TT: The Psionics Challenge

JANE:  Happy New Year!  (I was so busy thinking about what next that I forgot to say this yesterday!)  Here’s hoping that 2017 is a year of peace and goodwill to all.

ALAN: And a Happy New Year to all of you from me as well.

Very Different Takes

Very Different Takes

JANE: Last time we talked about how editor John W. Campbell’s interest in psionic powers led to a great many stories taking a more serious look at the implications of these powers.  I can see you bouncing up and down and waving your hand, so why don’t you take over?

ALAN: Thank you.  One of my favourite writers from this period was Mark Clifton. He was an early adopter of Campbell’s enthusiasm for psionics. He’s largely forgotten these days, but in the 1950s he wrote some magnificent psi-based stories for Campbell which laid the groundwork for much that came later.

JANE: I fear I’m one of those who never knew of his work, so I can’t say I’ve “forgotten” him as such, but clearly I need enlightening.  Please tell me more.

ALAN: A good example of Clifton’s work is the very funny story “What Thin Partitions”. It was the first of a series of four novelettes about Ralph Kennedy, a personnel director (these days we’d call him a Human Relations director) who works for a large industrial company. A chemist in the company has invented something he calls a “chemical impulse storer”. It’s a sludge that can learn things from thought waves. The narrator has an argument with someone who gets very upset with him and who uses her telekinetic ability to completely wreck his office. The sludge learns how to repel gravity from this incident. The rest of the story concerns Kennedy’s efforts to reproduce the effect so as to make a fortune from selling gravity repelling capsules…

In this and other stories, Clifton offers a nice explanation of how psionic powers might work:

“…there may be any number of frameworks, separated from one another by perhaps the thinnest of partitions, each containing its own set of real world conditions, natural laws, consistent within itself, obeying its own logic, having its own peculiar cause-effect-sequences.”

JANE: And thus the title of his story…

ALAN: …which is actually a quote from Alexander Pope’s poem Essay on Man:

“Remembrance and reflection how allied!
What thin partitions Sense from Thought divide!”

Guess what the title of the sequel to Clifton’s story was?

JANE: Let me guess.  Perhaps “Sense From Thought Divide”?

ALAN: That’s exactly right! Clifton must have been very fond of Pope’s poem. He also wrote a story called “Remembrance and Reflection”, but Campbell didn’t publish that one. It appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1958.

Many of Clifton’s stories are now in the public domain and can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg. They are still very well worth reading. I think it’s a great shame that Clifton fell so quickly out of favour. Other people seem to agree with me – in 2010 he received the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award for unjust obscurity.

JANE: I’ll definitely need to look into his work.

As I mentioned last week, Campbell’s enthusiasm for psionics created a SF trope that went far beyond the covers of the magazines he edited.  Psi-powers began to show up everywhere.   One author who used them widely and thoughtfully was Marion Zimmer Bradley, most specifically in her “Darkover” series.  Although the planetary culture of Darkover has medieval trappings – swords, horses, fur-lined cloaks, and suchlike – the series began as a “lost colony” tale.

When some members of a stranded colony ship interbreed with the natives of the planet, psionic abilities enter the human gene pool, as well as a tendency for some people to have six fingers and a more willowy build.

The tales might have become mere sword and sorcery, with psionics instead of spells, except that Bradley created an elaborate psionic technology which used matrix crystals that amplified the abilities.  To me, especially as a college student (which I was when I first discovered the books, many of which had been written far earlier) this gave a solidity and reality to what would otherwise have been vague occult powers.

Oh…  I will add that there were consequences to the use of psionic powers, too, tremendous ones, which with the people of Darkover in the “present” time are still coming to terms with.

ALAN: Just to come a bit more up to date, I’m very fond of Steven Gould’s 1992 novel Jumper. The young David Rice discovers an unexpected ability to teleport himself – the power initially manifests itself when David uses it to escape from a physically abusive situation. Once he learns to control his teleportation, he uses it in several very ingenious ways to provide himself with money, food and shelter. In this novel and its several sequels Steven Gould carefully examines the long term consequences of teleportation and even speculates a little bit about the physics that might lie behind it.

JANE: Jumper also falls into the “wish fulfillment” category – but what’s different about Steve’s treatment is that David eventually has to face the moral and ethical implications of what he’s doing with his power.

ALAN: That’s what raises Jumper out of the ordinary. On the one hand we’ve got an exciting and ingenious story which asks what it means to be human and on the other hand we have the clever use of a very science fictional idea to try and answer the question.

Interestingly, the idea of teleportation first manifesting itself as a means of escape from peril has been used to great effect in other stories as well.

JANE:  I’d love to talk about that, but how about next time?


5 Responses to “TT: The Psionics Challenge”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Alan will be amused to know [if you don’t already] that Clifton used all 4 phrases of that verse: How Allied is listed as the 3rd Ralph Kennedy title in ISFDB.

    Oddly, I remember the name clearly, but always associate it with the Queen’s Own FBI stories. Which were actually written by Mark _Phillips_.

    One often-enjoyable subset of the psi stories Astounding/Analog published was concerned with the discovery of psi. I particularly remember a story titled ‘And Silently Vanish Away’ where it starts out with the researchers noticing that their lab rats are, very cheerfully, popping in and out of their cages…

  2. James M. Six Says:

    It’s not just about what is human. It’s also about their differences from bog standard humans. Once psions are introduced into a story series, sooner or later the author has to deal with the issue of whether psions or non-psions will be the dominant variant of humans.

    Part of this is to figure out how the psionics work. A version of telepathy where you read surface thoughts like a book is more amenable to taking power than a version where you *become* the other person while reading them. Ex: Psion by Joan Vinge, in which the alien psions basically die out after encountering humans, unable to handle human thoughts/emotions.

    Part of it is social. This includes training psions like religious orders to instill morals along with training. Not sure of any books but see the Minbari psions in the TV show Babylon 5.

    Part of it is genetics. How quickly does the psionic genetic combination propagate? What other genetic side effects occur aongside psionics? Ex: Emerald Eyes by Daniel Keys Moran, in which the one non-psion born from the genetic engineering program leaves his “family” the moment he finds out he’s not one of them, to avoid becoming a “dinosaur” immediately … because they don’t breed very fast.

    And what happens when you are one of the last non-psions in a society where almost everyone is psionic? Have either of you seen anything along those lines over the years?

    • janelindskold Says:

      “Bog standard”?

      As to your question… I can’t think of an example right off, but several Fantasy novels have addressed the issue in relation to magic. Piers Anthony’s A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON starts with that conceit, and I noticed a relatively new novel (name escapes me at this moment) where my first thought was “Oh, that’s A SPELL FOR CHAMELEON again.”

      • James M. Six Says:

        “Bog standard” – not sure where I picked up that expression (British TV probably) but it means basic, unremarkable, ordinary, as opposed to that which is special or unique.

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