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Entry updated 21 August 2021. Tagged: Theme.

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The science of the mind is sufficiently different from the physical sciences for its discoveries and hypotheses to set very different problems and offer very different opportunities to the writer of speculative fiction. Psychology still carries a considerable burden of pseudoscientific conjecture even if one sets aside its close and problematic relationship with parapsychology (see ESP; Psi Powers); a case in point may be Psychoanalysis and the Occult (anth 1953) edited by George Devereux (1908-1985; later a distinguished ethnopsychiatrist), which is dedicated to the reconciliation of the Freudian death instinct and Telepathy. The absence of convenient models of the mind (whether based on physical analogy or purely mathematical) means that the mind remains much more mercurial and mysterious than the atom or the Universe, in spite of the fact that introspection appears to be a simple and safe source of data.

A great deal of fiction which attempts to explore the mysteries of mind lies on the borderline between sf and Mainstream fiction, an early example of an exploratory use of psychology seen as a discipline being "The Man That Killed His Neighbors" (11 June 1847 The Anti-Slavery Bugle) by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), whose protagonist applies what would become known as operant conditioning to control those around him; though almost certainly written in ignorance of this tale, B F Skinner's Walden Two (1948) casts a positive light on the use of behavioural psychology as a Cultural Engineering tool. Authors of Dystopias and Utopias have had frequent recourse to models of engineering, assaulting or espousing the subject from within. Early sf writers, on the other hand (see Anti-Intellectualism in SF), tended to focus on disciplines like psychology from without (see Gothic SF; Scientific Errors), showing far more interest in the abnormal than in the normative.

Studies of both normal and abnormal psychology are in general easier to assimilate, and may be accommodated within the province of the traditional novel of character, even if their insights are derived from scientific constructs like psychoanalysis. There is a whole school of modern novelists, their work generally reckoned to be a long way removed from sf, whose self-defined task has been to capture the "stream of consciousness" – a psychological hypothesis we owe to the philosopher William James (1842-1910), not to his writer brother Henry. Studies of obsession, alienation and various forms of insanity are by no means uncommon in contemporary fiction, and even the most exaggerated – e.g., many studies of "dual personality" – seem perfectly acceptable as "realistic" novels. It is not until a notion of this kind is taken to bizarre extremes, as in Stanley G Weinbaum's dual-personality tale The Dark Other (1950), that the story becomes unmistakably sf. Even stories replete with the jargon of supposedly scientific psychoanalysis, like Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Queen of Sheba (1877) and S Guy Endore's classic Freudian murder mystery Methinks the Lady (1945), are intrinsically mundane, although Endore's study of the psychological syndrome of lycanthropy, The Werewolf of Paris (1933), is normally considered a Fantasy. There is a certain irony in the fact that the subgenre of psychological speculative fiction which is most easily claimed for sf is the class of stories dealing with mesmerism and Hypnosis – because these are sufficiently disreputable to be evidently fantastic! Thus a story like Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (December 1845 American Whig Review) invites classification as sf not so much because it mimics the form of a scientific report but because the mesmerized (see Hypnosis) hero's immunity to decay is so obviously impossible. Stories of delusional neurosis or vivid hallucination which become very bizarre – e.g., Sir Ronald Fraser's The Flower Phantoms (1926) – are more conveniently classed as visionary fantasy than as sf, because of rather than in spite of the fact that their "impossible" events are entirely subjective, even though scientific theories like Freud's psychoanalysis may have been used to generate the substance of the fantasies.

Early exercises in speculative psychology which uncontroversially belong to sf are those in which some invention, usually a Machine or a Drug, is invoked as a literary device to exert specific control over the substance of the psyche (although it is arguable that all such devices are based on philosophical errors concerning the nature of mental phenomena). The origins of psychological sf thus lie in such stories as Edward Bellamy's Dr Heidenhoff's Process (1880), about a technology of selective amnesia (see Memory Edit), Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), about a drug which separates the principle of evil from that of good (or the id from the superego, as the Freudian reader is bound to interpret it), Richard Slee and Cornelia Atwood Pratt's Dr Berkeley's Discovery (1899), about a method of "photographing" memories, Walter Besant's "The Memory Cell" (in For Britain's Soldiers, anth 1900, ed C J Cutcliffe Hyne), again dealing with selective amnesia, and Vincent Harper's materialist polemic The Mortgage on the Brain (1905), about an electrical method of personality-modification (see Identity).

