How to be psychic

Are psychic powers a trojan horse from the world of magic that have snuck into science fiction? Psychic powers are almost indistinguishable from wish fulfilment in aggregate and only take on a resemblance of speculation about reality when codified into subtypes with Graeco-Latin names with sciency connotations.

But psychic powers aren’t going to vanish from science fiction any time soon. Doctor Who has psychic paper and telepathic circuits in their TARDIS, Star Trek has empaths and telepathic Vulcans, and Star Wars has a conflict between psychic factions as its core mythology. Firefly and Babylon 5 had psychics. Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Le Guin’s Ekumen universe, Asimov’s Foundation series, multiple Philip K Dick works, each contain various beings with mental powers. Science Fiction has a permission note for amazing mental abilities had has used that licence freely.

‘Psionics’ are a core conceit of science fiction in much the same way that faster than light travel is. It is so baked into the history of the genre that a person with amazing mental powers is something the audience for sci-fi just sorts of expects to encounter. Unlike warp-drives et al it is a marker of the strange. When Spock begins a mind meld the incidental music on classic Trek shifts to spooky.

So how can we dress up characters having magical powers amid a supposedly science and technology world?

  • Don’t. One step is simply to banish psychic powers to the outer darkness. After all plenty of science fiction doesn’t have psychic powers. True, I can’t think of a major film/TV sci-fi franchise that doesn’t…but surely psychic powers are not a compulsory part of science fiction.
  • Don’t dress it up. If we put The Phantom Menace’s midichlorians aside, Star Wars treats the Force as a quasi-religous power operated by space wizards. Force powers look ubiquitous in the Star Wars galaxy but only because we follow force-using characters. The films and adjacent media suggest that ordinary people regard it as either magic or superstition. Even senior members of the Empire military who *know Darth Vader* personally are sceptical right up to the point that ex-Anakin strangles them from a distance. Star Wars rejects scepticism about magic powers and even sympathetic characters who are sceptical are shown to be wrong (e.g. Han Solo). It is a universe of miracles.
  • Brains are radios. Telepathy at least makes some sort of sense. After all brains really do use electricity and presumably that electrical activity can be detected from a distance. Brain-computer interfaces are real actual technology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain%E2%80%93computer_interface ). Quite how another brain might pick up remotely another brain’s activity is unclear but there is some merit in the idea that of all the things in the universe that might be able to make sense of brain activity is another brain. Classic Trek’s very limited telepathy requires Spock to physically touch another person’s head. However, even if we imagine Spock’s fingers have some sort of EEG like capability, Spock’s capacity to mind meld with almost anything intelligent pushes even his ring-fenced powers into spooky territory.
  • Brains are quantum woo-woo. As I’ve said before, we don’t really have a strong concept of what we mean by ‘intelligence’. We know we can make electro-mechanical devices that can do clever things (i.e. computers) but we don’t know if brains are just a very complex electro-chemical equivalent. Physicist Roger Penrose has argued that our current understanding of physics is insufficient to explain intelligence (I think his argument is weak but it is hard to show the opposite without building a functioning brain from the ground up). So maybe brains are doing something weird at the sub-atomic level…
  • Brains tap into the quantum-sub-ether-interdimensional-ultra-force-vortex-thingy. Following on from the above, if brains need extra made-up physics just to do regular stuff like crosswords, arguing with your cat or writing rambling blog-posts, then why can’t brains make use of this whole unknown physics to do other stuff? We can hardly complain about psionics using fictional fundamental forces when phasers, light sabres, force fields, tractor beams, and even robots sort of hovering just a bit off the ground may also rely on unknown physics.
  • Minds aren’t brains and brains are just the giant USB cable joining the mental world to your body. Mind-brain dualism has a respectable history in philosophy even if it offends a more materialist view of reality. If your mind is some other kind of thing then maybe minds can interact in some other kind of way. You can call it the psychic plain or you can dress it up in inter-dimensional language but once you go down this route then even faster-than-light telepathic communication begins to make (fictional) sense.
  • Ha ha but telekinesis is obvious nonsense. Yeah, it is hard to make telekinesis make any kind of sense except…’Spooky’ version of how brains/minds can exist that rely on special unknown physics have a basic problem. Somehow, a mind that exists in a psychic plain can still make your body do things via your brain…but that necessarily implies that a mind in this other realm of physics can affect change at a macro level in more conventional physics. Voila! Telekinesis is far from spooky but is almost a requirement (at a restricted level) by having minds distinct from brains.
  • Reverse Platonism. I’m wandering straight into magic now but at least magic with a veneer of rational philosophical traditions. In a Platonic view of reality, abstractions such as ‘circle’ or ‘good’ are the higher reality and that reality is something we can access through rational, logical inquiry. I can infer the properties of a perfect circle even though our flawed reality can never have such a thing as a perfect circle. But what if I’m really, really smart and spend my life being raised by Vulcans in a Jedi academy that is attached to the Second Foundation base on the ruins of Trantor? Maybe then my mind is just so clever that I can manipulate the higher Platonic reality and affect change in our more mundane reality? Wooooooo! This is the principle underlying wish-fulfilment taken up a few levels. What it fits nicely with is the trope that psychic powers are a product of extreme mental discipline. Train with monks (or Vulcans or the Second Foundation) long enough and your mind becomes so smart you can manipulate reality.
  • I thought so hard I just disappeared. A word of caution though. If your mental abilities become to acute, you may accidentally transcend reality and disappear. If you find yourself in that situation then immediately engage with something that will bring your mental powers down. Fox News, lots of beer, might work. Avoid powerful psychoactive substances and sensory deprivation chambers.

