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Novelist Connie Willis explains why telepathy is a terrible superpower

The connection between social media, texting, and telepathy isn’t necessarily obvious… until you read the first chapter of Crosstalk, the new novel by 11-time Hugo winner and Science Fiction Hall Of Famer Connie Willis. Willis is operating in her favorite screwball-comedy mode in Crosstalk. That first chapter dumps tech-company exec Briddey Flannigan into the middle of a chaotic, high-energy communication situation, where she can’t get the information she needs, because it’s drowned out by misinformation, redundant information, or people trying to pry personal information out of her. Willis has returned to that style often as an author, whether she’s writing about time travel and historical disasters (in Doomsday Book and the twin novels Blackout and All Clear), modern scientific research (in Bellwether and Passage), or the more bizarre, far-flung worlds of her short stories. But Crosstalk is pointed and specific about linking screwball humor and the world of social media, where users face a constant barrage of input, and a low signal-to-noise ratio.

And then the book brings in telepathy, as Briddey has what’s supposed to be a simple operation to emotionally link herself to her boyfriend Trent, and instead winds up telepathically connected to a near-stranger at work. Crosstalk falls into the familiar patterns of a romantic comedy movie, but it also draws a clear metaphor between the distractions and overflow of the information society, and a woman who can’t help overhear what everyone around her is thinking. I recently talked to Willis about why telepathy would be terrible for superheroes, whether online transparency is a good idea for anyone, why she researched mirror neurons and didn’t write about them, and why romantic comedies are the only fun stories about adult relationships.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve said many of your stories are about working through arguments with yourself, and working through different aspects of the idea you obsess over. Are you working through an argument in Crosstalk?

Well, looking at the society we’re living in right now, we’re bombarded with information. We have all these new ways of communicating. We can talk face-to-face to somebody in Asia, you can have a best friend who lives across the world. But our relationships don’t seem to be improving radically as a result of all this extra communication.

We’re always looking to technology, thinking it can solve our human problems. Usually it does, but with big side effects we hadn’t counted on. It’s an argument I don’t know how to solve. I’m not suggesting we go be Luddites. But occasionally I’m on panels with all these really gung-ho tech people, and they’re like, “Oh this new development will solve all our problems.” And I think “Anything that solves all our problems will create a whole mess of new problems that would have never occurred to us.” We need to start thinking more in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Maybe that would be more productive.

But mostly with Crosstalk, I just wanted to have fun with the idea of whether communication is a good idea, generally. Not tech communication, communication between people. Most people would say, “We all need more communication in our relationships.” But really, most relationships benefit from all the things we don’t say, all the things we keep to ourselves.

My husband and I were on a trip, and our GPS failed several miles out of Kansas City. We ended up in this horrendous part of town, totally lost. We could see the distant downtown of Kansas City, but had no idea how to get there. He was convinced I had given him the wrong address, and I was convinced he had typed in the wrong address. But because we couldn’t read minds, we did not communicate this to each other, and we managed to keep civil tongues in our heads until we got safely to the hotel. And I’m still married as a result. If we could read each other’s minds, I’m not sure I would be. I was furious with him, and I know he was furious with me.

You’ve compared our current sharing culture with a scary ex-boyfriend that’s perpetually asking “Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing?” Do you see any upside to social media transparency?

With some of it, people strike me as unbelievably dumb. “We’re leaving on a four-month trip to the Bahamas!” You’re like, “You might as well tell everyone that the key is under the mat, you guys, come on! What are you doing?” But on the other hand, a long while back, before cell phones, my daughter spent a year in London. She had no phone. And consequently, we talked to her once a week, at a certain time every Sunday. And the entire time she was gone, I was haunted by the idea that she could be dead on Monday, and I wouldn’t know until the following Sunday. There are huge benefits for us to our being able to track our kids, to know where people are, to be able to say to my husband when we’re separated in Target, “Where are you? I want you to come try this on,” or whatever.

The benefits are huge, but yes, I think we end up sacrificing quite a bit of privacy, and sometimes our safety, too. There are so many awful stories about stalking, and revenge fights where you post pictures of your ex and try to do much greater damage than you could ever do before in a break-up. We need to figure all that out, obviously.

Crosstalk is brutally cynical about human nature. It repeatedly references the toxic sewer inside people’s heads. But it’s also an optimistic, upbeat, happily-ever-after romantic comedy. How do you reconcile those ideas?

I’m an eternal optimist. I actually really like human beings. But I don’t think you can be an optimist unless you’re realistic about people. If you’re a cock-eyed optimist like Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, you’re just a dope, and you’re only able to be an optimist because you clearly haven’t thought things through. I think it’s much more valuable to be an optimist where you say, “Okay, people are like this. Here are the bad things, they all have bad aspects.” I totally believe in good and evil, and that the split between good and evil goes right down the middle of every single human being. We’re all capable of terrible things and good things.

