A new Connie Willis novel is a terrific gift, and Crosstalk does not disappoint. It’s a romantic comedy (similar to her early story “Blued Moon”) with a setting focused on a hot cultural topic (which reminded me of Bellwether) and a whole flock of female Irish family members.
Briddey works at a cellphone company eager to develop the next communication breakthrough. She’s dating a promising young executive there, and he’s just proposed to her that they get the new operation to improve a couple’s emotional empathy (this is the science fiction part, an inciting idea there just to get the encounters moving). The company runs on gossip, and Briddey’s also trying to hide her decision from her two sisters and their aunt, who disapprove of elective brain surgery. So does C.B., the genius inventor who mostly lives in his basement lab. Everyone avoids him, since his work area blocks cellphone signals, and he does crazy things like communicate through paper notes.
Then the operation has an unintended side effect. The reader has already been given hints about the dangers of too much communication, including Briddey frequently complaining that her relatives won’t stop texting and calling her, so it won’t be surprising to note that it involves the catastrophe of never being out of touch. Some will find it overly fantastic; I thought it a nostalgic throwback to when the science fiction writers of the 1940s were exploring mental powers, similar to the way the main story reminded me of classic movies from that era.
While that didn’t bother me, I did wish Briddey would have been a little more proactive. I never understood why she couldn’t tell her family “no” more often, and she seemed a little dense about the danger signs her boyfriend was throwing off. And once she’s past the operation, there’s a lot more of her being rescued, although that’s also part of the screwball aspect of the story, silly chase adventures.
Some may find the precocious nine-year-old niece a little too cute and convenient. Many of the eventual twists are easily guessed, but the fun is watching it all play out, with Willis’ well-drawn characters and their love of pop culture.