Book Review: “Crosstalk” by Connie Willis

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

The latest novel from perennial favorite Connie Willis examines contemporary “connectedness”, not only via digital networks but with the additional twist of full blown telepathy. If you think life is hectic with a constant flood of phone, text, and social media “communication”, imagine if you people could also just talk brain to brain!

As the story unfolds the people constantly misunderstand each other, and the more “communication” there is, the less understanding seems to occur. The reader is treated not only to private and public conversations, but we also watch people fail to grasp what is happening, or literally talk themselves into believing crazy stuff.

Willis returns to earlier explorations of psychology and parapsychology (e.g., Passage (2002)), this time taking a stab at how telepathy would really work if it were real. Obviously, telepathy doesn’t work the way she says (or at all), and her fantasies about brain surgery and a simple single trait genetic mechanism are bogus, as is the hope of the sleazy tech barons who want to replicate the effect in a phone, and ideas for “jamming” it.

All that stuff is just silly.

Sometimes I complain about this kind of illogic,  but in this case Willis makes it work because (a) she writes well and (b) she is telling a story about communication, privacy, and intimacy. The technical details aren’t important to the main point about how people communicate (poorly), and the notion that adding more channels and media doesn’t make it better. More bandwidth probably makes it worse.

The story itself is exhaustingly fast-paced and complicated. I lost track of the number of plot twists, major plot twists, that occur. At points I had to put the book down because I just didn’t have the energy to keep going.

Much of the story is told as complicated internal mono- and dialogs, mixing multiple speeches, out loud and in-your-head. When telepathy is happening, then both the internal and external words may be heard at the same time, though you may not know who is listening, and have little control over what you overhear.

It’s all very confusing, as it would be if you were telepathic.

You should be convinced by this story that if telepathy were possible, you wouldn’t want it anyway. It’s a bad idea for many reasons.

And, of course, she is leading us to think the same about our contemporary hyper-connected technology. We probably shouldn’t want it, because it’s a bad idea for many reasons.

By the way, along the way, Willis sketches out some designs for smartphone features that are very plausible, and really, really should exist. I expect they will be available soon, if not already. It would be nice if she at least gets credit for advocating them.

In the end, this is a good book, if more than a little overwhelming.

  1. Connie Willis, Crosstalk, New York, Del Rey, 2016.


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