Psionics

Tagged: Theme

A common item of sf Terminology, usually referring to the study and use of Psi Powers, under which head this meaning is discussed. The term seems to have first appeared in print in Jack Williamson's story "The Greatest Invention" (July 1951 Astounding). John W Campbell Jr became an eager advocate of psionics, not only in fiction but as a real-world possibility exemplified by the supposed marrying of psi powers with electronics as psionics in George de la Warr's Pseudoscientific "Hieronymus machine". This device, whose interpretation was highly subjective since it depended on changes in the perceived "stickiness" of a rubber pad stroked by the user's finger, contained electronic components but was said to function equally well when the hardware was replaced by an equivalent circuit diagram.

Campbell's enthusiasm and editorial preferences encouraged considerable sf speculation on psi Machines. Stories featuring such Imaginary-Science devices – which variously induce, enhance, block, conceal, divert or otherwise manipulate the supposed psi energies – include: E E Smith's Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951), with wearable electronic "thought screens" impervious to telepathic probes; A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970); James Blish's Jack of Eagles (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Let the Finder Beware!"; rev 1952; cut 1953; full text vt ESP-er 1958); John T Phillifent's "Ethical Quotient" (October 1962 Analog); James H Schmitz's The Universe Against Her (fixup 1964) and further stories in his Hub/Telzey Amberdon setting; Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967), whose central character's psi power is greatly enhanced by a "talisman" containing electronic circuitry; and Frank Herbert's The God Makers (February 1960 Fantastic as "The Priests of Psi"; exp fixup 1972). Other psi-related devices in sf are partly mystical in aspect, such as the matrix crystals of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels and the Lens of E E Smith's Lensman sequence – the latter being explicitly described as "philosophical" rather than technological in nature. The elusive psi power of good luck is reproduced by a mechanism in Murray Leinster's Fight for Life (March 1947 Startling as "The Laws of Chance"; 1947).

The dreams of psionics and star travel are fused in such works as Clifford D Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing (April-July 1961 Analog as "The Fisherman"; 1961), in which psionic "star machines" enable human adepts to visit far worlds in spirit and with accompanying instrument packages but not (until the closing twist) in person; and Gordon R Dickson's The Pritcher Mass (1972), whose titular device is a huge, intangible psi machine intended to locate new worlds but ultimately providing a magic fix for Earth's wrecked Ecology instead. The "Stepper" device that gives access to countless Parallel-World Earths in Stephen Baxter's and Terry Pratchett's The Long Earth (2012) seems to be a focus for a widespread though far from universal psi talent which effects the actual transition; some can step between worlds without this aid.

Among the forerunners of this psionics fad are Rudyard Kipling's "Wireless" (August 1902 Scribner's Magazine), in which amateur-radio experimentation facilitates a kind of cross-temporal Telepathy; the story sequence The Interventions of Professor Telepath (stories 3 November 1922-12 January 1923 Yellow Magazine) by J Russell Warren (1886-1954), in which a thought-reading device is central; Sandys Wason's Palafox (1927), with a thought-reading machine called the Ideoscope; and André Maurois's La machine à lire les pensées (1937; trans as The Thought-Reading Machine 1938), featuring a camera that can photograph thoughts. For mechanical hypnotic devices, see Hypnotism.

Psionically gifted Robots can also be thought of as psi machines. Examples include Isaac Asimov's "Liar!" (May 1941 Astounding) – featuring robot Telepathy which is extended to mind control in the same author's The Robots of Dawn (1983) – and a robot with the unusual Psi Power of infallible good luck in Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976). George R R Martin's haunted-Spaceship story "Nightflyers" (April 1980 Analog) features a malign, psi-powered personality which has undergone Upload to the ship's Computer. The common sf trope of thought-controlled machinery is more often viewed as a scientific extrapolation of the encephalograph rather than a manifestation of arcane psi forces – as with the super-plane of Craig Thomas's Firefox (1977), filmed as Firefox (1982). [DRL/PN]

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