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that he started out writing comedies, and then he moved into tragedies, and then he came back to comedies, and that’s where he ended his career. His last solo play isn’t King Lear, it’s The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale. He was basically a cynical optimist. He had delved into the dark spaces of human beings, and decided that on balance, people were pretty good. It’s not so much “Are people good?” The question is, “Are people capable of forming friendships? Are they capable of forming love matches? Are they capable of forming positive relationships that will make the world a better place?” I think his answer was unequivocally yes, and so is mine.

I remember seeing you at a con years ago, talking about how learning where to put plot hooks in a story was demoralizing, because now other writers never surprise you with their twist endings. But if you value surprises — and your writing suggests you do — what’s the appeal in romantic comedy, the most predictable genre out there in terms of how every story will end?

Romantic comedy is the only genre that explores positive adult relationships that are also fun. I hate romances. They’re all about seduction, or wooing and winning, and conquering and falling, or whatever. That’s very old-fashioned, but it’s not a real relationship. Romantic comedy is about figuring out who other people are, about seeing through people’s facades, working as a team, and learning to trust each other. All the things they’d want you to do if you were in couples’ counseling. Romantic comedy says, “Not only can you do all these things, it can be fun. Plus sex!” Romantic comedies have the ultimate positive relationships.

Also, when I was talking about twist endings, I probably had not encountered writers like P.G. Wodehouse. He embraced this higher kind of comedy where you know what’s going to happen, it’s inevitable. If you’re reading one of Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, you know Bertie Wooster will buy some hideous item of clothing that he’ll want to wear, and Jeeves wants him not to. And then Bertie will get into some horrible mess, and the price of Jeeves getting him out of it will be giving up this horrible piece of clothing. “I have to give up my purple pajamas, or my white dinner jacket?” You go into these stories going, “Oh, Bertie, don’t even try.” But you enjoy watching how that unfolds, how things unravel. It’s the journey rather than the ending that’s important.

One of Crosstalk‘s cornerstones is the idea of this super-trendy brain surgery called an EED, that gives people an empathic link with someone they love. And you make a point of saying very little about it, of establishing it as a known quantity in society, no big deal.

It’s just a little tiny brain surgery!

What was your thinking about how much to explain about the technology, or about the way EEDs fit into your future culture?

The things being discovered about brain chemistry right now are so fascinating. We are learning so much. We are learning that we know nothing. The media keeps saying, “This is the last frontier,” and “That is the last frontier.” The brain is the last frontier. And I’m not sure we’re ever gonna be able to master it, because it is so complicated. The way the brain works is astonishing.

When I first started the book, I had a much more complicated, spelt-out rationale for how the EED worked, based on recent discoveries about mirror neurons. Those seem to be the neurons that activate when I look at your face and can tell what you’re feeling. If you don’t have them, you really cannot decipher expressions or tone of voice. Science is just at the beginning of looking into what mirror neurons are, and how they work, and it’s fascinating. But it became such a side trail, and I didn’t want to get into it in this book. I wanted more to explore the idea of telepathy, where it might have come from, why it might have persisted in the human race, whether it was a survival characteristic, and how it could complicate people’s lives. So I decided to focus on that.

My editor and I had numerous conversations like, “Do you really expect readers to believe that your characters are voluntarily going to have brain surgery?” I’m like, “What? People inject poisonous toxins into their face to temporarily get rid of wrinkles. People will do anything if they think they can get something positive out of it.” And in the book, EEDs are presented as very trendy. If everybody’s doing it, that’s always a bad sign.

I think you sell the technology just by listing the celebrities who’ve gotten EEDs. Is there any possible technology that people wouldn’t embrace if a group of A-list celebrities came along and did it first?

No, probably not. I would like to say yes, but the “Everybody’s doing it” philosophy, I see it all the time. When I wrote Bellwether, which is about fads and where fads come from, I had tons of real, researched fads in the book. Some were things you would recognize as fads, like hula hoops and the Rubik’s cube. But I also used exercise fads, child-rearing fads, and child-naming fads. And people would contact me, truly irate, and say “That’s not a fad!” They did not want to think of themselves as the kinds of people who would mindlessly go along with fads, yet they were doing all these things because everybody else was. People will go along with fads as long as you don’t tell them it’s a fad.

Different people visualize the overwhelming bombardment of telepathy in different ways in Crosstalk. How did you approach the idea of what telepathy should look like?

