Saturday, March 18, 2017


"Knowing that myself has gone
To the other side of the mirror
And getting bigger"

Neuroticfish - It's Not Me

I spoil you: if you haven't read Asimov's Foundation novels, Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish books or played Torment: Tides of Numenera, this post does allude to some pretty major plot reveals. Then again, when discussing telepathy, isn't forewarning to be expected? You decide.

For a long time I saw telepathy as a natural element of science fiction as it is in fantasy worlds (literary or religious) or superhero comics. After all, it just keeps cropping up alongside those other monstrously game-breaking superpowers like time travel, teleportation or invisibility. Charming's just something princes do naturally, a first level wizard spell. Sense motive's a basic divination. Jesus knows your impure thoughts. If Jean Grey can read minds, it's easy to take for granted counselor Troi's presence on the bridge of the Enterprise as well.

The more I've encountered telepathy in SF though, the more it seems a dead end, untenable as a theme for any lengthy plot. In short stories, alright, it can yield some highly memorable tension like George R.R. Martin's A Song for Lya but any more coherent universe telepathy tends to monopolize and monotonize. In something as shallow as Star Trek it's barely noticeable among all the other ludicrous babbling. It's not like they actually use any of their advanced technology logically anyway.

However, take a look at something more respectable like Asimov's Foundation novels. The story starts out as a multifaceted exploration of imperial decline and fall, the preservation of knowledge, human social patterns, technological advancement, economic imperialism, harsh decisions and superior tactics. The unveiling of The Mule serves as an appropriately dramatic climax, a paradigm-shifting superpower rendering all previous tactics and technologies moot. Where do you go from there? The only thing that can beat a telepath is more telepathy. The only thing that sounds impressive after that is even more telepathy, an entire telepathic planet. The scope of the Foundation novels shrinks as they progress.

Or look at Ursula K. Le Guin's SF novels. Rocannon's World is a broad, sweeping science fantasy story with elves and goblins and "magic" reinterpreted via Clarke's third law, a fantastic romanticized anthropological sweep through various "alien" cultures. The hero dodges orbital bombardment and tries to reclaim futuristic technology from deep within the warrens of thieving goblins, lance-duels atop gryphon back, Beowulfs his way through dangerous waters protected by a suit of space-age polymer, escapes bandits and vampires and finally, at the end of the story, reaches the cave of an ancient mystic who teaches him telepathy. Then in the last few pages he takes the fight to his enemies and none can stand before him 'cuz... shit. Whatcha gonna do against a guy who knows everything you're thinking of doing?

It's a revolutionary concept in religion as well, especially obvious in monotheism. The invention of thought-crime lends the most absolutist edge possible to theocracy. Don't even think of stepping out of line, 'cuz Jesus will flay the flesh off your bones in a lake of fire for all eternity if you so much as covet the thought of coveting. With a stick that big, who even needs carrots?

By the time she revisits this superweapon in the third novel of her SF universe, City of Delusion, Le Guin's painted herself into a corner. Given the impossibility of lying to a telepath, betrayal has become obsolete, and so has most conflict. Unfortunately you can't have much of a plot without conflict, so her universe of telepaths gets taken over by anti-telepath telepaths, and these have to be countered by an anti-anti-telepath and can we at least acknowledge that infinite regression's a conceptual dead end? In her later books in the same universe, the author's forced to more or less ignore, pre-date, hand-wave or otherwise avoid the topic.

For the same reason it finds such ready use in religious control, telepathy's too damn near omnipotence to coexist with other plot points. In fantasy stories revolving around the whims of universal authority figures, laws handed down from above, it can find an uneasy truce with the narrative. Invoke the name of Elbereth to shake off that fear spell and of course the once and future King Strider can't have his mind read through the palantir, 'cuz he's speshul that's why so shut up! Science fiction, on the other hand, needs to observe some kind of bottom-up logical framework. It's tech that needs to be worked by tech-heads. No heads, no tech, no story. Think about any sciencey fiction: force fields, teleporation, time travel - all easily undermined by knowing where the time traveler thinks to travel, where the teleporter thinks to teleport, etc. In fantasy, where everything's done by gritting one's teeth, bearing down and squinting real hard, controlling minds is no different from conjuring great balls of fire. When the chain of causality requires independent private thought, invention, the manipulation of physical laws (as it does in the real world) telepathy undercuts all action.

Aside from all that, telepathy also tends to be so damn gratuitous. Take Torment: Tides of Numenera:
The whole point of far-future settings is to declare everything possible - not in dreams, not in visions or illusions but in reality. In a world in which spaceships are already ancient history and you can't take two steps without slipping on a glob of sapient nanogel, where teleportation and dimension-hopping are as mundane as running and walking, in a world in which everything is already possible, creating a "psychic dimension" is redundant and pointless. My character shouldn't need to imagine myself doing amazing things. I can already do amazing things within that high-tech world. The "plane of our minds" links us? What, they ain't got iPhones in the year nine million? You couldn't just drill a hole in my skull and implant a transceiver for our private, encrypted, subspace Changing God Intranet beta version 0.837?

Seems like every other character you meet in TToN is either a mind-reader or a mind-eater or a mind-minder or some other lazy shortcut to effects better achieved through interaction in the physical world. If I'm going to instill fear, awe or gratitude in my enemies, give me metal fangs and multispectral vision to read others' galvanic skin reactions, give me poisonous claws and acidic spit or the ability to secrete plant hormones to make crops grow faster. Let me instill emotion through the things I do, not just instill emotion. Just having your character point a finger at others and saying "ok, now you're scared of me and you trust me and you're in love with me" is cheap and lazy. If a transdimensional invader's going to spew jets of black ooze at me, there's no need for the ooze to be part of some dreamscape orchestrated by invisible psychic warriors. The black ooze is pretty damn impressive by itself. If it's supposed to inflict malaise upon me then let it do so through hormonal reactions on skin contact.

Technobabble is not that hard. Really. Even when you do it badly, it's still better than just saying "it's magic" which is all person-to-person telepathy amounts to.

Even the voyeuristic intimacy offered by telepathy can be rendered in a much more touching fashion through speech patterns, describing the character's reactions in various situations or personal effects. Seeing through the eyes of the dead Lascar's helm and sabotaging the Anchorage (no mind-melding required) was better storytelling than any amount of pointing my fingers at my temples and furrowing my brow.

Not that there isn't some place for mind-reading and mind-control in SF settings, but it must come through means within the physical world, created through scientific knowledge and amenable to rational dissection by characters within that setting: clouds of psychotropic drugs, brainscanning metallic crowns, memetic thought canalization, helll, even video ads. Don't tell me that's not brainwashing.
Just leave that "aura of fear" bullshit to the Nazgul.

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