The ways in which we become aware of and receive information about the outside world, mainly through the senses, are together called perception. Philosophers are deeply divided as to whether our perceptions of the outside world correspond to an actual reality, or whether they are merely hypotheses, intellectual constructs, which may give us an unreliable or partial picture of external reality, or whether, indeed, outside reality is itself a mental construct.
Perception is and always has been a principal theme of sf; it is the philosophical linchpin of many stories and has played a subsidiary role in hundreds more. (Many perception stories are discussed, from a different perspective, under Psychology.) For convenience, we can divide sf perception stories into five groups: stories about unusual modes of perception; stories about appearance and reality; stories about perception altered through Drugs; stories about synaesthesia; stories about altered perception of time. The groups are not mutually exclusive, and several stories fall into more than one category.
Unusual modes of perception appear early in sf. R H Horne's The Poor Artist (1871), which is partly devoted to the way the world would appear as perceived through the senses of animals, was the first book ever to be described as "science fiction" (by his contemporary William Wilson). Edwin A Abbott's Flatland (1884) is an exercise in how beings from a one- or two-dimensional universe would perceive reality, and about how we would perceive a fourth Dimension. J-H Rosny aîné's Un autre monde (1895 Revue Parisienne #5; exp as coll 1898; trans as "Another World" in A Century of Science Fiction, anth 1962, ed Damon Knight) tells of a Mutant with a very fast metabolism who can see colours beyond violet (and new lifeforms) invisible to ordinary humans. David Lindsay developed a similar idea in A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), in which the protagonist, mysteriously transported to another planet, keeps forming and then losing new organs of perception whose functions run from seeing additional colours to sensing emotions to intensifying the will.
Many sf writers have followed Rosny's lead in imagining modes of perception which allow the direct sensing of Parallel Worlds or other dimensions, often through ESP (see also Psi Powers). (It is probably more accurate to suppose that the idea was popularized by an H G Wells story of the same year, "The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes" [28 March 1895 Pall Mall Budget], though Rosny's story is superior as sf.) A E van Vogt's melodramatic Siege of the Unseen (October-November 1946 Astounding as "The Chronicler"; 1959; vt as title story in The Three Eyes of Evil coll 1973) has a hero with a third eye which allows him to perceive and then travel into another dimension. In Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place" (in Orbit 1, anth 1966, ed Damon Knight) no special organ is required; a world of the distant geological past is perceived direct by the mind of the heroine. Nearly all McKenna's work involves the perception and/or construction of alternate realities. Another of his stories, "Hunter, Come Home" (March 1963 F&SF) involves an alien lifeform that perceives by instant molecular analysis – which is not too far removed from our own sense of smell – an example of the strange modes of perception which appear in many of the stories described in the entry on Aliens. James Tiptree Jr often used perception themes, notably in the almost surreal "Painwise" (February 1972 F&SF), in which a human explorer, surgically modified to feel no pain, takes up with a crew of hedonistic aliens fixated on taste sensations; pain is rediscovered. Several of Ian Watson's novels have dealt more seriously with perception, as in The Jonah Kit (1975), where the perceptions of a whale are mediated through (and modified by) a human intelligence, and The Martian Inca (1977), where the perceptions of two South American Indians are changed by the accidental intake of a Martian organism, so that their model of the world becomes very much more complex. Watson here, as elsewhere, touches on the relation between external reality and the way that reality is perceived and modified by mental programmes in the observer. These are questions that emerge regularly in the second category, stories of appearance and reality.
