JANE: Now that you’ve finished the roast goose and plum pudding – or whatever New Zealanders eat for Christmas – we can get back to discussing posthumanity.
ALAN: Roast kiwi. Onna stick! Inna bun!
JANE: Terry Pratchett (or at least Dibbler) would be proud of you…
As you noted last time with your Van Vogt examples, SF dealing with attempts to create posthumanity can include breeding for traits that don’t actually exist. Among the most popular of these are “psi” powers like telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, clairvoyance (ESP), levitation, pyrokinesis (setting fires mentally), and psychic healing (which is often combined with the ability to use the same powers to wound or kill).
Often psi ability is presented as the next step in human evolution. Other times, it’s the result of an accidental mutation. Either way, introducing psionic powers can make for a great way to investigate what it is to be human – and where the line is crossed to becoming “other.”
ALAN: I vividly remember sitting in exams in my teens and wishing I was telepathic so that I could lift the answers to the questions out of other people’s minds…
Of course, that kind of adolescent wish-fulfilment can’t stand up to any rigorous examination. What if everyone was telepathic? Surely that would make everyday life impossible. After all, speaking personally, I’m quite happy to monitor your thoughts, but I definitely don’t want you monitoring mine. Now imagine that problem writ large.
JANE: I’m imagining… And trembling!
ALAN: Alfred Bester addressed it directly in his 1953 novel The Demolished Man which imagines a society in which everyone is telepathic. The viewpoint character commits a murder and is then faced with the problem of how to avoid conviction. How can you get away with murder when your mind is an open book? Bester’s solution is ingenious and the novel is a tour-de-force.
JANE: I remember really loving that novel. Now I have a hankering to re-read it.
Before we go any further with discussing titles, I think it’s important to remember that at the time mental superpowers – I’m going to use the term “psionics” because it’s faster to type – became a major force in SF literature, there was a great deal of research being done in an attempt to prove these powers existed.
Perhaps the best known researcher into parapsychology was J.B. Rhine, whose Rhine cards and related tests attempted to test phenomena such as clairvoyance in a controlled situation.
Editor John W. Campbell was fascinated by these experiments and, consequently, encouraged fiction that looked at these abilities more seriously, including investigating the implications of how society would be shaped if psionic abilities were more fully understood and became part of society.
ALAN: That’s true – and Campbell’s whole-hearted adoption of Rhine’s theories was directly responsible for the upsurge in psionic stories in the 1950s and 1960s.
JANE: Sadly (or maybe not, when I think of your telepathy example) in the case of psionics, scientific examination did not support the idea that psionic powers were “real.” If it had, SF would have laid a groundwork for social attitudes as it has done with things like cloning and organ transplants.
ALAN: Even without that, psionics still remains an area of fascinating literary speculation.
JANE: I agree… Before we get into the details, I’d like to tangent off at a very slight angle.
Since we began this discussion weeks ago by exploring literary tropes within SF/F, I’d like to note that psionics provide a fascinating way to take a closer look at how a trope can evolve.
As you noted last week, there were stories about psi powers before Campbell’s time, but his interest created a trend of looking at these abilities more seriously. That trend, in turn, created various conventions, such as, for example, the idea that a group with psi powers is likely to be feared by those without those powers.
Conventions, in turn, can spare wasted motion, so that, for example, when I wrote my novel Smoke and Mirrors, I could reference past purges of psionics without needing to provide a detailed history. This in turn permitted me to focus on the material of my novel.
ALAN: Sadly, all too often, conventions can also lead to clichéd and repetitious stories. However, even with the vast amount of SF I’ve read, I can still sometimes be surprised by the twists and turns that old ideas can take when new minds consider them carefully. In The Long Earth Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter created “stepping,” a new variation on teleportation. In the tradition of the best “what if” SF, they then spent four long novels exploring the implications of this development.
JANE: I’ve only read the first volume, but I was impressed how Pratchett and Baxter were willing to examine consequences on so many different levels – including how family structures would be changed. So many authors would have used this as the foundation for yet another tedious war story.
ALAN: Stories about psionics (the serious ones anyway) require us to look right inside ourselves and directly ask what it means to be human. After all, if I can read thoughts or move things with my mind, something that ordinary people cannot do, am I still human?
JANE: Absolutely! How about next week, we take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories, both old and new, featuring psionic powers and how they’d reshape the not only the perception of what it is to be human, but human society at large?