The Bother of Voices and Love’s Trials

Telepathy. One of the several traditional tropes of science fiction.  The 19th Century saw stories featuring psychic powers, including some mind-reading, and the idea marched along into the 20th Century and even gained a brief bit of potential legitimacy with the work of Joseph Banks Rhine who attempted to substantiate claims of second sight, mental communication, and so forth and set the template for “scientific” study of suspected mental powers.

While his methodology ultimately proved flawed and the research became tainted, the idea never faded from science fiction (and even informed some very real Cold War research) and marched forward to the present.

Connie Willis has now entered the lists with Crosstalk. Briddey Flannigan works for Commspan, a phone company that sees itself in direct competition with Apple. They are sweating the new roll-out of a phone they have yet to develop. Sweating it because Apple is about to roll their new iPhone out and it may mean the end of Commspan.

While this high-tension, company-wide migraine headache is developing, Briddey falls in love with Trent Worth, one of the senior staff on the development team. He has convinced her to get an EED, surgery that somehow allows two people to sense directly their emotional commitment to each other.

The problem for Briddey is that she wants to keep it a secret—from her coworkers, certainly, but mainly from her family, which is comprised of some of the most meddlesome people in fiction, from Aunt Oona with her obsession with Ireland and matchmaking all the younger women to “foine Irish lads,” to Maeve, the youngest, who is meddlesome only insofar as she wants to keep her hyperalert obsessive mother out of her life.

Running around trying to get done what the two lovers want to get done without anyone knowing about it drives the first third of the book. Her family suspects and tries to talk her out of even thinking about it. One coworker, software engineer and resident eccentric C. B. Schwarz, also tries to warn her off of having the procedure, and his is the most bizarre intervention—until later, when the full set of ramifications become clear.

This is trademark Willis screwball comedy.  She has been working this field successfully for decades and she can be very, very good at it.

Now enters the questions of personal taste that bedevil any reviewer.  I have almost without exception loved everything I have ever read by Willis. I found Crosstalk difficult to enjoy.

To begin with, it depends on a premise I have never found enjoyable, that of the unspoken or unaccepted truth—that someone wishes to be left alone. Briddey knows her family so well, she knows exactly how they will react and cannot abide it, and yet she will not tell them. Will not set boundaries, will not hang up, will not, after presumably years of this, explain herself. I have never found it convincing, the argument that This Is Family, You Can’t Do That.  Nonsense. With family it should not only be doable, it may be a requirement for it to remain a family. The same with her coworkers, who have even less right to know private things about than her family presumes, and yet her chief mode of coping is avoidance rather than a firm statement.

This is common in popular fiction.  Most sitcoms could not exist without it.  The inability of human beings to tell each other what they want, what they will tolerate, what they intend is the font from which a wealth of bad-joke, strained humor, idiot plotting flows. While it is true there are people who fall into this kind of behavior, in real life it is not funny, and can lead to tragedy.  It is also threadbare.

So why would someone as reliably brilliant as Connie Willis employ it?

Well, she is making a point about communications. Communications overload, information saturation, and the problems of ever more easy access to each other. “Getting away from it all” is becoming a grail quest in an ever more harried and detail rich world that seems obsessed with providing more of the same. I remember the speech from Inherit The Wind where Henry Drummond tells the jury “progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.'”  Briddey and Trent work for a telecommunications company that is trying to bind people ever closer together and make it less likely to be “out of touch.”

Meanwhile C. B. Schwarz, down in the basement of the corporation, wants to introduce apps to their phones that will reestablish distance. Call interrupts, voluntary blackouts, and other things that will make it harder for people to call each other.

In Briddey’s family poor Maeve is tormented by a mother who wants ever more access to the private world of her daughter because she’s convinced the child is developing in some horrible, unnatural way, which drives Maeve crazy and prompts her to be creative in her methods for blocking her mother.

On all sides, Briddey is hemmed in by examples of ungoverned communications access.

So why would she for a minute consider having an operation, no matter how benign, that will give Trent the kind of access that seems the antithesis of what she would prefer in her life so far?

Trent is smooth, handsome, everyone thinks he’s a great catch (except Briddey’s Aunt Oona), and she falls for him hard. Perhaps she believes that with him there will be refuge from all the rest. (There is a moment when she fantasizes about shutting the door in the faces of her meddling family to be alone with her husband.)

And there is C. B. Schwarz relentlessly telling her that the operation is a bad idea.

Naturally, there are complications. What was supposed to be an enhanced empathic connection blossoms into full-blown telepathy.  Only it’s not Trent with whom she is communicating but C. B.

In classic screwball style, this becomes a massive juggling act to keep all the parties in separate boxes until reality can be sorted out.

Which leads to my second problem with the premise.  Telepathy.

As portrayed here, this is not even a subtle form, but the old idea of conversational telepathy, where it is reduced to speech, only without the need of vocal chords or even proximity.  For Briddey, it’s one more set of intrusions, only this time she can’t even close the door on them, at least not at first.

To save this from the clichéd, Willis introduces corporate nastiness of a particularly cold-blooded kind. She is continuing to make a larger point with it and I will not spoil it here. Along the way, though, she trots out a number of theories about telepathy and disassembles them adroitly, even hauling Dr. Rhine out for a renewed drubbing. The bottom line, though, is that the necessary safeguards to maintain sanity require a level of screening that make telepathy all but useless—except for the purposes of dramatizing how Too Much can be made even worse.  (We are after all playing with direct interface with computers, which could arguably lead to a kind of telepathy, though that’s not what it’s being developed for.)

The problem with telepathy is the same one with telekinesis:  cool idea, but what good is it from an evolutionary standpoint?  It would, in fact, be a burden to survival in that it would be the worst kind of distraction.  As for telekinesis, why would we evolve muscle and bone capable of moving things if we could do it with our brains? Well, in fact, we do move things with our brains, by sending instructions to our bodies. That was the route evolution took, not the one where some latent supermind ability developed unknown to its owners just waiting for a modern era wherein exhibiting such abilities would not automatically get one killed by the frightened people without it.

But even if we posit an ability to read minds, what kind of Sapir-Whorf contortion do we have to make to assume it would use language instead of whole-package data-dumps?

(In fairness, Willis does give us more of that as the story progresses, but there is still a certain formality to it all, constrained by the need to have bodies in a room speaking to each other, even in a supposedly self-created mental space.)

But of course, that would not serve the purposes of the romantic comedy Willis has given us.  And it is.  A romantic comedy.

I am not the audience for this novel. Having said that, however, I can stand back and appreciate the masterful juggling going on here. Willis is telling us about the ramifications and pitfalls of too much communications.  In a world where technologies to enhance communication are extremely marketable, a bit of caution regarding how much we want and with whom is not amiss. And even an ability to read minds would not guarantee safety from the intentions of some of those minds.