The early sf Pulp magazines featured numerous devices of these and related types, and Hugo Gernsback's recruitment of the practising psychiatrist David H Keller did not result in any conspicuous sophistication of pulp sf's handling of psychological matters. Keller's most notable stories extrapolating psychological theory – the remarkable Freudian erotic fantasy The Eternal Conflict (1939) and "The Abyss" (in The Solitary Hunters and The Abyss, coll 1948), which tracks events following the release of a drug which destroys inhibitions – were too risqué for pulp publication. The theme of "The Abyss" is featured also in Vincent McHugh's libidinous comedy I Am Thinking of My Darling (1943), which anticipated counterculture-inspired LSD fantasies like William Tenn's "Did Your Coffee Taste Funny this Morning?" (January 1967 Cavalier; vt "The Lemon-Green Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite-Dribble Day" in The Square Root of Man, coll 1968) and Brian W Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head (fixup 1969), rather than endorsing the view shared by Freud and Keller that repression of our more vicious urges is the necessary price we pay for society and civilization. Other notable sf stories which side with Keller in their suspicion of the unfettered id are Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 2, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl) and James K Morrow's The Wine of Violence (1981).

The most impressive psychological study to appear in the pulps was not in an sf magazine but in Unknown; this was L Ron Hubbard's classic Fear (July 1940 Unknown; 1957), about a man who loses a slice of his life by repression and is tortured by the "demons" of guilt. Material from the story was transplanted into Hubbard's substitute psychotherapy, Dianetics, which later became part of the dogma of Scientology; dianetic theory is much in evidence in the stories collected in Ole Doc Methuselah (stories October 1947-January 1950 Astounding as by René Lafayette; coll of linked stories 1970). It is a fairly common ploy in sf stories to use Amnesiac heroes whose memories eventually turn out to be magnificently bizarre; examples are H P Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" (cut June 1936 Astounding; restored in The Outsider and Others, coll 1939), L P Davies's The Shadow Before (1970) and Keith Laumer's The Infinite Cage (1972).

One of the most famous pulp sf stories, Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" (September 1941 Astounding), deals with the psychology of revelation – a subject dealt with in a less pessimistic fashion in other stories of Conceptual Breakthrough. Asimov's more significant contribution to psychological sf, however, is the Imaginary Science of robopsychology, which he invented for the stories in I, Robot (1940-1950 var mags; coll 1950), many of which feature robopsychologist Susan Calvin in confrontation with practical and theoretical problems arising from the Three Laws forming the basis of robotic ethics. Robopsychology remained an essential element in Asimov's Robot stories, especially such philosophically inclined ones as "– That Thou Art Mindful of Him!" (May 1974 F&SF) and "The Bicentennial Man" (in Stellar #2, anth 1976, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey).

Technologically assisted journeys into the hypothetical Inner Space of the human mind became increasingly common in post-World War Two sf. The hero of "Dreams are Sacred" (September 1948 Astounding) by Peter Phillips has to entice a catatonic dreamer back to the real world by disrupting his fantasy world (see Dream Hacking). Other such journeys are featured in "The Mental Assassins" (May 1950 Fantastic Adventures) by Gregg Conrad (Rog Phillips), "City of the Tiger" (1958 Science Fantasy #32) by John Brunner, "Descent into the Maelstrom" (April 1961 Fantastic) by Daniel F Galouye, "The Girl in His Mind" (April 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow) by Robert F Young, Mindplayers (1987) by Pat Cadigan, The Night Mayor (1989) by Kim Newman and Queen of Angels (1990) by Greg Bear. Several of the above-named stories extrapolate the idea of "telepathic psychiatry" with considerable intelligence; the Brunner story became the basis of the pioneering novel The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965). Another fine novel on the same theme is The Dream Master (1966) by Roger Zelazny; dreams are taken very seriously in Connie Willis's Lincoln's Dreams (1987).

