Precognition

Tagged: Theme

The usual term for the ESP talent, or Psi Power or Superpower, of seeing into the future. For genuine sf relevance this ability needs to be developed in somewhat more detail than the frequent narrative convenience of "some sixth sense warned him . . ." Philip K Dick seems to have coined the term "precog" for a thus-gifted person, in "A World of Talent" (October 1954 Galaxy). As in Fantasy, the precogs of Sheri S Tepper's True Game sequence – beginning with King's Blood Four (1983) – are known as Seers although their talents stem from sf Mutant powers, exactly as found in mutant ghettoes throughout sf: Robert Sheckley's The Status Civilization (1960) is one example. Prophetic dreams are another common device, though rarely with the wealth of circumstantial detail provided in Roger Zelazny's This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as ". . . And Call Me Conrad"; exp 1966).

Characters whose foresight of the future is perversely impotent extend from the hero of J D Beresford's "Young Strickland's Career" (in Signs and Wonders, coll 1921) to the heroine of C J Cherryh's aptly titled "Cassandra" (October 1978 F&SF); and Philip K Dick's precogs, notably the title character of The World Jones Made (1956), rarely get much joy out of their abilities. Like many characters who experience Time Out of Sequence, Dick's Jones is trapped in determinism as he simultaneously experiences the present and an unalterable future six months ahead.

A E van Vogt's The Pawns of Null-A (October 1948-January 1949 Astounding as "The Players of Ā"; 1956; rev vt The Players of Null-A 1966) introduces a caste of "Predictors" whose precognitive talents are crucial in interstellar Future War, though subject to "blurring" when rival Psi Powers come into play; John C Wright's Null-A Continuum (2008) – a Sequel by Other Hands – re-imagines the Predictors as choosing from a sheaf of possible futures. This is a traditional genre ploy to avoid the shackles of determinism: the Mirror of Galadriel in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (3 vols 1954-1955) offers multiple visions which may or may not come to be, while Drug-induced prophetic power in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) shows many future alternatives as a garden of forking paths. Determinism itself may be subject to loopholes, as in John Buchan's The Gap in the Curtain (1932), in which the character who glimpses his own newspaper obituary (as if in a Time Viewer) discovers it to be that of a namesake; or more ingeniously in Colin Kapp's The Patterns of Chaos (February-May/June 1972 If; 1972), where a guaranteed prediction of imminent mass destruction is defused by engineering an artificial and harmless cataclysm of suitable proportions.

Brian M Stableford's "The Oedipus Effect" (in Temps, anth 1991, ed Neil Gaiman and Alex Stewart) borrows Karl Popper's term for the effects which predictions have on the outcome of situations in order to examine the paradoxicality of precognitive talents. This is also explored in Philip K Dick's "The Minority Report" (January 1956 Fantastic Universe), the second of whose three simultaneous predictions takes into account the effects of the first, and the third the effects of the second. Another means of sidestepping Time Paradox is to make precognition not only chancy but of limited extent: one character in Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (August-November 1966 Analog; 1967) can intermittently "see" a few seconds into the future, a power of little general use though invaluable in gambling and swordplay. Robert J Sawyer's novel – basis of the television series Flashforward (2009-2010) – allows a personalized precognitive glimpse – but only one – to each member of the world's population, and develops its drama from this point.

Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) imagines a kind of racial precognition: the Devil's traditional horns, wings and tail are all attributes of the Aliens who, though benevolent, eventually come to Earth to watch over the passing of humanity as we know it. Robert Silverberg's The Stochastic Man (1975) considers precognition in much the same sceptical way that his Dying Inside (1972) examined Telepathy. Precognition of a patchy and teasingly perverse kind is a common element in thrillers on the sf borderline; a notable example is Stephen King's The Dead Zone (1979), filmed as The Dead Zone (1983). [DRL/BS]

see also: J W Dunne; Stephen Gilbert; Prince of Darkness (1987).

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