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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.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR
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.
Praise for Crosstalk
“A rollicking send-up of obsessive cell phone usage in too-near-future America . . . [Connie] Willis’s canny incorporation of scientific lore, and a riotous cast . . . make for an engaging girl-finally-finds-right-boy story that’s unveiled with tact and humor. Willis juxtaposes glimpses of claimed historical telepaths with important reflections about the ubiquity of cell phones and the menace that unscrupulous developers of technology pose to privacy, morality, and emotional stability.”—Publishers Weekly
“An exhilarating and laugh-inducing read . . . one of those rare books that will keep you up all night long because you can’t bear to put it down.”—Portland Book Review
“A fun technological fairy tale.”—BookPage
“One of the funniest SF novels in years.”—Locus
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Crosstalk
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”
—William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 116”
By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone. The first one was from Suki Parker—of course—and the next four were from Jill Quincy, all saying some variant of “Dying to hear what happened.” Suki’s said, “Heard rumor Trent Worth took you to Iridium!???”
Of course you did, Briddey thought. Suki was Commspan’s very own Gossip Girl. And that meant by now the whole company knew it. It was a good thing Commspan didn’t have a no-fraternization policy—she and Trent could never have kept their romance secret. But she’d hoped to keep them from finding out about last night at least until she could tell her family. If they don’t know already.
She scanned through her other texts. There were five from her sister Kathleen, eight from her sister Mary Clare, and nine from Aunt Oona reminding her of the Daughters of Ireland Gaelic poetry reading Saturday night.
I should never have given her a smartphone, Briddey thought. It had never occurred to her that her great-aunt would figure out how to use it—she couldn’t even set her DVR. Or her clocks. But Briddey had reckoned without Aunt Oona’s desire to pester her constantly about the Daughters of Ireland. She’d gotten Maeve to teach her, and she now sent Briddey texts about it twenty times a day.
Briddey quickly read through the rest of their messages, but none of them began, “OMG! You can’t be seriously thinking of doing this!”
Good. That meant she still had time to decide what she was going to say to them—though not much, given the speed of communication these days.
She scrolled quickly through the rest of her messages to see if there was one from Trent. There was. It said simply, “Love you. Call me ASAP.” She very much wanted to, but the longer she was out here in the garage, the more likely Jill—or worse, Suki—was to drive in and begin interrogating her, and she’d come to work early precisely to avoid that. Talking to Trent would just have to wait till she got safely to her office.
She got out of her car and walked quickly toward the main door, checking the other cars to see who else was here. She didn’t see Trent’s Porsche. She didn’t see Suki’s car either, or her assistant, Charla’s, which was good, but Jill’s Prius was there, parked next to C.B. Schwartz’s ancient Honda.
His car was always here—Briddey suspected he lived in his lab, sleeping on the sagging couch that looked like he’d retrieved it from a curb somewhere. But Jill usually arrived late, and Briddey wouldn’t put it past her to come early expressly to pump Briddey. She was probably lying in wait for her in the lobby. I’ll have to go in the side entrance, Briddey thought, changing course, and hope nobody sees me on the way there.
Nobody did, and there was no one in the elevator or up on four. Good, Briddey thought, hurrying down the hall. With Charla not in yet, she could go straight into her office, barricade the door, and come up with some way to break this to her family before they began bombarding her with calls saying, “Why didn’t you answer any of my texts? What’s wrong?”
Especially Aunt Oona, who always immediately leaped to the conclusion that something terrible had happened to her and began calling around to all the hospitals. And this time she’ll be convinced she was justified in her premonition, Briddey thought as she turned down the hall to her office.
“Briddey!” Jill Quincy called from the end of the hall.
So close, Briddey thought, trying to decide whether she could make it to her office before Jill reached her, but Jill was already running toward her, calling, “There you are! I’ve been texting you all morning! I didn’t see you come in.”
She skidded to a stop next to Briddey. “I was down in the lobby,” she said breathlessly, “but I must have missed you. I heard you and Trent Worth went to dinner at Iridium last night. So what happened?”
I can’t tell you, Briddey thought. Not till I’ve told my family. But she couldn’t refuse to talk either, or that would be all over the building within seconds. “Come here,” she said, and pulled Jill into the copy room so passersby wouldn’t hear them.
“Well?” Jill said the moment Briddey’d shut the door. “He proposed, didn’t he? Oh, my God, I knew it! You are so lucky! Do you know how many women would kill to be engaged to Trent Worth? And you managed to snag him! After only six weeks!”
