In our hyper-connected world, where our deepest, darkest feelings are a tweet away, what’s the next step in deepening our connection to people we love? In Crosstalk, Connie Willis imagines something called an EED (“Empathy Enhancing Device”?), a surgical procedure that enhances your empathic link to your partner. When Briddey Flannigan’s partner Trent suggests they undergo the procedure so that she may feel the depth of his love when he proposes, she sees it mostly as a minor hurdle that she’ll need to hide from her nosy and intrusive family. Unfortunately, the side effect is much worse than even her family imagines. Rather than connecting emotionally to Trent, Briddey seems to have developed a telepathic link to C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy and reclusive co-worker who stays mostly in his basement office and away from other people. Not only can they sense each other’s emotions, they can also hear each other’s thoughts, and Briddey worries about what this may do to her and Trent’s relationship.
Willis does a great job of setting up a world that’s basically like a jacked up version of ours. I’m on social media often and have a bad habit of checking and answering emails on my mobile during my lunch break, but even I was overwhelmed by the hyper-connectivity of Briddey’s world. She seems to get thousands of text messages, calls, emails and social media alerts every minute, and her family members panic if she doesn’t respond to their (non-emergency) crises immediately. Briddey, Trent and C.B. all work for a technology company racing against the clock to develop something that will rival the next generation iPhone. Tech giants trying to find a way to increase communication, while all too easy to imagine in the real world, seemed a nightmare scenario in Crosstalk. The first few chapters of this book felt almost claustrophobic with the incessant barrage of electronic chatter, and I almost wanted to run to C.B.’s basement office myself, since it apparently is impossible to get a signal there.
Given this kind of world, the EED does seem like a logical next step for romantic partners, and I laughed at Willis’ recounting of how various celebrity couples responded to the procedure. It’s not necessarily something I’d do myself, but it seems almost tame compared to the telepathy that Briddey ends up having. Telepathy can seem like an awesome superpower, but only if you can choose when to tune in. Willis does a great job in showing how nightmarish it can be to hear someone’s unfiltered thoughts, and I loved the part where Briddey trains herself to control her telepathy by imagining a radio where she can switch between stations.
The story flags in its pacing, particularly in the first half of the book. Despite conversations flying at the speed of thought, the book felt repetitive at times, and I was really frustrated by Briddey’s unwillingness to act. For example, she hesitates from telling her doctor or Trent about what went wrong, instead pretending that the surgery had no effect on her. C.B. is even more annoying; every time Briddey considered telling the truth, he’d intrude on her thoughts and scare her out of it. There was a point where if C.B. had turned out to be an evil mastermind stalker who sabotaged Briddey’s surgery, I wouldn’t have been surprised; he was that intrusive and controlling. Worse, at least from a storytelling standpoint, he was also a one-note messenger, which just really boring after a while, and I wanted Briddey to just blurt out the secret despite him. Trent was no better. He was so distressed about the EED not working, and refusing to propose marriage until it did, that I began to wonder if he even loved her, and I also wondered why Briddey hasn’t just dumped him already. All of this annoying behaviour does make more sense as the story goes on, but you have to get to the 30% or so mark before something finally happens to move things along.
The final 70% of the book is a lot more fast-paced and entertaining. It veers away somewhat from the satirical edge of the first third of the book, and its science seems a bit more tenuous, but it makes up for this in sheer entertainment value. Relationships slowly but surely show some development, and some minor characters turn out to have much larger significance. Despite some slow and annoying parts, Crosstalk is a fun read overall, and a rather dire look at where too much connectivity can get us.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.