John Brunner's numerous essays in psychological sf also include a notable story about a reality-distorting Drug, The Gaudy Shadows (June 1960 Science Fantasy; exp 1971), and a psychiatric case-study, Quicksand (1967); both belong to categories of sf story which became very abundant in the 1960s. Several other post-World War Two writers have shown a consistent interest in psychology. Alfred Bester produced, among others, the quasi-Freudian vignette, "The Devil's Invention" (August 1950 Astounding; vt "Oddy and Id" in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1951, anth 1951, ed Everett F Bleiler & T E Dikty), a classic novel about a psychotic murderer who eventually undergoes psychic demolition and reconstitution, The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953), and a remarkable study of "psychotic projection" and confused Identity, "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF). Most of Theodore Sturgeon's sf consists of psychological studies of loneliness, angst and alienation, often resolved by the quasi-transcendental curative power of love; a few examples selected from a great many are the bitter study of prejudice, "The World Well Lost" (June 1953 Universe), the painful study of megalomania, "Mr. Costello, Hero" (December 1953 Galaxy), and the classic novels of literal psychic reintegration, More Than Human (fixup 1953) and The Cosmic Rape (1958). Ray Bradbury has written a number of neat stories turning on the vagaries of child psychology, most notably the ironic "Zero Hour" (Fall 1947 Planet Stories) and "The World the Children Made" (23 September 1950 Saturday Evening Post; vt "The Veldt" in The Illustrated Man, coll 1951), although most of his work in this nostalgic vein is pure fantasy.

Very many of Philip K Dick's sf stories are concerned with false worldviews of various kinds – and, indeed, with the possibility that reality is intrinsically subjective; Eye in the Sky (1957) features a series of Parallel Worlds incarnating the characters' neurotic worldviews, while The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) was the first of a sequence of novels dealing with reality-warping Drugs, which eventually culminated in the deeply embittered black comedy A Scanner Darkly (1977). Several of Dick's novels deal with schizophrenia (in the true clinical meaning rather than the vulgar sense embodied in such split-personality stories as Wyman Guin's "Beyond Bedlam" [August 1951 Galaxy]), including Martian Time-Slip (August-December 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow as "All We Marsmen"; exp 1964) and We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972), while Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964) features the full panoply of neuroses. Paranoia and schizophrenia are sufficiently widespread in modern sf to warrant a separate entry in this book, but mention may be made here of the paranoid fantasies in which Barry N Malzberg has specialized to great effect; different sf situations become archetypes of paranoid delusion in Overlay (1972), Beyond Apollo (1972), The Day of the Burning (1974) and The Gamesman (1975), and even Freud cannot cope with the situations which confront him in The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (1985). Sf situations are used in much the same way to construct exaggerated models of alienation in a number of stories by Robert Silverberg, including Thorns (1967), The Man in the Maze (1969) and Dying Inside (1972). Other writers who consistently extrapolate psychological syndromes into situations, landscapes and world-designs include J G Ballard, in virtually all his work, and Philip José Farmer, whose early short stories – including the Oedipus-complex fantasy "Mother" (April 1953 Thrilling Wonder) and "Rastignac the Devil" (May 1954 Fantastic Universe) – were pioneering exercises in this vein.

