Entry updated 18 November 2019. Tagged: Theme.
An acronym for extra-sensory perception which was popularized by the pioneering exercise in parapsychology, Extra-Sensory Perception (1934) by J B Rhine, which attempted to repackage folkloristic notions of "second sight" or a "sixth sense" in scientific jargon; he is referred to in Psychoanalysis and the Occult (anth 1953) edited by George Devereux, where "occult" is understood primarily in terms of Telepathy [which see], and which attempts to associate telepathy with the late work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a Scientific Error not indulged in by Freud himself. Definitions of the term "ESP" vary, but may be taken also to include clairvoyance and Precognition; many sf stories and more Fantasies deal also with a restricted kind of Telepathy, empathy, in which only feelings and not thoughts may be perceived. Stories about new senses and eccentric augmentations of existing ones are covered in the article on Perception. Rhine's investigations of ESP eventually broadened out to take in a fuller spectrum of Wild Talents; see Teleportation and Telekinesis; other such powers which go beyond mere perception, like mental fire-raising (pyrokinesis), are discussed under Psi Powers.
The late nineteenth century saw a boom in occult romances featuring various kinds of extra-sensory perceptions. Attempts by the Society for Psychical Research and other bodies to account for such phenomena in scientific terms – though denigrated in Arthur Conan Doyle's pro-Spiritualist The Land of Mist (1926) – helped bring many such romances close to the sf borderline, and encouraged more thoughtful consideration of the implications of possessing these powers. A Seventh Child (1894) by "John Strange Winter" (Henrietta Stannard [1856-1911]), Kark Grier: The Strange Story of a Man with a Sixth Sense (1906) by Louis Tracy and The Sixth Sense (1915) by Stephen McKenna (1885-1967) are trivial, but they helped pave the way for Muriel Jaeger's The Man with Six Senses (1927), the first attempt to extrapolate such a hypothesis carefully and painstakingly – and to conclude that it might better be reckoned a curse than a blessing. Some early pulp-sf stories were also cautionary tales, such as Edmond Hamilton's "The Man with X-Ray Eyes" (November 1933 Wonder Stories; vt "The Man Who Saw Everything" in Horror on the Asteroid and Other Tales of Planetary Horror, coll 1936).
The notion that new powers of ESP might be developed in the course of humankind's future Evolution, although treated sceptically by H G Wells, was developed by several of the UK writers he influenced, including J D Beresford in The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917) – whose titular child prodigy can to some small extent control others' minds – and Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men (1930). It also became a standard theme in Genre SF, where in the late 1930s Rhine's work began to attract interest along with that of Charles Fort, whose Wild Talents (1932) had dealt extensively with ESP. ESP quickly became part of the standard repertoire of the pulp Superman, much encouraged by the treatment of telepathy in A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946). John W Campbell Jr, the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, was eventually to become a fervent admirer of Rhine, and ESP stories featured very prominently in the post-war "psi-boom" which he engineered. Important products of this boom included 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), Wilson Tucker's Wild Talent (1954; exp 1955; vt The Man from Tomorrow 1955) and Frank M Robinson's The Power (1956). The variant title of the first-named is a significant use of the term Esper – found also in Lloyd Biggle Jr's The Angry Espers (August 1959 Amazing as "A Taste of Fire"; rev with cuts restored 1961 dos) – which had first been popularized in The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) by Alfred Bester.
Sf writers, ever on the side of progress, usually side with ESP-powered supermen against those who hate and fear them. Theodore Sturgeon's work includes many stories in which an ESP-based psychological community is seen as a possible and highly desirable solution to ordinary human alienation; examples include The Dreaming Jewels (February 1950 Fantastic Adventures; exp 1950; vt The Synthetic Man 1957), More Than Human (fixup 1953) and "... And My Fear is Great" (July 1953 Beyond Fantasy Fiction). Other genre-sf writers who showed a consistently thoughtful and positive interest in ESP-talented characters while the psi-boom gradually lost its impetus included Zenna Henderson, in the long-running People series collected in Pilgrimage (coll of linked stories 1961) and The People: No Different Flesh (coll of linked stories 1966); Frank Herbert, especially in the series begun with Dune (fixup 1965) – where the talent most in evidence is drug-mediated Precognition; Marion Zimmer Bradley in the Darkover series; and Anne McCaffrey in the Pern series.
In Theodore Sturgeon's stories ESP often compensates for other inadequacies – a common theme strikingly displayed in such stories as Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain (1943), whose disembodied brain is physically impotent but develops baleful powers of mind control; John Brunner's The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965), with its bodily crippled protagonist; Cordwainer Smith's "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (October 1962 Galaxy), whose powerfully gifted E'telekeli (an experiment in Uplift from eagle stock) has wings instead of arms and cannot pass for human; Gene Wolfe's "The Eyeflash Miracles" (in Future Power, anth 1976, ed Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois), with a blinded child; and John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision" (March 1978 F&SF), with a deaf-blind community.
