RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: November 2018

“Connecting you now…”: Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

In previous posts I have written about Connie’s  other novels: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout and All Clear, and Doomsday Book

Crosstalk is set in our own time, more or less. Briddey Flannigan is a red-haired young woman with a cool job in  a cool  US tech company Commspan, a rival to Apple etc. She has a cool boyfriend Trent Worth (an executive in the same company)  who has just asked her to  undertake a trendy new medical procedure. an EED.    Performed jointly on couples an EED connects them mentally and  enhances their emotional responses to each other. Life is perfect,  thinks Briddey.

Well almost. There are her work colleagues, for instance,  who use social  media incessantly  to find out what she is up to and relay it to each other. Briddey  can barely walk down the corridor without it being flashed around the building.

Then there’s her Irish-American  family. Her sister Kathleen, her other sister Mary  Clare,  Mary Clare’s daughter (Maeve (8 going on 18),  and  her aunt Oonagh  They constantly text or call Briddey  or leave voice messages or  call around uninvited, so that she has hardly a moment to herself, whilst they inflict their problems on her.  Kathleen is is always on the look-out for a man, Mary Clare  is obsessed with her daughter’s  health and well-being, Maeve feels suffocated  by her mother, while Aunt  Oonagh  has gone back to her Irish roots dressing in a shawl, invoking   St Patrick “and the blessed saints”  on all occasions, and is always on at   Briddey to go with her  to a Daughters of Ireland meeting.

Finally, there’s  C. B. Schwartz. C.B is the scruffy, unkempt  tech genius for Commspan who spends all his time in a freezing windowless basement laboratory working on the next big thing.  C.B.  has a pin-up of Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood star who spent her spare time trying to come up with a frequency-hopping   device to  hide  torpedo radio signals  from the Germans  during the war. CB is a sceptic  about modern communication:

Connie Willis

Commspan promises the same thing – more communication. But that isn’t what people want. They’ve way too much already – laptops, smartphones, tablets, social  media. They’ve got connectivity coming out of their ears.There’s such a thing as being too connected, you know, especially when it comes to relationships. Relationships need less communications , not more....why does every sentence beginning”We need to talk” end in disaster.?…If people really wanted to communicate, they’d tell the truth, but they don’t…They lie constantly  on Facebook, on eHarmony, in person.

C.B. urges Briddey not to have the EED,  but she takes no notice and goes ahead with the procedure. It works,  but not in the way that Briddey was expecting

For  the rest  of the novel we follow Briddey as she embarks on a journey involving half-truths,  deceptions, narrow escapes and revelations about her  family that turn  her world upside down. We also learn something surprising about the Irish.

Crosstalk is that rare thing,  a humorous science fiction novel that works.

 

 

 

Out of the Unknown Series 1; episode 7 “Sucker Bait” by Isaac Asimov

“Sucker Bait”  was broadcast on 15th November 1965.

Cast:  Mark Annuncio_ Clive Endersby, Doctor Sheffield – John Meillon,   Fawkes – Roger Croucher,  Novee – Burt Kwouk.  Captain Follenbee- Bill Nagy

Script: Meade Roberts

Director: Naomi Capon.

Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik,  Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.

“Sucker Bait” was a novella  first serialised in the February and March 1954 issues of Astounding Science Fiction, and reprinted in the 1955 collection The Martian Way and Other Stories.

The story begins on  the bridge of a spaceship in flight with countless stars visible.  (All stories like this seem to begin on  the bridge). We are in some undated future where there is a Confederation of 83,000 worlds.  Men still wear polo-necks, though, but  at least they  have the escaped the uniform blond hair of previous episodes.  The crew is multi-racial, but there are no women  on board.

Captain  Follenbee summons a crew member,  Mark Annuncio, to see him. Whilst the rest of the crew are scientists, laughing and joking   as they go about their various tasks,  Annuncio in these opening scenes  is  established as  an outsider,  who is regarded with  suspicion by the other men.   Novee comments, You’ve got to remember he’s a mnemonic, a weird and special lot.

Mark Annuncio (Clive Endersby)

Annuncio gets into an argument with the Captain when he refuses to let him see the ship’s log.  He  is rescued by  Doctor Sheffield who explains  who he   is, ostensibly  for the Captain’s benefit , but really  for our benefit what  a mnemonic does (mnemonic derives from the Greek word meaning memory).

…Computers are limited, they have to be asked questions. Sometimes it never occurs to people to ask them the right questions. Therefore mankind needs a  computer that is non-mechanical, that has some imagination. There is such a computer… in each and every one of us…Somewhere inside the human  brain is a record of every fact that’s ever been impinged upon. Very little is consciously remembered,, but it’s all there. A slight association can bring it back to us without knowing where it came from or why. Now that is called “a hunch”  or “a feeling”… Now some people  are better at it than other. Others are almost perfect,  like Mark Annuncio.

So we train them to read, look, listen and do it better and more efficiently. It doesn’t really matter what data they collect. Any data may be useful, and every in  no machine could possibly make.once in a while a mnemonic makes a correlation…You see Mark is different from us… mnemonics are taken into the service about the the age of five. In a sens etheya re force-grown. We allow them no contact  with normal people in case they develop normal  mental habits.  They are highly strung, easily upset, and  easily ruined. I am here to see that does not happen. mark is an instrumnet, the most valuable instrument on this ship. There are only a hundred like him in the universe.

When he  is annoyed (which happens quite often)  Annuncio   refers to the other crew members  as “Non Compos” which Doctor Sheffield explains means “Non Compos Mentis” ie “not of sound mind.”

The ship is heading for a planet  called Troas  which Mark has identifiied as a planet  where a colony was established, but then the colonists all died. Their mission is to find out why.  When the ship arives an expedition  – which includes Mark and Doctor Sheffield _  is sent to the  rocky surface. They find no sign of the colonists, just burial  mounds.   Increasingly the crew feel uneasy. Fawkes   wakes  from a dream believing that there was someone in the tent: They’re  all around us. Intelligent beings out there now. I’m telling you, I saw  in the tent and out here. Novee tries to convince him that it was just a nightmare.  but Fawkes is convinced that there is intelligent life on the planet.

However it is Annunncio who  realises  the real  truth of why the colonists died and takes drastic action that saves their lives. He pieces together  a number of  different   facts to reveal that  they were poisoned by beryllium, an element  that humanity has forgotten about,    but about which  he once read an obscure paper. Data matters, it seems .

My view is that  not a  great deal of drama in this story,  while the issue as to whether it is  morally right to create mnemonics is not touched on.

Naomi Capon (1921-1987), who directed the story, was one of only two women  directors working at the BBC in 1965. The other  was Paddy Russell.