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Psi Powers

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.


A name given to the full spectrum of mental powers studied by the Pseudoscience of parapsychology, and a common item of sf Terminology. In his book From Anecdote to Experiment in Psychical Research (1972), Robert Thouless claims that he and Dr B P Wiesner invented the term, prior to its use in sf circles, as being less liable to suggest a pre-existing theory than the term "Extra Sensory Perception" (or ESP). The term was adopted into sf during the "psi boom" which John W Campbell Jr promoted in Astounding Science-Fiction during the early 1950s. Campbell also popularized in the mid-1950s the related term Psionics, which he once defined as "psychic electronics"; one of its earliest uses was in Murray Leinster's "The Psionic Mousetrap" (March 1955 Amazing). Although many notable psi stories deal with the entire range of such powers, Telepathy, clairvoyance, Precognition and the like – the "perceptual" paranormal powers – are in this encyclopedia covered in their own entries or in the section on ESP (where several stories featuring the full range of psi powers are also cited). Further important psi powers also have their own entries, which see: Telekinesis or psychokinesis, the moving of objects by the power of the mind (including oneself: levitation), and Teleportation, transporting oneself likewise from place to place without passing through the intervening space (this term is sometimes extended to cover technologies of Matter Transmission). The psychic draining of a living being's soul or life-force, sometimes considered as a predatory psi power, is dealt with in this encyclopedia as a subset of vampirism (see Vampires).

The principal powers which remain for specific consideration below are: healing, luck, pyrolysis or pyrokinesis (psychic fire-raising), and the ability to possess or take control of the minds of others (which, for some unknown reason, has never been dressed up with a fancy jargon term – although it is, of course, often thought to be possible by means of Hypnosis or mesmerism).

Campbell's psi-boom was inspired by ideas borrowed from J B Rhine and Charles Fort to the effect that many individuals with latent psi powers were already among us; Campbell took them as representing the "next step" in human Evolution. His own "Forgetfulness" (June 1937 Astounding as by Don A Stuart) offers a significant early image of a human race which has outgrown its dependence on Technology because the mind can do everything that once required tools. This idea is widely featured in the works of A E van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon, and received a new lease of life after 1945 when the advent of the Bomb inspired many stories in which the world before or after the Holocaust might be redeemed by psi-powered Mutants, as in Poul Anderson's Twilight World (stories 1947 Astounding to 1961 Analog; fixup 1961), John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955) and Phyllis Gotlieb's Sunburst (1964). Later versions of the theme can be found in David Palmer's Emergence (1984) and the more ambivalent Taji's Syndrome (1988) by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

All the psi powers, of course, used to be in the repertoire of powerful magicians (see Fantasy; Magic), and most are featured in occult romances.

Mind control (possession) has always been a popular theme in Horror stories, and there is a considerable grey area between sf and supernatural fiction of this kind; see also Hypnosis. Notable early works featuring such powers include Trilby (1894) by George du Maurier, The Parasite (1895) by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917) by J D Beresford, Congratulate the Devil (1939) by Andrew Marvell and "But Without Horns" (June 1940 Unknown) by Norvell W Page. The tradition continued in Genre SF and Science Fantasy, some examples of many being Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951) by E E Smith; the much-filmed Donovan's Brain (1943) by Curt Siodmak; The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976) by A E van Vogt; Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955), with its Mutant mind-controller the "Mule"; "Design for Great-Day" (January 1953 Planet Stories; vt "The Ultimate Invader" in The Ultimate Invader and Other Science-Fiction, anth 1954 dos, ed Donald A Wollheim) by Eric Frank Russell; The Midwich Cuckoos (1957; rev 1958; vt Village of the Damned 1960) by John Wyndham; The Atlantic Abomination (1960 dos) by John Brunner, in which an Alien has the ability; World of Ptavvs (1966) by Larry Niven, with another mind-controlling alien or "Slaver"; The Lion Game (fixup 1973) and other stories in the Telzey Amberdon sequence by James H Schmitz; the True Game sequence by Sheri S Tepper's trilogy, opening with King's Blood Four (1983) and featuring "Beguilement" as one talent among many; and Children of the Thunder (1989) by John Brunner – though in the last, emotional/sexual control is rationalized in terms of irresistible pheromones. Psi had fallen out of fashion – at least in books, though Star Wars (1977) and the subsequent films ascribe various powers including mind control ("These aren't the droids you're looking for.") to the "Force".