Sf stories which isolate some aspect of ESP for specific consideration most frequently deal with Telepathy, but there is also a notable tradition of stories focusing specifically on Precognition (which see), and with the apparent Time Paradoxes which arise from having knowledge of the future. For further entries dealing with subsets and variants of the overall ESP theme, see the opening paragraph above; some other recognized talents of perception are considered below.
Clairvoyance, the ESP ability to see that which is not apparent to the normal senses, comes in several flavours: as a by-product of Telepathy, seeing through another's eyes (an Imaginary-Science device with this function is central to Bob Shaw's Night Walk [1967 US]); or allied with Precognition, like the hero's visions in Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) and Dune Messiah (July-November 1969 Galaxy; 1969). Clairvoyance also covers various forms of psychically enhanced Perception like the "sense of perception" (eyeless vision) which is enjoyed by various Alien races in E E Smith's Lensman sequence and acquired by the protagonist Kim Kinnison in Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951).
Dowsing, the supposed psychic divination of underground water – sometimes oil, gold or other valuables – tends not to be treated in a science-fictional context, though water divination is central to Jan Mark's Science Fantasy Aquarius (1982) and to Water Witch (1982) by Cynthia Felice and Connie Willis. More typically the talent features as a rare but "natural" ability in otherwise nonfantastic tales. Examples by authors with entries in this encyclopedia include Arthur Ransome's Pigeon Post (1936), sixth in his Swallows and Amazons children's sequence, in which the problem of camping during a drought is solved by dowsing for water; Dornford Yates's Berry collection And Berry Came Too (coll 1936), featuring divination of both water and treasure; and Leslie Charteris's Middle-Eastern caper "The Lovelorn Sheik" (June 1957 Saint Magazine), in which oil divination is taken for granted and the picaresque Saint discovers to his surprise that he can locate hidden water.
Empathy, the detection of feelings and emotions, occasionally appears: even the ESP enthusiast Theodore Sturgeon recognizes in "Need" (in Beyond, coll 1960) that an ability to sense other people's pain might constitute an appalling burden. Other works in which the talent of psychic empathy has a scarring, alienating effect include Leigh Kennedy's fine The Journal of Nicholas the American (1986) and Richard Paul Russo's Inner Eclipse (1988). A memorable series character with this talent is the insectile Alien Doctor Prilicla who senses and often recoils from patients' and colleagues' "emotional radiation" throughout James White's Sector General books, and as a result is notorious for diplomatic prevarication when unwelcome truths are to be conveyed. Universal empathy is forced on humanity in Damon Knight's "Rule Golden" (May 1954 Science Fiction Adventures), where the resulting inability to ignore others' (and animals') pain effects a revolution in social mores; but the revolution is a bloody and unpleasant one in Stanisław Lem's contrarian treatment of this theme, "Altruizine" (in Cyberiada, coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974). Natural development of the empathic faculty leads to Gaia-like world unity in several novels by Philip E High, such as Butterfly Planet (1971). Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) is an empath.
Psychometry, the ability to "read" the history of inanimate objects, is an established part of the repertoire of stage psychics but relatively rare in sf. It features extensively in Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (1969) and incidentally in Philip E High's Blindfold from the Stars (1979).
Despite the inconsistency displayed by supposedly talented subjects and the fact that several of his best performers were ultimately exposed as frauds, Rhine's intellectual descendants have managed to cling to sufficient credibility to support the production of numerous thrillers which deploy ESP without admitting to being sf. Examples include Mind Out of Time (1958) by Angela Tonks; The Mind Readers (1965) by Margery Allingham, though this uses a mechanical device rather than ESP proper to facilitate Telepathy; Sleep and His Brother (1971) by Peter Dickinson; and Colin Wilson's The Schoolgirl Murder Case (1974). Parapsychological research labs are a common setting for stories on this borderline; they may also be the setting for highly sceptical treatments of ESP themes, such as John Sladek's "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" (in A Book of Contemporary Nightmares, anth 1977, ed Giles Gordon). Lifestyle fantasists who pass themselves off as clairvoyants or "psychics" are sometimes avid to help the police solve crimes; their negligible success rate is, of course, much improved on by their fictional counterparts. Barry N Malzberg's and Bill Pronzini's Night Screams (1979) is an ironic reflection of the phenomenon, which remains a popular theme in the Cinema and Television.
- George Devereux, editor. Psychoanalysis and the Occult (New York: International Universities Press, 1953) [nonfiction: anth: hb/nonpictorial]
- Idella Purnell Stone. 14 Great Tales of ESP (Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1969) [anth: pb/]
- Roger Elwood. Frontiers II: The New Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1973) [anth: Frontiers: hb/Gilbert Stone]
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