coworker C. B. Schwartz, who works in the basement and is routinely mocked for his antisocial ways, finds Briddey and rather stridently tries to talk her out of the EED.
When the world-famous surgeon who performs EEDs for royal families and Hollywood power couples (the book includes an already out-of-date reference to Brad and Angelina) becomes suddenly available to perform the EED right away, Briddey decides to go for it, and deal with the fallout afterward. Little does she know how hugely her world will change.
Crosstalk asks us to imagine a world in which we’re not just glued to our smartphones, but in which even greater instant communication is the top prize. Total connection, 24/7 — who wouldn’t want that? Being unplugged is considered a sign of social deviance, or at the very least, dysfunction. Not only is the workplace absolutely crawling with instantaneous sharing of every tidbit of news and gossip, but even on the home front, we see a nine-year-old practically being stalked by her overbearing, hyper-anxious mother.
Doesn’t sound familiar at all, does it?
Natually, when things go wrong after the EED, Briddey makes all sorts of startling discoveries — about herself, her family, her relationship, and her place in the world.
I’ll leave the summary at that, because the break-neck pace and chapter-by-chapter reveals are what makes this book such fun.
In terms of my reaction, it’s mixed.
Briddey is an engaging character, but I can’t help feeling that she’s incredibly naive. She is so completely taken in by Trent that she doesn’t see a single red flag, even though they’re right in her face. We never really find out what her job is at Commspan, which bothers me as well. For someone who spends that much time at work (or, if not at work, then communicating with work), it’s odd not to actually see her, you know, work at all.
I enjoyed Briddey’s large, unruly, nosy family, especially her wonderful niece Maeve, who has a secret taste for zombie movies and becomes more and more central to the plot as the book progresses.
After a somewhat slow start, the plot really picks up steam, and the last third or so of the book is fast and furious and practically impossible to put down. It’s certainly a fun and entertaining read. That said, I’m not sure that the entire plotline makes sense, and the climax and resolution are both hard to follow and hard to swallow.
I also felt that some of the technological insights were a little too obvious. Commspan’s big breakthrough seems to be a set of apps that will send excuses for not picking up the phone or other such types of social barriers — but how is that new? I mean, when my IPhone rings, I can hit a button and send a “can’t talk now” message. A lot of the implied commentary on hyper-connectedness and the need to unplug felt just a tiny bit beside the point to me. We’ve had this conversation already, haven’t we?
Crosstalk, at over 500 pages, is probably about 100 pages longer than it needed to be. Still, it moves fast after the first few chapters, and I was never bored. Briddey is quite fun to get to know, and so are the rest of the characters. Despite the craziness of some of the plot points, Crosstalk is a good choice if you’re looking for a sci-fi-tinged adventure set in our own time, with plot twists and complications that, although sometimes easy to predict, never fail to entertain.
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley