Connie Willis, one of the most critically acclaimed SF writers of our times, the winner of 11 Hugo Awards and 7 Nebula Awards, the 28th SFWA Grand Master… The list goes on and on. We’ve reviewed some of her works before on Re-enchantment – Blackout/All Clear and Passage; we’ve read many more – and here a really big shout goes to To Say Nothing Of The Dog, which to this day remains my favorite Connie Willis novel.
So, Crosstalk; the newest Willis’ novel, in her own words, is:
about telepathy–and our overly communicating world. It’s also about helicopter mothers, social media, Joan of Arc, sugared cereals, Bridey Murphy, online dating, zombie movies, Victorian novels, and those annoying songs you get stuck in your head and can’t get rid of!
(More of Willis’ thoughts on Crosstalk here.)
It sounded like fun – and besides, Willis always writes greatly enjoyable novels – at least from my limited experience :). Telepathy and Irish, a touch of Powers’ penchant for conspiracy theories, contemporary covens and a bit of light-hearted satire on our over-social-medialized world… If every ingredient is tasty, then, logically, the dish you prepare from them should be tasty too, right? Not.
Where do I start? Crosstalk really has all it boasts of – and more. And I believe that “more” is the source of the problem. Willis’ prose is usually pretty tight; it has its embellishments, unexpected twists and turns, but generally it is very well planned; the story arc always follows a detailed, prearranged script, even if the reader doesn’t see it at the moment. In Crosstalk it seems that the convoluted matter for once mutinied and took over. The story goes this way and that, wavering, eating its own tail, bumbling off into unknown directions, only to finally be saved by an unconvincing – and very irritating – Deus ex Machina. Add to it a problem with credibility – where Willis delves into the topics of modern connectivity, the tone of the book seems somehow off. She’s much better in describing the problems one can have with a nosy, overprotective family than in explaining the inner workings of a modern comm corporation, unending meetings, phone calls, messages etc.
Plus, the book is a straight-forward romance. All right, romantic threads are something that occurs regularly in Willis’ novels. A willful, smart heroine is tasked with a difficult problem, faces unforeseen complications along the way and over the course of her adventures she meets her soulmate. I expected that. I just didn’t expect that the romance part this time will be the most important feature of the book. Sadly, the Nora Ephron claim is not an empty threat. Remember You’ve got Mail? Yup, it’s that bad. The SF bit is not very science-y and completely inconsequential. The plot, usually a very strong point of every Willis’ book – here is something second-rate, dragging, repetitive and in patches simply redundant. I felt like Phil Connors, the protagonist of Groundhog Day. A new chapter, and exactly the same problems.
The last, but not least, problem is the characters. The Runaway Bride-y Murphy, for starters. A girl with an executive position in a smartphone company trying to compete with Apple, who is unable to solve a single problem with her life. She works in one mode only – escape. She seems to have no control over her life whatsoever, always being tossed and turned by someone else. A really dumb puppet who doesn’t seem to understand even the simplest things. It’s a wonder she actually learned to write or read, and I really don’t want to know how she got her job.
The purported love of her life? A really creepy guy with one goal in life – get to the top, by whatever means necessary, even if it’s a brain surgery and a requisite pretty and dumb girlfriend on his arm. The real love of her life? Another really creepy guy with telepathic abilities, who hears her every thought and manipulates her on every turn. The definition of stalker. His “good girl” phrases – coming up entirely too often throughout the book – reminded me of training a dog or a horse, not something you’d say to the girl you adore and fell in love with. Their relationship at some point began to remind me of the Stockholm syndrome… But even this sexist and off-putting relationship is not the worst – because the worst of all is a nine-year-old telepath with a zombie obsession, total lack of understanding a need for privacy (in others), and the mind of a computer genius. Einstein is a wuss next to Maeve.
Did I write “last”? Of course not. There’s still the telepathy thing. It’s supposed to be a SF novel, for crying out loud! Maybe it’s just me, but I’d expect that in such a case the telepathy would be something at least a tiny bit believable. Here, it’s the painfully stereotypical “mind-reading”: the thoughts are all perfectly coherent, logical and appearing one at a time, in response to obvious stimuli – i.e. a conversation, just by other means. There are even instances of mental imagining of “safe places” where character “go” in times of need – and those places are more real than the actual surroundings.
If you want a good SF romance addressing contemporary problems, pick up Willis’ own Bellweather – it’s based on basically the same premises, but is a much better book, with more likeable, more three-dimensional characters and much more fun altogether.
Willis herself openly admits that she had some serious problems with getting this book finished:
I’ve finally finished my novel. I know, I know, I said that a year ago, and I did think it was finished when I turned it in– and then spent months and months doing the revisions (three separate rounds of changes and cuts) and cursing the day I’d decided to write the stupid thing.
Really, no surprise there.
And yet, compared to what currently floods the markets, this book is still a decent one. It is written in the usual Willis’ style, lightly, humorously, with a big dose of understanding and compassion towards the characters populating the pages. There is a space for a few laughs and for a bit of entertainment. So, to sum it up, not a bad novel per se, there are many much worse, see Cogman’s The Invisible Library, for example – nonetheless Crosstalk is just a really lame book from someone as talented as Connie Willis. I definitely expected more from the author of To Say Nothing Of The Dog.