Appearance and reality is one of the fundamental themes of sf. It has as much to do with Metaphysics and Conceptual Breakthrough as with perception per se (and so is discussed, from rather a different perspective, in those two entries also; relevant stories treated in more detail in the latter are "The Yellow Pill" [October 1958 Astounding] by Rog Phillips and Counterfeit World [1964; vt Simulacron-3 1964 US] by Daniel Galouye). The difficulty in perceiving the difference between the real and the illusory is a central theme in Absurdist SF and in Fabulation, as it is in surrealist literature generally; it comes up often in the stories of Josephine Saxton and is the subject of Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974) and Salman Rushdie's Grimus (1975). All three writers regularly use the quest format, life being seen as a journey through baffling illusions, the desired end being understanding. Ed Bryant's Cinnabar (coll of linked stories 1976) is set around an enigmatic city where desires can be made flesh in various ways, and where reality itself is ever dissolving from one form to another; always changing and diverse, its one unchanging quality appears to be the evanescence of external reality. In James Morrow's The Continent of Lies (1984) "dreambeans" (which grow on genetically engineered trees) are used to dissolve, temporarily, the boundaries between appearance and reality; the hero is a dreambean reviewer.
Richard Cowper has written that "one single theme which intrigues me above all others is the nature of human perception". Where van Vogt's ESP breakthroughs into other realms of perception tend to be brutally direct and melodramatic, Cowper has approached the subject more obliquely and sensitively; a kind of further reality, not explicable in everyday terms, makes itself known to several of his characters in dreams, intimations – glimpses caught, as it were, out of the corner of the eye. Cowper clearly believes that our everyday reality is only partial, and has expertly evoked a kind of quivering, tense broadening of perception, especially in Breakthrough (1967) and The Twilight of Briareus (1974). Sf stories commonly dwell on the strangeness of such experiences, and the protagonist's feeling that he might be going mad. Another example is Arthur Sellings's The Uncensored Man (1964), in which Drugs are used to increase receptivity, a theme we will examine further below.
Several sf stories have combined ideas from Mathematics (strange topologies and geometries) with stories of perception. Arthur C Clarke's "The Wall of Darkness" (July 1949 Super Science Stories) describes how it feels to live in a world which is a three-dimensional analogue of a moebius strip; it is all inside and no outside. Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" (November 1990 Omni), in which M C Escher (1902-1972) seems to be an unacknowledged collaborator, has its archaic people building a tower from Earth to Heaven, from which perceptions of Earth's nature evolve the higher one climbs until, in a perceptual loop, the top turns out to be the bottom. R A Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" (September 1966 F&SF) is quite remarkably bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – like Doctor Who's Tardis – and the perceptions of the observers are driven to the brink of insanity. John Crowley uses a similar but much more developed version of the theme in Little, Big (1981), more fantasy than sf, in which the elusive land of Faerie is described as having the characteristic that the further in you go the bigger it gets. Christopher Priest's Inverted World (1974) is a fascinating story of perceptual paradox in two respects; first, the progressive spatial distortion that takes place north and south of a shifting zone of stability on the hyperboloid planet; second, the revelation that the planet may in fact be our own Earth, viewed by a group whose perceptions have created a model of its shape which inverts the spheroid to a hyperboloid, and who cannot escape their own intellectual construct. Such stories approach genuine philosophical questions, though these are evoked in sf more commonly than they are actively explored; but even in such cases as Priest's novel (and most like it), where the scientific and philosophical argument is not really rigorous, there is a compulsive, teasing quality about the central image that amply compensates.
Stanisław Lem has several times written about the difficulties of transcending our perceptions. Solaris (1961; trans 1970) asks the pessimistic philosophical question: "Can we ever regard reality as knowable, given the limitations of the senses with which we apprehend it and the mental programmes which force us to relate our understanding of it always to human experience?" Barry N Malzberg is also intrigued with this area of speculation and pessimistic. Beyond Apollo (1972) has an astronaut returning from a disastrous expedition to Venus; he tells the story of what went wrong over and over again, always differently, but it seems that the real tragedy cannot be put in terms of his human perceptions, and all his analogies can give only a partial truth. This theme, of course, is as familiar outside sf as it is inside, though sf has remarkable resources of image and metaphor with which to explore it.