“I didn’t ‘snag’ him,” Briddey said, “and he didn’t propose.” But Jill wasn’t listening.
“Let me see your ring!” she cried. “I’ll bet it’s gorgeous!” She grabbed for Briddey’s hand and then, as its ringlessness registered, asked, “Where is it?”
“We’re not engaged,” Briddey said.
“What do you mean, you’re not engaged? Then why did he take you to a place like Iridium? On a Thursday? Oh, my God! He asked you to get an EED, didn’t he? That’s even better than getting engaged!” She hugged Briddey. “I am so happy for you! I can’t wait to tell everybody!” She started for the door.
“No, don’t!” Briddey said, grabbing her arm. “Please!”
“Why not?” Jill asked, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Don’t tell me you turned him down!”
“No, of course not,” Briddey said. “It’s just—”
“Just what? He’s the most eligible guy at Commspan! And he must love you or he wouldn’t have asked you to get an EED! And you obviously love him or you wouldn’t have said yes. So what’s the problem?”
She gave Briddey a searching look. “I know what it is. You’re disappointed he didn’t ask you to have it and propose, aren’t you?”
And now that would be all over Commspan, too. “No, not at all,” Briddey said. “He said he wants to wait to get engaged till after we have the EED, so I’ll be able to sense how much he loves me when he asks me.”
“Oh, my God, that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard! I can’t believe it! He’s gorgeous, he’s willing to commit, and he’s romantic! Do you know how rare that is? All the guys I date are either commitment-phobes or liars—or both. You are so lucky! It’s that hair of yours. Guys go wild for red hair. Maybe I should dye mine red.” She frowned. “You still haven’t told me why you don’t want me to tell anyone.”
“It’s my family. I’m not sure how to break this to them.”
“You don’t think they’ll be happy? But he’s so perfect! He’s got a great job and a great car, and the losers your sister Kathleen dates . . . Or is it the EED? Everyone says it’s totally safe.”
“It is,” Briddey said. “But they’re kind of—”
No, meddlesome and interfering. “Yes, so don’t say anything till I’ve told them, okay?”
“Only if you tell me all the gory details! I want to know when you’re having it done and—”
Briddey’s phone rang. It was Trent’s ring tone, but that didn’t mean it was him. The last time she’d been with the family, Maeve had done something to her phone so that half the time it said it was him when it wasn’t, and Briddey hadn’t been able to fix it.
But at least it was a way out of the conversation. “Sorry,” Briddey said to Jill. “I just need to see who this is.” She glanced at the screen. “Look, I need to take this.” She opened the copy room door and started out into the hall. “Promise me—”
“My lips are sealed,” Jill said. “But you have to promise to tell me everything.”
“I will.” Briddey turned away so Jill couldn’t see her declining the call, then put the phone up to her ear, said, “Hello?” and walked briskly down the hall till she was out of sight.
She stuck the phone back in her pocket. And was instantly sorry when she saw Phillip from Logistics bearing down on her. “I heard via the grapevine that you and Trent Worth are going to get an EED,” he said.
How is that possible? Briddey thought. I only left Jill ten seconds ago.
“Wow! Just like Tom Brady!” Phillip was saying. “Congratulations! That’s great! But I hope you’re not going to do it till after your boy Trent comes up with a better idea for the new phone than just more memory and an unbreakable screen. The rumor is Apple’s coming out with something that’ll blow every other smartphone out of the water, and Trent can’t afford to be laid up in the hospital—”
“The EED’s not major surgery,” Briddey began, but Phillip wasn’t listening either.
“If we don’t watch out, Commspan could be the next Nokia,” he said, and launched into a history of smartphone-company failures. “A small company like us can’t compete unless we come up with something revolutionary, a whole new concept, and we need to come up with it fast, or—”
Come on, Aunt Oona, Briddey thought. You usually call me every five minutes. Where are you when I need you?
Briddey’s phone rang. Thank you, she breathed. “I have to take this in my office,” she said. “I’ll see you at the meeting at eleven,” and walked off.
But it wasn’t Aunt Oona who’d saved her. It was Mary Clare, and the instant after Briddey sent the call to her voicemail, she got a text from Maeve. “I’m fine,” it read. “Pay no attention to my mother.”
Which meant they still didn’t know, thank goodness, though she felt sorry for Maeve. What was it this time? Videogames? Bulimia? Cyberbullying? Mary Clare was constantly in hysterics over her, even though Maeve was a perfectly normal nine-year-old girl.
In fact, she’s the only normal member of my family, Briddey thought.