38 thoughts on “How to be psychic

  1. Well, “psionics” is sort of grandfathered-in to SF, mainly for one reason – John W. Campbell Jr. believed in it, and encouraged his stable of writers to explore it. (I can think of a couple of short-lived BBC series – Moonbase 3 and Star Cops – which were so hard-SF they didn’t have any psychic woo-woo stuff, but you’re quite right, these sorts of shows are distinctly in the minority.)

    Mind you, I’m not a total sceptic when it comes to “psi”, myself… I don’t think we (yet) know all there is to know about the laws of physics, and I’ve known a few serious parapsychologists, who are mainly concerned with doing meticulous and strenuous meta-analyses of statistical data to see if anything interesting might be hiding in the statistical noise. There may yet be things out there that are undreamed-of in our philosophy. Possibly.

    Let’s see…. Samuel Delany went the “radio” route when explaining telepathy in Babel-17 (the human brain emits radio noise, but the only sort of antenna with enough surface area to pick it up is another human brain); there are a couple of examples, at least, of “psi” being explained by materialistic means – “telepaths” who are just really good at reading body language, “prophets” who are very good at predicting things from statistics (ISTR this is a big plot point in Robert Silverberg’s The Stochastic Man). And of course there are “telekinetics” who are just really good at sleight-of-hand magic….

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  2. Oh, yes, and Adam Roberts did, essentially, your “Reverse Platonism” in The Thing Itself, which can be read, at least, as a clash between two men who’ve acquired superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive Critique of Pure Reason.

    Sometimes, I think, the psychic stuff dovetails with the SF content in odd ways – like the Guild Navigators in Dune and their spice-based prediction powers: they are driving faster-than-light spaceships, they need to be able to respond to things before they can see them….

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    1. I just want to give a shout-out to The Thing Itself. I’ve had very mixed reactions to the fiction of Roberts that I’ve read, but that novel is brilliant. Also, I love your description of it!

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    2. “ a clash between two men who’ve acquired superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive Critique of Pure Reason.”

      Sold!

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  3. Are psychic powers a trojan horse from the world of magic that have snuck into science fiction?

    My understanding is that the word ‘fiction’ there is redundant; a lot of the original interest in psychic abilities pretty much came from people who wanted to study magic but couldn’t get research grants if they called it ‘magic’ so they used another name and focused on the ideas (like telepathy) which could in theory be explained by a relatively small amount of handwavium.

    @stevejwright:
    The tabletop RPG ‘Blue Planet’ had ‘psychic’ abilities that were like your last section: they were explicitly explained in the book as just acting on body language, tone of voice, essentially a slightly more conscious level of recognition of things that normally stay below the level of consciousness. The game’s transhumanist bent allowed these abilities to be granted via retrovirals to anybody willing to pay enough.

    (Which I used for character creation for a campaign I worked on at one point. Applying this upgrade to a sociopath makes them better at manipulation; applying it to someone that isn’t a sociopath yet can make them more empathic. Much to the annoyance of the business mogul who wanted his heir to be as ruthless as he was, and the heir who has already figured out how self-destructive the current mess is.)

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      1. I had a Blue Planet module written up for a local gaming convention (Pandemonium), with pre-generated characters . Sadly, only one person signed up for it, and not even that person bothered to showed up.

        (Even more sadly, that gaming convention shut down several years ago, and while there is now finally a replacement, it has consistently for the last four years always been on the exact same weekend as another convention.)

        Maybe I should pick that back up and turn it into a story instead. Though it’s not like I’m lacking for ideas, just time to write.

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    1. Yes, there’s a thing there in both sf and f where some thing is included and it is meant to be fiction versus when something is included because the author thinks it’s true but needs the deniability of fiction

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  4. I consider psychic powers in SFF works to be fantasy, indistinguishable from magic, unless there’s an in-universe technological explanation for the power to exist. Psychic due to brain implant? SF. Psychic due to being born that way? Fantasy.