The two sf writers who have played the most extravagant and kaleidoscopic variations on the theme of appearance and reality are J G Ballard and Philip K Dick. Almost all of Ballard's early work, and much of his later, deals with the various psychological processes to which we subject our perceptions of reality. One of his earliest stories, "Build-Up" (January 1957 New Worlds; vt "The Concentration City" in The Disaster Area, coll 1967) is a kind of bravura replay of the Clarke story cited above. A young man living in claustrophobic circumstances catches a train to escape; after weeks of travelling in one direction he finds he is going east, not west; the space of the city is curved; there is no outside, just as with our own Universe. In "The Subliminal Man" (January 1963 New Worlds) the very quickness of our perception is exploited by advertisers (> Subliminal). In "Manhole 69" (November 1957 New Worlds) an experiment in sleep deprivation gets out of control as the subjects' apprehension of reality shrinks their universe, smaller and smaller, effectively strangling them. The whole of Ballard's oeuvre is, in effect, an extended exploration of the inner, psychic universes made up by our selective perceptions of the external world – hence the term he popularized, used often of his subject matter, Inner Space.
The paradox in Ballard is that, although our inner reality is made up of data from the outside (in such a confusing hotchpotch that the system can short out through overload), the inner pattern created by the data mediates the reception of further data in a kind of vicious circle, where no certainty is possible. Dick's emphasis is a little different; his realities often require inverted commas: they are "realities" consistently adulterated by false constructs, hallucinations, counterfeiting. Ultimately the conjuring is so baffling that the stability of any reality comes to seem suspect; the external world suffers a kind of dissolution. In its place we are left with a view which is surprisingly far from pessimistic, as Dick implies it; it can be synopsized (only crudely) as "the universe is what we perceive it to be". This is not necessarily an intolerable labyrinth, for Dick provides a dogged survival factor connected somehow to innate human decency, by which the construction of simple, often ethical reference points may prevent the self from spiralling inwards into subjective madness: handholds for the mind. The most important works by Dick relevant to perception are Eye in the Sky (1957), Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964), Martian Time-Slip (August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964), The Penultimate Truth (1964), Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), Now Wait for Last Year (1966), Ubik (1969), A Maze of Death (1970), and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). Together they constitute a kind of meta-novel, unique in literature. Ursula K Le Guin moved briefly into Dick's territory with The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971), in which a man has the power to alter reality through his dreams; here, although the reality-shifts are adroitly managed, the central theme bears more on the making of ethical decisions than it does on questions of appearance and reality per se.
Several of the shifting realities cited in the Dick novels above were catalysed by Drugs, his A Scanner Darkly (1977) being his most prolonged exploration of the theme. The late 1960s saw a general interest in the drug-culture. In the air was a romantic belief that Drugs could open the gates of perception, and offer heightened and perhaps superior versions of reality. Very few sf writers subscribed to this myth, and indeed when Drugs had figured in earlier sf – as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), where drugs are used to dim perception and bring about a false euphoria – they had usually been seen as detracting from rather than heightening the powers of perception, although Margaret St Clair in Sign of the Labrys (1963) has the consciousness-heightening power of some fungi as potentially transcendental. Similarly, in Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970) a drug is the agent for the transcendent rebirth undergone by the hero, who, like the despised natives on the planet he has revisited, is suffused by a new and joyful perception of life's harmony. Also relevant here is The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson, in which the drug-induced mood is more cheerful than transcendent.
More common, even in the 1960s, at the height of the drug culture's years of euphoria, were sf stories about the distortions of perception brought about by Drugs, especially those written by New-Wave writers, who could not generally be described as conservative and who indeed lived in the main closer to the drug-culture than sf writers a little older. Drug-taking, for example, plays a role in Charles Platt's The City Dwellers (1970; rev vt Twilight of the City 1977) and M John Harrison's The Centauri Device (1974). Perhaps the most vivid of all new-wave sf works dealing with perception shifts through Drugs is Brian W Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (fixup 1969), in which hallucinogenic drugs have been used as a weapon in Europe, and the entire freaked-out population shifts into a euphoric anarchy that changes easily to violence. Norman Spinrad has written some notable stories about drugs, including "No Direction Home" (in New Worlds Quarterly 2, anth 1971, ed Michael Moorcock), where a future USA is so used to orchestrating its mental states by drugs that perception of naked reality without any chemical assistance is seen as the worst trip of all.