Mary Clare certainly wasn’t normal. She obsessed constantly about Maeve’s homework, her grades, whether she’d get into an Ivy League college, her friends, her eating habits (Mary Clare was convinced she was anorexic), and the fact that she didn’t read enough, even though (or possibly because) Mary Clare was constantly forcing Little Women and Alice in Wonderland on her.
Last week Mary Clare had been convinced Maeve was sending too many texts, and the week before that that she was eating too much sugared cereal (which didn’t exactly square with the anorexia). Today it was probably nude selfies. Or the hantavirus.
For Maeve’s sake, Briddey should really call Mary Clare and try to calm her down, but not till she’d worked out what she was going to say about the EED. And she didn’t have much time. Half of Commspan probably knew by now, and one of them would be bound to mention it to Aunt Oona the next time she “popped in” with Maeve to show her how Maeve looked in her new step-dancing costume and try to convince her to go to some boring Daughters of Ireland thing . . .
Oh, my God, and there was Suki, Grapevine Girl herself, emerging from the Human Resources office. Briddey cast decorum to the winds and sprinted for the safety of her office. She yanked the door open and flung herself inside—and practically into her assistant’s arms.
“I thought you’d never get here,” Charla said, steadying her. “You’ve got a million messages, and I want to hear all about last night! You are so lucky to be getting an EED!”
Faster than a speeding bullet, Briddey thought. If Commspan wants a revolutionary form of communication, they should design a phone based on our grapevine.
“I didn’t see your car in the garage,” Briddey said.
“Nate gave me a ride to work. I wish I could talk him into having an EED done. It would be great to know whether he loves me or not. You are so lucky you won’t have to worry about that anymore. I mean, I spend all my time trying to figure out when he tells me he does, is that for real or does he just want to hook up? I mean, last night, he—”
“You said I had messages. Who are they from?”
“Your sister Mary Clare mostly, and your aunt and your other sister. I put them all on your computer. I thought you told them not to phone you at work.”
“I did,” Briddey said. But they didn’t listen. As usual.
“Did you talk to them?” she asked aloud, dreading Charla’s answer, but Charla shook her head.
Thank goodness for that. “If they call again,” Briddey said, “do not, repeat, do not say anything to them about the EED. I haven’t had the chance to tell them yet, and I want to be the one to break the news.”
“They’ll be so excited!”
Wanna bet? “Who are the other messages from?” she asked.
“Trent Worth called and said to call him as soon as you got in, and so did Trish Mendez and Rahul Deshnev’s assistant. And Art Sampson needs you to look over his memo on improving interdepartmental communication right away and tell him if you have any suggestions to add. It’s on your computer. So when he asked you, were you thrilled?”
“Yes,” Briddey said. “If anyone else comes in or calls, tell them I can’t talk to them till after the meeting.” She went into her office, shut the door, and called Trent. He didn’t answer.
She texted and messaged him telling him to call her, tried Rahul Deshnev’s assistant with the same result, then called Trish Mendez. “Is it true that you and Trent Worth are going to have an EED?” Trish said.
“Yes,” Briddey said, thinking, I don’t think interdepartmental communication needs any improving.
“That’s wonderful!” Trish said. “When are you having it done?”
“I don’t know. Trent wants to have Dr. Verrick do it, and—”
“Dr. Verrick? Oh, my God! He did Brad and Angelina’s, didn’t he?”
“Yes, so he has a really long waiting list, and I don’t know when we’ll even be able to get in to see him, let alone schedule the EED.”
“He did Caitlyn Jenner’s, too, didn’t he?” Trish said. “And Kim Kardashian’s, though that one didn’t work because she fell in love with somebody else, I can’t remember his name. He was in the last Avengers movie.”
This was going to take all day. Briddey held her phone close to the desk and rapped twice on the desktop with her fist. “Come in,” she called, and put the phone up to her ear. “Listen, my appointment’s here. Can I call you back?”
She hung up and, with a feeling of “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” checked the twenty-two messages from her family—correction, thirty-one—to make sure they still didn’t know, starting with Mary Clare’s in case she’d decided Maeve was possessed by demons and had scheduled an exorcism or something.
Connie Willis is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She has received seven Nebula awards and eleven Hugo awards for her fiction; Blackout and All Clear—a novel in two parts—and Doomsday Book won both. Her other works include Passage, Lincoln’s Dreams, Bellwether, Impossible Things, Remake, Uncharted Territory, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Fire Watch, and Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Connie Willis lives in Colorado with her family, where she deals with the delights (and the more maddening aspects) of our modern oh-so-connected world on a daily basis.