11 September 2016

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Image from http://www.sftv.org/cw/
Cross Talk
Connie Willis
Gollancz, 15 September 2016
PB, 512pp
Source: e-copy kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley

I find it hard to categories this book - at the same time it's SF, with a premise based on a classic SFnal idea, telepathy; it's a sort of thriller with the main protagonists on the run (in a way) and having to hide themselves and their thoughts; and it's a romance of a kind - will true love triumph. And it's also comedic. So a SF-thriller-romcom?

I don't suppose it really matters that much, except that I think it's a key feature of this book that while there is tension and high jeopardy, there isn't a conflict, there is no evil opponent (only a rather selfish and self-absorbed one), there is no violence, no weapons.

Briddey is a stressed executive in a hi tech firm, Commspan, which is desperate for the Next Big Thing in phones to challenge Apple (hint - try something with a headphone socket). At the same time she's in a relationship with the Creepiest Man Alive, Trent, who suddenly wants to marry her: but asks her to have a teeny operation first...

The EED - acronym never explained - is surgery that apparently makes a couple more emotionally receptive to each others' moods. Trent insists they have it, and soon. They're love so why wouldn't Briddey go along? But Trent doesn't want anyone else to know. Brides will just have to find a way to absent herself form the office without the gossip network guessing the reason.

Trent also has a key to her flat and seems to assume he controls her entire life, cancelling arrangements and setting up new things that she has to go along with. After all, he's her boss, right?

There are elements here of a controlling, harassing boss, but Willis doesn't really pursue that angle very far. Trent is only one annoyance. As if he wasn't enough, Briddey's family seems to be impossible. They phone her up at all hours of the day and night for advice on relationships or on bringing up their children. Her aunt tries to pair her off with a nice (40 years old) "Irish boy" (everyone in this book is American, but it doesn't stop Aunt Oona wallowing in a sort of ultra Irishness complete with fake accent: more Irish than the Irish as it were).

All this external pressure tells on Briddey, and this is reflected in the way the story is told, with a lot of internal monologue from her. From the moment she walks into Commspan at the start of the book, trying to conceal her engagement wand agreement to surgery, we have a stream of thoughts, plans, speculations, deductions, concerns

I found this his is quite hard to get used to at first: it comes across as a very different from the more action packed style you'd expect in a SF story. But it's very suitable for a tale that, after all, is about communication, lack of communication and - indeed - crosstalk. And it means that when the telepathic episodes begin the mental communication can be integrated seamlessly into the style with the pressure of Briddey of those external voices underscored by the way that Willis pushes the text at the reader, in a somewhat breathless style.

I suspect this won't suit everyone. It does, as I said, get some getting used to but I did, and kept with it despite this being a fairly lengthy book.

Whats helped by there being plenty of plot. Essentially, Briddey races from crisis to crisis, these being increasingly convoluted scrapes in which she has, first, to hide her relationship to Trent, then the progress of her surgery and finally a succession of secrets with more and more significance, secrets that affect not just her but others. Not everybody around her is being as honest as they ought, and it becomes hard to keep track of the details of the lies and omissions she has used to keep on top of it all. In that respect the closest comparison I can think of is a PG Wodehouse novel - one of those, perhaps, where Bertie Wooster is trying to get out of an engagement while maintaining three different cover stories for three different audiences. Oh, and Jeeves is only intermittently present, and seems to have plans of his own...

While it suits the theme of the story, this ever-growing complexity and the tendency to verbalise everything perhaps at times leads to rather too many nested explanations and speculations about the nature of the telepathy, and what might cause or inhibit it. We keep being given different answers, some speculation, some chaff to confuse other characters, some - within the frame of the story - true. At times there was almost too much of this, and it almost began to feel as though Willis was continually changing the terms of the discussion just to suit the plot. By the end I couldn't be sure whether what we were finally told was the truth actually matched up with what had happened.

I wouldn't want to make too much of this last point - it didn't really detract very much from my enjoyment and to a degree, perhaps keeps a note of mystery in play that suits the theme.

Overall this was an enjoyable and somewhat different book, from an author who clearly enjoys playing with the form and taking risks.

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