Fire-raising, alias pyrolysis or pyrokinesis, can be considered as a fine-tuned variant of Telekinesis – feeding kinetic energy to the target's individual molecules to increase its temperature rather than move it as a unit. This power rarely receives separate treatment in sf stories, a notable exception being Stephen King's Firestarter (1980), filmed as Firestarter (1984). Otherwise it tends to appear as part of a spectrum of talents: "pyrotics" are among the recognized classes of the psi-gifted in Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space (November 1951 Startling as "The Star Watchers"; exp 1953; vt Sentinels of Space 1954 dos), but play almost no part in the story; the "fire god" Agni in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967) has the ability to kindle fires by mental power but in practice relies on a far more devastating Weapon. The famous exploding-head scene in Scanners (1980) implies psychic flash-heating of the brain to produce steam whose pressure wreaks the damage. A kind of Pariah Elite of the pyrokinetically gifted is central to the animated film Promare (2019).

Luck is sometimes presented as a psi power. A E van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951) features a "callidetic" character who repeatedly wins at casino games of chance. Several other psi-gifted characters have a touch of gambling luck as part of the package, like the protagonists of Harry Harrison's Deathworld (1960; vt Deathworld 1 1973) and James H Schmitz's The Witches of Karres (December 1949 Astounding; exp 1966). Examples of luck as a specific psi talent are Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970), whose back-story includes breeding humans for luck via Eugenics; Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976); Barrington J Bayley's The Grand Wheel (1977), where a run of extreme good luck is balanced by subsequent, fatally bad luck; and Jonathan Clements's "Lucky for Some" (August 2005 Judge Dredd Megazine). Quarantine (1992) by Greg Egan rationalizes the luck talent in terms of many-worlds quantum physics, with practitioners able to choose desired low-probability paths from the infinite range of possibilities ahead. The same year saw a broad comic treatment in the Red Dwarf (1988-current) Series V episode "Quarantine" (1992), featuring a benign "psi-virus" that temporarily confers implausibly extreme good luck. Brian Stableford's Streaking (2006) thoughtfully explores the Psychology of genetically inherited luck.

Physical healing as a talent is commonplace in Fantasy; sf and Science Fantasy versions generally assume a combination of ESP (clairvoyance) to detect problems and fine-tuned Telekinesis to repair them. Sheri S Tepper's King's Blood Four (1983) describes a healer dislodging arterial plaque and otherwise fixing circulatory problems by such means, and Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series – especially Horizon (2009) – explores similar processes in detail, one example being the laborious repair of an abdominal rupture without any surgical intrusion. Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) features conversion of swallowed Poison to psychotropic Drug by telekinetic catalysis.

In order to be dramatically effective, major abilities like mind control and telekinesis usually have to be moderated in some way, unless the point of the story is sarcastically to demonstrate the appalling tyranny which would surely result from the human possession of godlike powers, as in Jerome Bixby's classic "It's a Good Life" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 2, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl), Frederik Pohl's "Pythias" (February 1955 Galaxy) and Henry Slesar's "A God Named Smith" (July 1957 Amazing). A typical example of moderation is the need for the Mule, the emotion-controlling mutant of Isaac Asimov's above-cited Foundation and Empire, to come physically close to his victims. On the other hand, the unthinkingly casual use of extravagant powers for trivial purposes is ironically featured in Henry Kuttner's comedies about the hillbilly Hogben family, opening with "Exit the Professor" (October 1947 Thrilling Wonder).