For the purpose of this book, I had to assume thoughts are coherent enough to come out as speech. I’m not really convinced that’s true. If we really could read minds, it would be like trying to transcribe dreams. We think in fragments, and in four-dimensional space. You can be thinking “Here I am getting off the subway” at the same time you’re thinking “What am I gonna have for dinner” at the same time you’re thinking, “I need to call her so I can get back to the hotel.” There is no way to show that in print without writing Finnegan’s Wake. I hate Finnegan’s Wake. It might be an interesting exercise, but no, that’s not what I want to do.

And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I bite off my forbidden thoughts, and at other times, I just let them play. It depends on how I’m feeling. But I certainly don’t want anybody to hear them, and I’m sure it would be be terrifying to anybody listening to my brain. People write about having telepathy as if it would make them Spider-Man, racing around saving lives and stopping crimes. How is that gonna work? When people think, they don’t identify themselves. I don’t ever think, “I, Connie Willis, am having this thought.” I certainly don’t post my address with my thoughts. And there isn’t much to distinguish the random thoughts flipping through my head when I’m in line behind a really annoying person at the grocery store, thinking murderous thoughts at them, and when someone is actually plotting murder. How are you going to tell the difference? The ways we think would be impenetrable to someone eavesdropping.

But I don’t expect telepathy anytime soon, no matter what technology we get. Supposedly there have been experiments where someone in a CAT scan thinks of an eagle, and generates an image of an eagle. But the observers still don’t know whether the person is thinking about the Chrysler Eagle car, or the Eagles band, or an actual eagle. There are millions of possibilities. So I think we’re safe for now.

There’s an idea in the book that younger generations are more adaptable to new technology that comes along, particularly when it comes to getting around their parents. So even if adults found telepathy impenetrable and overwhelming, is it likely that kids would figure it out within a generation or two?

I’m sure. The kids are always ahead of us. They’re always going to plunge ahead, and they’re not going to be afraid of the world. The older you get, the more bad possibilities you can see. Kids can’t see any of that, and that’s always a thread in all of my books. Kids are fearless, partly from ignorance, because they’ve never considered all the awful things that can happen. But that’s good, that’s the way the human race progresses.

I’m in New York right now, thinking, “Will the hurricane get here before I go home? How am I going to get home? Should I invest in batteries and water in my hotel room? Will they force me back to the bottom floor?” These things would never occur to a kid. And that’s really good, because probably none of this will happen. I could invest all this effort and energy, and it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing I can do about the hurricane here. When adults think, “Should I attempt a new career, should I attempt this, should I try that?” they have these kinds of thoughts, and talk themselves out of things. Kids would just say “We can do this, we can figure out telepathy. This would be great.” I’m always amazed at how well kids embrace anything brand-new. That’s a very old idea in science fiction. Look at Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s story “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” recently, made into the movie The Last Mimzy. That’s the story of kids who figure out realities that are pretty much off-limits to adults, because of the adults’ experiences. It’s a very strong theme in science fiction, and it’s very true, if my experience of kids is any indication.

“Everybody is so afraid of artificial intelligence taking over, but I would love to have somebody busily calculating possible side effects of my choices.”

This book is so much about information overload and connectivity fatigue, which is a running theme in your work — people dealing with more information than they can handle.

But not enough information, at the same time.

True. Dealing with useless-information overload that crowds out the data they actually need. Why is that such a story obsession for you?

I write stories about people who make really important decisions without enough information, while they’re getting all this bad advice, because I consider that a human condition. That’s how I see all of us doing things all the time. We don’t always have enough information of the proper type to help us figure out what we should do, help us with all the complications that can ensue, help us imagine all the possibilities. Everybody is so afraid of artificial intelligence taking over, but I would love to have somebody busily calculating possible side effects of my choices, all the possible consequences, and helping me make these decisions. I think AI could be really helpful for us. Lack of information is something I labor with all the time. I feel like I’m constantly in situations where I need to decide something, and I know I don’t have enough information.

And I don’t like writing about heroes in terms of people who see what needs to be done, and they’re brave and strong and true, and they go do it. Because I don’t know any of those people. I’m much more in love with people who have no idea what they’re doing, who find themselves in impossible situations, which is pretty much every protagonist in my stories. They’re doing the best they can under intolerable circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are funny, and sometimes they’re tragic, but they’re doing the best they can.

People ask me why in Blackout and All Clear, my time-travel books, I focus on the civilians in World War II. It’s because the military actually had people in charge who were capable, and knew what they were doing. The civilians just had things happening to them. Bombs were falling on them every day, they didn’t know if they would live until tomorrow, but they still had to get to work, even with a bus in a crater blocking the road. The shop counter they’re supposed to get to is covered with broken glass and plaster, and somehow they’re expected to keep calm and carry on. I love those people. Those are my people. That’s what I want to write about.


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