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Questioning the Future | Designing the Future

Connie Willis

Connie Willis

sept15webart140authwillisConnie Willis, winner of an impressive 11 Hugo Awards and eight Nebula Awards, was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and named a Grand Master in 2011 by the Science Fiction Writers of America ). Her fiction looks at the past and the future, sometimes even in the same book. In several of her novels and stories, including her latest, Crosstalk (LJ 8/16), she examines the possibilities of technology, but always through the lens of believable, empathetic characters unafraid to question where those developments will take us. Even when Willis’s vision of the future seems dark, and her characters make mistakes, they still live and love, lean on one another, and grow. That’s a vision of the future anyone can get behind.

Crosstalk combines romantic comedy with social commentary in a delightful way. In your barely tomorrow future, people are desperate for intimacy. Do you think, as a society, that we are too willing to give up our privacy in the face of a desire for connectedness?
I think lots of people want the appearance of connectedness, not the actual thing, because real connection is often difficult and uncomfortable. Instead, they want the illusion of a relationship, a gauzy romance in which you not only share those “long walks on the beach” that everybody puts in their online dating profile, but the tender and sentimental thoughts that supposedly go along with them.People actually walking along a beach hand in hand wouldn’t really be thinking, “Sunset…closeness….romance…love…'”  They’d be thinking, “I have sand stuck between my toes…ow!  I just stepped on a rock…I’m cold….when can we go inside and put on some shoes?”

It’s when people are seeking the illusion of intimacy that they get in trouble, just like my heroine does. And she’s only able to get out of it by figuring out what real intimacy involves, with all the hard work and tough decisions and pain that go along with it.

willis_crosstalkAs if time travel were not a difficult enough plot device for a writer to use when it comes to keeping to your own rules and internal consistency, you’ve now written about telepathy. How did you work to make something fantastical into a believable plot device with rules that made sense?
Using something like telepathy is really tricky since so much of comedy depends on misunderstandings and miscommunication, and telepathy would seem to eliminate all that. I mean, you’d know what the other person was thinking, wouldn’t you? On the other hand, knowing what the other person was thinking would create as many problems as it solved. Just like everything else in life.

As to making it believable, telepathy may not exist, but it’s something everybody’s fantasized about and sort of wishes existed, so it’s not an unfamiliar idea. Plus, it’s been written about a lot, both in and out of science fiction.  There’s Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside. And Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Zenna Henderson’s People stories and John Varley’s “The Persistence of Vision.” And my personal favorite, Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat.

Because it doesn’t exist, you can make it work any way you want to, although I get annoyed with stories that make telepathy controllable—so the hero or heroine can dip in and out of people’s thoughts whenever they feel like it and hear exactly what they want to hear.

That just wouldn’t be the case. In the first place, we don’t think in complete sentences—or even in words—a lot of the time, and in the second place, people’s thoughts are all over the place. You could listen to a murderer for days without ever figuring out who he’s going to murder and when–or whether he’s a real murderer or just someone who’s really upset.  (I frequently think murderous thoughts while in line at the bank and the grocery store.).

And that’s if you could hear the murderer over all the other people thinking at the same time!

In Crosstalk, Briddey and her boyfriend Trent decide to get an EED, a procedure that allows a person to sense their partner’s emotions. If the procedure worked as advertised, would you want an EED?
Absolutely not. I firmly believe that relationships only work because the other person doesn’t know what we’re thinking or feeling most of the time. For instance, my husband and I just got back from the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City, where, in spite of—or perhaps because of—our GPS, we got spectacularly lost, and when we tried to re-enter the address of our hotel, the GPS crashed altogether, leaving us somewhere in the warehouse-district wilds of north Kansas City. I was convinced my husband had fed in the wrong address, he was (I think) convinced I had read it to him wrong, and both of us were ready to kill each other. Luckily, we could not read each other’s minds—or feelings—which is why we are still married

What’s next for you? Any more trips to the past in your future?
I’m currently working on a novel about UFOs, tentatively called The Road to Roswell. It’s a comedy (what else could it be with UFOs and alien abduction in it?) involving extraterrestrials, Area 51, Western movies, casinos, Monument Valley, and Las Vegas wedding chapels.           I’m also working on a story about a mysterious bookshop, one about paper dolls (remember those Lennon Sister paper dolls?) and one about the Isle of Capri.  And I’m reading all sorts of great books, from Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down to Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and the WPA Guide to New Mexico.

As to my writing any more stories about the Oxford historians I wrote about in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear, I’m not sure, though I have been thinking about Tintern Abbey a lot lately.  And all those lost movies of Hollywood that burned up in the 1967 MGM vault fire and/or turned to nitrate goo in their film canisters. Somebody really should try to go get them.—Megan M. McArdle

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