Connie Willis Wants You to Think Twice About Telepathy


What led me to write Crosstalk?  Oh, lots of things.  For one, like everybody else, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of telepathy and have often thought how nice it would be to be able to tell what other people were thinking, to know if they were lying and how they really felt about you.  For another, I live in Colorado, home of the infamous Bridey Murphy, who started the whole channeling-past-lives thing back in the fifties by claiming she’d had a previous life in nineteenth-century Ireland.  Which turned out not to be true and which left me with a healthy skepticism of all things paranormal, from psychics to Dr. Rhine’s ESP experiments.

Plus, I’ve always wondered what was really going on with Joan of Arc.  And I’m continually amazed by (and appalled at) online dating, helicopter moms, and corporate grapevines that, in spite of Einstein, manage to travel faster than the speed of light.  (You’ll have to read Crosstalk to see what all those have to do with telepathy.)

But mostly I wanted to write Crosstalk because I was fascinated by our brave new world of smartphones and Facebook and Instagram and texting and Twitter and Tinder which they call “the information age.”  It’s an amazing age to live in.  We can work from our home or our car or the bottom of a well, hear breaking news before it even hits the internet–let alone TV, find out everything from pet preferences to credit scores about anyone you want, and talk face-to-face with people all over the planet.

You’d think with all that communicating, our relationships would be in better shape than ever before, but they’re not.  There are still tons of breakups and divorces (sometimes because of all that info, like reading their their partner’s e-mails and finding out they were using Ashley Madison or writing Twilight fan fiction), and people still end up having to write Dear Abby or Amy or Polly, or FriendZone or Captain Awkward that the guy they were madly in love with has turned out to be a jerk.  Or a felon.  Or a nine-year-old kid.   Plus, now we’re stuck with cyber crime and cyberstalkers and cyberbullying and phones that catch fire while you’re calling somebody.  And so-called friends sending us endless racist jokes and/or cute-cat videos.

So what’s the answer?  Less communication?  Or more?  If we could read people’s feelings, we’d know the guy was a jerk and/or not really in love with us, and it would solve everything!

Or at least so Briddey Flannigan thinks.  She’s determined to have a trendy new minor surgery so she can be “emotionally connected” to her fiancé Trent, even though her family and her co-worker C.B. Schwartz try desperately to talk her out of it.  “What if there are side effects?” C.B. asks.  “What if you end up a vegetable?  Or they put you under and harvest your organs and sell them on the black market?” but she doesn’t listen to him–nobody ever listens–and while she doesn’t come out of the anesthetic brain-damaged or kidney-less, there are definitely side effects.  And because of them, Briddey ends up in a communications mess worse than she could ever have imagined.

I love writing about side effects and unintended consequences and about inventions and discoveries that are supposed to vastly improve our lives and instead just present us with a whole new set of problems.  There’s a saying in Washington, D.C., that there are two rules in politics.  Rule Number l:  The cover-up is always worse than the crime.  Rule Number 2:  Nobody ever remembers Rule Number 1.

The same principle applies to technological breakthroughs.  Rule Number 1:  Any new technology, no matter how terrific, will have unintended consequences, many of them bad.  Rule Number 2:  Nobody ever remembers Rule Number 1.

Telepathy wouldn’t be any different.  There would be wonderful aspects–and absolutely hideous ones.  I mean, it’s bad enough knowing there are sexual predators and serial killers out there.  How would you like to have to listen to their thoughts?  Or to the conspiracy theories of the crop-circles-and-chemtrails nut job sitting next to you in Starbucks?  Or the unspoken comments of the driver you just cut off?

Do you really want to know what your boyfriend or your boss or your shrink thinks of you?  Are you sure?  And what about your thoughts?  Do you really want those out there for everybody to hear?  Like your mother?  Or your kids?  To say nothing of what criminals would do with telepathy if they got hold of it.  Or the CIA.  Or the KGB.  Or ISIS.

Like I say, lots of unintended consequences, one of which is facing the fact that technology, no matter how good and how many dating algorithms eHarmony comes up with, isn’t all that much help when it comes to love, which takes hard work and real communication, not just swiping, sexting, and changing your Facebook status.  It takes empathy, courage, and caring more about the other person than you do about yourself.  None of which there’s an app for.

Exploring that and all the other unthought of complications of telepathy made Crosstalk lots of fun to write.  I hope you have just as much fun reading it!