Humans made godlike by psi powers are given less cynical treatment in Frank Herbert's The God Makers (February 1960 Fantastic as "The Priests of Psi"; exp fixup 1972), and in several novels by Roger Zelazny – though Zelazny's characters often require Technology to boost or complement their abilities, as in Lord of Light (1967). One might perhaps wish that L Ron Hubbard had retained the amiable cynicism he exhibited in his early psi story "The Tramp" (September-November 1938 Astounding), but instead he went on to build Scientology around a mythology of forced human Evolution towards psionic godhood. Several stories of gradually unfolding psi power reach climaxes which may be regarded as apotheoses – Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (April 1950 Famous Fantastic Mysteries as "Guardian Angel"; much exp 1953; rev 1990) is the most notable example; others are Keith Laumer's The Infinite Cage (1972) and Oscar Rossiter's Tetrasomy Two (1974). Carole Nelson Douglas's Probe (1985) and Counterprobe (1988) offer a more moderate account of psi powers, not initially under conscious control, being gradually revealed.

A psi-less outsider in a psi-powered society is apt to be regarded as defective and in need of curing, as with the protagonists of Lloyd Biggle Jr's The Angry Espers (August 1959 Amazing as "A Taste of Fire"; rev with cuts restored 1961 dos), Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) and Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died (1970). The last is a hallucinated tour-de-force of the subgenre, moving almost imperceptibly from bewildered immersion in a psi culture to half-comprehending acceptance of wakening talents. Philip E High's Blindfold from the Stars (1979) more crudely shows contemporary humanity's sudden acquisition of psi powers as a short-term Disaster, killing millions with dangerous wish-fulfilments.

Though many of the above-cited works present psi powers as the inevitable next step in human Evolution, a few regard the development of psi effects as incompatible with our Technology-based civilization. Thus Theodore R Cogswell's "The Wall Around the World" (September 1953 Beyond Fantasy Fiction) has mental talents fostered in a Keep community deliberately isolated from the science-oriented world outside; Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories are set in an Alternate World where the Mathematics of psi and Magic is heavily researched while "materialist" science lags far behind; in the changed world of Gwyneth Jones's The Daymaker (1987), Power Sources from a superseded technological era are actively inimical to the new, talent-sustained Ecology.

Many stories feature more or less formal organizations of the psi-gifted, whose members possess an assortment of complementary talents. Example, some from works already cited above, include the team in Robert A Heinlein"Project Nightmare" (April/May 1953 Amazing) which nullifies and locates atomic Weapons planted in US Cities; the rebel colonists of Mars and Venus in Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space (1953), waging an undeclared war of sabotage against Earth; the titular freelance troubleshooters of Murray Leinster's Talents, Incorporated (1962), including a Mathematical calculations prodigy; and the humans who have adopted the roles of the Hindu pantheon in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967), most of whom augment their innate powers with advanced Technology.

Despite the widespread publicity given to the phenomenon of "spoon-bending" in the 1970s there is no convincing evidence that real-world psychics can accomplish more than moderate conjurers by way of telekinesis. It is a little-recognized fact that the evidence for ESP, seemingly a more plausible talent, is even worse. That stories of ESP far outnumber stories devoted to the other psi powers has far more to do with intrinsic narrative interest than with questions of likelihood. Some critics feel that, in spite of the elaborate pseudoscientific jargon developed by believers in the "paranormal", stories of psi powers really belong to the realm of magical Fantasy rather than sf. The rapid growth of genre fantasy since the 1970s has, in fact, allowed many such stories to be appropriately relocated (see Talents in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy); though others, like the Star Wars saga with its use of the "Force" to justify a wide range of traditional psi powers, still wear the outward trappings of sf. [PN/BS/DRL]

see also: Psychonauts.


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