Fiction Reviews


(2016) Connie Willis, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 498pp, ISBN978-1-473-20094-4


I’m a sucker for a good romcom. I realise that probably makes me a bit unusual in Science Fiction circles, where any kind of romantic interaction in the books we read is usually perfunctory, unconvincing or (more often) avoided completely, as if the whole unpleasantness is best forgotten about in case it gets in the way of describing our story’s whizzy space drive. And that’s a shame, and may explain why we have been relegated to a ghetto at the back of the bookshop, between Young Adult and Manga. Embrace it, I say.

The Guardian, on the front cover of this book, describes Crosstalk as a ‘sci-fi rom-com for the 21st Century’, which I’m guessing was the intention, and it does have all of those pleasing romcom plotlines: boy meets girl, but girl is with totally inappropriate other boy until she realises he’s a jerk and the other boy (who’s conveniently in love with her) is The One: which he is. Because he is a nerd with superpowers who does them only for good, even at great cost to himself. As it has already been described (on the cover) as a romcom, you know how this ends, so don’t blame me for spoilers.

I like this book, despite it tripping over itself in places. It starts with a cool premise, that someone’s invented an implant that helps you feel the emotional state of your partner – so you can tell how much they love you and whether they’re suitably delighted with your spiffy Christmas gift. The dangers are obvious – that despite being ‘emotionally bonded’ people might not like what their new reaction-radar tells them. Suppose they hate their new Christmas present? And suppose it becomes obvious (because of all the indifference vibes) that the Earth might not exactly be moving for both partners?

Lots of comic potential there, but sadly the book steers into an entirely different direction and becomes a spot the telepath (and can I keep those damn noises out) story. It almost feels like Willis changed her mind early on about the direction the novel was taking and went with the characters. You’ve got ditzy Briddley and dashing Trent, plus nerdy weirdo CS. So far so stereotypical. But the characters don’t so much grow as morph. Briddley gets smart, CS gets normal and Trent turns into a cartoon baddie. Briddley really should have realised Trent was a jerk from the start, but hey, that’s the lure of the Porsche.

Which isn’t to say this is a bad book. Quite the opposite. I found the characters engaging and fun (though not that complex) and, while it was hard to totally buy in to the premise, it was easy to go along for the ride. Connie Willis is good at this sort of thing, of course. She is a multiple Hugo winner and SF grandmaster with a solid back catalogue. Like some of her other work, Crosstalk has a jaunty, upbeat tone with characters we begin to care about (even though we can’t entirely relate to them). New ground? Not really, but this is solid and entertaining, which is good enough for me.

Mark Bilsborough

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