Synaesthesia is an interesting perceptual state which occasionally appears in sf; it is a condition where the senses become confused and feed into one another, so that, perhaps, a vision can be smelt. Thus H L Gold's "The Man with English" (in Star Science Fiction Stories, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl) has as its punchline, "What smells purple?" Alfred Bester exploited this in Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), where, in a compelling passage, the hero's apotheosis comes about (with many verbal fireworks) in a synaesthetic rite of passage which mixes agony and exultation. A frustrated artist needs telepathic aid to communicate his synaesthesia-based creations in John Brunner The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965). Norman Spinrad envisaged synaesthesia as perhaps addictive in his strong story "All the Sounds of the Rainbow" (June 1973 Vertex).
Drugs can be seen as a quasi-natural or at least organic method of altering modes of perception. Sf, naturally, has many times invented technological means for doing the same thing. Bob Shaw has persistently written about alternate forms of vision: in the Slow Glass stories collected in Other Days, Other Eyes (fixup 1972) a glass is invented which slows the passage of light through it, so that the past can be directly perceived in the present; in Night Walk (1967) a blind man invents a device which allows him to see through the eyes of other humans and animals; and in A Wreath of Stars (1976) a device is invented to render visible a world (coexisting with our own) made entirely from antineutrinos.
The Slow Glass stories bring us directly to the last category: unusual perceptions of time (see also Time Distortion, Time Out of Sequence, and Time Travel). Spinrad has written in this area: "The Weed of Time" (in Alchemy & Academe, anth 1970, ed Anne McCaffrey) is about a drug which makes its victim see all his lifetime as co-present; the effect is retroactive, so that the hero as a child knows he will be affected by the drug before he has been. Dick's Martian Time-Slip (August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964) sees schizophrenia (> Paranoia) as bringing with it an altered time perception. In James Blish's "Common Time" (August 1953 Science Fiction Quarterly) the altered time perception is brought about by pseudo-Relativistic effects in a rapidly accelerating spaceship. Eric Frank Russell's "The Waitabits" (July 1955 Astounding) is an amusing story about a race of aliens who experience time much more slowly, appearing almost static to humans. Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) has aliens who, like Spinrad's hero, see all time as existing simultaneously, which gives them a somewhat deterministic view of the Universe. In Jacques Sternberg's "Ephemera", one of the stories in Futurs sans avenir (coll 1971; trans as Future without Future 1974), survivors of a space wreck are doomed when they land on a planet in which, as in Russell's story, the inhabitants see time more slowly. Ballard, as might be expected, has several stories about the perception of time, the most powerful being "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds), in which the Universe is running down and time perception on Earth is altered in various ways; one man is able to sense geological time directly, as if he smelt it. Time is a dominant theme of Aldiss's work; his stories about time perception include the strange "Man in His Time" (April 1965 Science Fantasy), about a man who perceives time a few minutes ahead of everyone else, and "The Night that All Time Broke Out" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), in which a time gas used for controlled mental time travel gushes out and affects everyone. His most notable story of this kind is An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! 1968), in which it finally turns out that time actually runs backwards (> Time in Reverse), but our minds defensively perceive it as going forward. The same notion was used at around the same time, quite coincidentally, by Philip K Dick in Counter-Clock World (1967), but the Aldiss book, though uneven, has the greater imaginative brio; more recent treatments of the ideas of An Age and "Man in His Time" are, respectively, Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) and Eric Brown's "The Time-Lapsed Man" (Summer 1988 Interzone). The strangest of all such stories, however, must be David I Masson's "Traveller's Rest" (September 1965 New Worlds), about a war against an unknown enemy on the northern frontier of a country where the perception of time slows down as one travels south; a soldier on indefinite leave marries, raises a family, grows middle-aged, and is eventually called up again to find himself back in his bunker 22 minutes after he left. The story is told with extraordinary conviction.
The time-perception stories cited above are generally of a very high standard, demonstrating clearly the way that sf thought-experiments can stimulate the mind and move the feelings in ways that are almost closed to traditional realist fiction. We take time for granted without fully understanding it, or how it works; these stories, with some intensity, stretch our perceptions of what meaning it might have for us. [PN]
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