    I know a lot of people disagree with me and think that psi powers are always SF, but as far as I’m concerned, any distinction between SF and Fantasy in general is a large fuzzy area rather than a hard line anyway, and I’m fine with psi powers appearing in that fuzzy area.

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  5. Psi powers bother me in a way FTL and other SF ‘wave your arms and pretend the laws of physics are a bit floppier than in reality’ props don’t. Maybe because people aren’t going around claiming to have warp capable spaceships for real, or maybe because things like FTL mess with some of the more obscure and difficult to understand parts of physics (eg relativity),, while psionics clash with really fundamental, basic stuff like conservation of energy or momentum.

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    1. angharad: Psi powers bother me in a way FTL and other SF ‘wave your arms and pretend the laws of physics are a bit floppier than in reality’ props don’t.

      Yeah, I just can’t consider “organic” psi powers anything other than fantasy / magic. But I accept that some other people consider them SF.

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  6. In real life, there’s a method of becoming psychic, which is simply to declare that you are psychic and advertise yourself, using any means your personal code permits to reinforce it. I don’t see why this wouldn’t work in fiction.

    I wrote a rather short story where (as has happened in other fictions) a sudden physical danger brought out the latent power to perceive the lines and planes (not plains, by the way) along which one can use natural means to do wondrous things, like fly, like being a bird and having a better idea than we do of where the air currents are. Raises the question of why more people can’t do it, of course, but it was just a thousand words or thereabouts. “No time to explain!”

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  7. In short SF, strong psionic abilities are pretty rare these days, and when they do turn up, it’s usually in really bad stories. Pyrokinesis, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, teleportation, and mental dominance are almost entirely the province of fantasy stories. (Maybe they might turn up as abilities of aliens, but I can’t think of an example right this instant.)

    Telepathy turns up a bit more often, but far more common is something like telepathy but mediated by a brain implant.

    So at this point, I’d say psi is still around, but it’s only legitimate in fantasy stories. Only bad SF still treats it seriously–the kind of stories where people only use 10% of their brains, where learning a new language can give you abilities you never had before, where there’s no gravity in the stratosphere, where the author thinks Alpha Centauri is a galaxy, etc.

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    1. ” (Maybe they might turn up as abilities of aliens, but I can’t think of an example right this instant.)”
      The Expanse does that, doesn’t it? I think the way the protomolecule makes Holden hallucinate about Miller must be considered psi.

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    2. Do superhero franchises count as SF or fantasy? Plenty of telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis (wait, isn’t that firebending? Shouldn’t it be telepyro…nis, maybe?), clairvoyance and so on in both X-Men and MCU (though the last Spiderman film subverted that quite cleverly, I thought).

      I do write SF stories with psi every now and then, treating it seriously within the story, because it’s fun and it used to be a staple of SF once upon a time. I’m nothing if not faithful to the trope trove.

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      1. Around 1976, Uri Geller visited Marvel’s offices, and bent a spoon or something, and subsequently showed up in DAREDEVIL, where he melted an iron bar in a crook’s hand and conversed with the villain (also psychic! what are the odds?) in thought balloons. Not a bad return on a near-zero investment. I was outraged at the time and paperblogged it in AZAPA. I already had set aside a small selection of books as ‘unintentional humor’ in the store I worked in, including Geller and Jeane Dixon.

        (Note: I was just checking the spelling of the above-mentioned late astrologer’s name, and besides predicting JFK’s assassination really soon after it happened, she also said the world would end in 2020. I think we should keep it going, just to spite her.)

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      2. I’d say most superhero franchises are thinly-veiled fantasy. That’s particularly true when the origin story has a scientific veneer but it’s not relevant to anything that happens later. E.g. Spiderman supposedly got his powers from a radioactive spider, but as far as the story goes, he might as well have got them from a witch. Superman, on the other hand, gets his powers from Earth’s yellow sun, and this turns up as a plot point over and over again. (SF with bad science is still SF.) Broadly, I’d say the DC universe is closer to SF while Marvel is closer to fantasy, but it would take more serious study than I’m up for to quantify that.

        I should add that I quit being a regular comics reader in 1971, so although I’ve read a few now and then (and watched most of the recent movies), I can’t claim to be a real expert.

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      3. Individual superheroes tend to be themed more around either technology or magic but then still encounter situations that shift between them. e.g. Dr Strange=Magic, Iron Man=Technology but Dr Strange might have to fight a robot and Iron Man might have to fight a god. Put another way, we can categorise the premise of a superhero on a SF v F spectrum (eg Thor is more F than SF but the F has SF trappings) and we can categorise individual story arcs as not just SF v F but also as crime thriller or techno thriller (eg Daredevil v Kingpin stories are about organised crime, Daredevil v spooky ninjas are fantasy etc). Superheroes are characters that can be placed within other genres to see what happens when they collide with other stories.

