Anyone with a passion for science fiction has read a Connie Willis book and come away from it with a fresh new perspective on whatever has captured her attention. From time-traveling Oxford historians to her latest comic novel that tackles empathy and telepathy, Willis's interests range widely – and we all benefit.
Her new novel, Crosstalk, explores empathy and relationships and gives them a screwball comedy twist. When Briddey Flannigan's boyfriend, Trent, suggests they get empathy implants before becoming engaged, she's more worried about how her extended and extensively exhausting family will react than about potential side-effects. But when Briddey awakens from her operation linked to her tech-whiz coworker C.B. rather than boyfriend Trent, things start to get complicated....
Recently she spoke with us over the phone about Crosstalk, modern communication, and the state of science fiction today.
Amazon Book Review: What sparked the idea for Crosstalk?
Connie Willis: That’s always a tricky question to answer. I feel like books come together in odd ways. It’s not a single idea. An idea comes from here; an idea comes from there. And they all accrue together somehow. But a couple of the major things that inspired this book were, first, the constant barrage of communication that we get daily in this new information age. You can spend your entire life online or on Facebook or Tweeting or whatever. It’s like you have a dozen people yammering at you constantly, and it’s hard to concentrate and hard to figure out who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing and what your life is like. There’s this endless noise. I wanted to carry forward that idea of endless noise one step farther to make it an unbearable level of noise. And then the second thing is that [telepathy] is not an unusual topic for science fiction. There’s Robert Silverberg, who wrote Dying Inside, and Alfred Bester wrote The Demolished Man. And there are dozens and dozens of short stories about telepathy and the consequences of reading someone’s mind. One thing I noticed was that almost all of them focused on the truly negative side of telepathy: either world domination or madness or both. And hardly any of them saw the funny complications that could result. And that’s something that I frequently do in my writing: take something that has previously been treated very, very seriously in science fiction, but that no one has done a comic spin on.
When I wrote Crosstalk, I was trying to do something very different from Blackout and All Clear. I’d spent the last eight years doing World War Two, which is kind of grim. I wanted to do something that was a real change of pace. And I love writing romantic comedy. It’s perhaps my favorite genre. So I was excited that I was able to spend the time writing a romantic comedy.
You seem to have staked out the territory of humorous science fiction. How did you gravitate to that?
Well, that was kind of a natural thing for me. I see the world in comic mode. I have an overdeveloped sense of irony, which means that I frequently will see the funny side when other authors do not. There’s a proud tradition of that in science fiction: Fredric Brown, William Tenn, and even Shirley Jackson, who is known for her dark, dark horror stories – well, she wrote a lot of humor and had an overdeveloped sense of irony, which I think is why she could write so well in the horror mode too.
But I write both kinds of science fiction. There was a rumor going around a while back that there were two Connie Willises: one who wrote the serious novels that I write, and one who wrote the comic novels that I write. And I was saying, “No, there are not two people. It’s two sides of the same coin.” But some people will be surprised when one of my novels is funny and the next will be pretty serious and grim.
I’m sure different readers of yours would pick different books as their favorites, but which of your books are you the most proud of?
Oh, that’s a hard question. It seems to imply that you spend all your time thinking about your own work, and I don’t. [Laughs] I think I’m probably proudest of Blackout and All Clear. It’s a two-volume book, and it’s the last book in my time travel books. It’s not a series – they are all free-standing – but it’s about the Oxford historians who have access to time travel and can go back in the past and explore the past. When I wrote Blackout and All Clear, I wanted so much to write about the London blitz and the aspects of World War Two in which the civilians figured heavily. Everyone writes about the soldiers and the battles and D-Day and the war in the Pacific. I felt that the part that civilians played in the war had not been covered properly. And I’m proudest, especially, that it was a bunch of kids and old ladies and retired choir members who basically defeated Hitler. It was really hard – it turned into a two-volume book and a really long and complicated saga that nearly killed me – but I was really proud that I got to tell their story.
You’ve been writing for a long time—
Oh, for hundreds of years, practically! [Laughs]
You’ve certainly covered hundreds of years in your writing. What do you see as the state of science fiction writing today?
Oh, I think it’s better and better all the time. It isn’t that great stuff wasn’t being written when I got into the field and before I got into the field. There’s always been just staggeringly good things being written in science fiction that’s been overlooked by mainstream fiction, I think. People who don’t read science fiction have the idea that it’s all lasers and robots and ray guns and spaceships. It’s really not. There were writers even back in the forties and fifties who were doing this incredible sophisticated work.
But there are really wonderful things being written now. And now because science fiction writers can work at the novel length, they can explore ideas in more complicated ways. The field just gets better and better and bigger and bigger as it gets more and more diverse. We get more and more writers from all over the world coming from all kinds of backgrounds, and that enriches the field enormously. It used to be a white-bread, white male kind of field, and limited to one point of view. And now it has dozens and dozens of points of view, and the field is way better because of that.
It’s exciting. It’s a great place to be.
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