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    3. The aliens in Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” have something that to humans looks like precognition, but not in the sense of getting next week’s sports news or weather report and being able to use it. They know next week’s weather, along with whether which coat they will wear or that they will slip on the ice. Not “there will be ice there, be careful” but “we are in a universe where Vicki slips on the ice outside her friend’s store Thursday at 4:00,” along with how badly I injure myself, whether I go to the doctor, and so on.

      “Precognition” because the future is as clear as the past seems somehow more plausible than me knowing that there will be ice on the sidewalk at that location and that I am going to slip, and therefore change my plans to not walk down that sidewalk–while someone else might have the precognition that I would be there to tell them where the bus stop is, or that I would get home late because of that fall… and much less appealing.

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  8. Does Thunderbirds count as a major TV franchise? No psychic abilities in there that I can remember.

    They made up for their omision in Stingray of course…

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    1. The Hood! Hypnotic powers, and a telepathic connection to his brother – I think it was brother – anyway, Jeff Tracy’s generic-Oriental servant Kyrano. And light-up eyeballs with it.

      I don’t think there was any psychic stuff in Supercar, though… admittedly, it’s been a while since I saw it….

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  9. Thinking about Gerry Anderson… I don’t recall any psychic stuff in The Secret Service, though that one only ran for one season, and was peculiar in other respects… The live action shows UFO and Space: 1999 were both heavy on the weird stuff (and the later Space Precinct featured an entire species of alien telepaths); Captain Scarlet‘s mysterious Mysterons had all sorts of awesome powers….

    Then there’s Joe 90, which is kind of an odd case, because although the whole show depends on a sort of mind-reading gimmick, it is strictly mechanical – it records and replays brain waves – and supposedly scientific. But, then, it doesn’t do to think too hard about Joe 90, which is, when you get down to it, a show about a scientist doing unethical brain experiments on a ten-year-old boy, then teaming up with an equally unethical intelligence officer to put the kid in life-threatening situations. I remain convinced that Joes 1 through 89 are buried in unmarked graves behind Professor MacLaine’s cottage, victims of unspeakably awful cerebral trauma. (All adopted sons, obviously. Professor MacLaine drives a car made of plutonium, of course he’s sterile.)

    An odd possibility for a non-psychic show is The Prisoner – despite all the high weirdness and altered states of consciousness, all the mind-control and brain-subverting stuff is shown as being strictly technological; drugs, psychosurgery, weird tech and outright fakery. (There’s that episode with the Zener cards, where Number Six is supposed to have a genuine psychic link with Jane Merrow’s character… but she admits it was all faked, somehow, at the end of the episode. [The actual mind-reading scene is very obviously faked, as Patrick McGoohan’s perfect diction makes abundantly clear.])

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  10. Wonderful and crunchy article! The Reverse Platonism made me think of SL Huang’s stories, where the main character can ‘see’ math, topological functions and vectors. I’d even call that an (extreme?) case of synaesthesia. Quite a few people experience v.g. sound also as colours/textures/flavours etc. Now, crank that to eleven, postulate that there’s some quantum entanglement woo-woo involved, and you have Reverse Platonism. QED!

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  11. One more example of mechanical psi, and then I promise I’ll shut up – the Paranoia RPG, more specifically John M. Ford’s module The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, even more specifically the section “I Was a Mutant for the FBI”. Characters in Paranoia have “mutant powers”, many of which are psi-like; in this particular section, they have to go undercover as mutants, and are therefore outfitted with super-science devices that emulate mutant powers… this being Paranoia, they emulate mutant powers very, very badly. There is, for example, a telekinesis simulator which basically has hundreds of hair-fine wire tendrils that can pick up objects and move them around – controllably, if you are extremely lucky….

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  12. Psychic powers were considered plausible for most of the 20th c.! It wasn’t just cranks like Campbell. Even the skeptics were more like “I’m not entirely convinced” than “no way, dude!” There was a lot of what looked like scientific evidence supporting the possibility. It really wasn’t until the eighties, when “psychic” fraud Uri Geller was famously exposed by James “the Amazing” Randi and Johnny Carson, after having fooled a lot of scientists, and then the flaws in the Rhine Institutes methodology started to come out, that opinions really began to solidify against psy. And then, of course, Randi set up his million dollar prize, which remains unclaimed, and it’s really hard to argue against that!

    So, anyway, I give stuff from the seventies or earlier a pass, and, for later stuff, well, sometimes it’s an homage to the classics, and it’s hard to fault that. Beyond that, though, yeah, I wince.

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  13. Wondering where, or if, the Laundry Files fits in, what with its central organizing principle of power through computation. Fantasy with a veneer of SF, or the other way round?

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