The use of sf to address such psychological questions as the problem of Identity – as in Algis Budrys's excellent Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958) or Silverberg's The Second Trip (1972) – is often closely related to mainstream work; in this instance, to such stories as to such stories as Marcel Aymé's The Second Face (1941; trans 1951), David Ely's Seconds (1963) – filmed as Seconds (1966) – and Kōbō Abe's Tanin no Kao (1964; trans as The Face of Another 1966). Variants on the sf/mainstream borderline include skin-colour-change fantasies (see Race in SF), such as Chris Stratton's Change of Mind (1969) – novelizing Change of Mind (1969) – and the film Watermelon Man (1970); and sex-change fantasies, such as Season of the Witch (1968) by Hank Stine (see Jean Marie Stine), I Will Fear No Evil (July-December 1970 Galaxy; 1970) by Robert A Heinlein, The Passion of New Eve (1977) by Angela Carter, and various Jack Chalker novels such as The Identity Matrix (1982).

The processes of mind control involved in "brainwashing" – which play a key part in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and which have become a standard element in Dystopian fiction – bestride the same borderline; exemplary works include The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon, A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess and The Mind Benders (1963) by James Kennaway. The Condon and Burgess novels were famously filmed as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Control through electronic brain implants features in The Mind Snatchers (1972; vt The Happiness Cage; vt The Demon Within) and Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man (1972), filmed as The Terminal Man (1974). Kingsley Amis's "Something Strange" (25 November 1960 Spectator; July 1961) and William Sleator's Young-Adult House of Stairs (1974) describe sinister experiments in behavioural conditioning; another such experiment, less plausible but more gruesome, is central to the film Dead Kids (1981; vt Strange Behavior). Sf writers have also come up with wild variants which attempt to clarify the moral and philosophical questions involved; examples include The Ring (1968) by Piers Anthony and Robert E Margroff and The Barons of Behavior (1972) by Tom Purdom.

Psychological themes of considerable interest where sf has a monopoly include: the augmentation of Intelligence (which see), as featured in Poul Anderson's Brain Wave (1954), Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) and Thomas M Disch's Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968); stories of contagious psychosis (see Meme) like Gregory Benford's Deeper than the Darkness (1970; rev vt as The Stars in Shroud 1978) and Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted (1984); and stories dealing with the recording of emotional experiences for replaying by consumers, including Lee Harding's "All My Yesterdays" (June 1963 Science Fantasy) and D G Compton's Synthajoy (1972).

The last story is a variant of the more common notion that memories, and perhaps knowledge, might be transferred from one mind to another (see Identity Transfer; Memory Edit; Upload), a theme featured in Curt Siodmak's Hauser's Memory (1968) and various films by him, A E van Vogt's Future Glitter (1973; vt Tyranopolis 1977) and James E Gunn's The Dreamers (fixup 1980). Another related theme is that of recording and marketing dreams, a notion elaborately developed in Isaac Asimov's "Dreaming Is a Private Thing" (28 May 1955 Saturday Review; exp December 1955 F&SF), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Hyacinths (1983), James K Morrow's The Continent of Lies (1984) and Diana Wynne Jones's "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" (in Dragons and Dreams, anth 1986, ed Jane Yolen, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh).

Despite the profligacy of sf writers in devising machines and Drugs as facilitating devices, the actual progress of experimental and physiological psychology has had very little impact on sf by comparison with the more abstract and theoretical side of the science, perhaps because of the kind of repugnance displayed in "The Psychologist who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats" (in New Dimensions 6, anth 1976, ed Robert Silverberg) by James Tiptree Jr – herself a psychologist, and better qualified than most to draw upon that inspiration. The heroic analyst selected by Jeremy Leven's computer-incarnated Satan (1982) to solve the problem of evil is similarly horrified by the gruesome activities of his experimentally inclined colleagues. The psychological implications of theories in Linguistics have had more impact, notably in Samuel R Delany's Babel-17 (1966) and Ian Watson's The Embedding (1973).

In the late twentieth century, public awareness of various neurological conditions was increased by a number of popular-science works: probably the best are those of UK-born neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (coll 1985). Sacks's title essay, dealing with visual agnosia or recognition failure, is speculatively developed in terms of gender recognition by Raphael Carter in "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden). The tics and bad language associated with Tourette's syndrome are made deliberately contagious as part of a Mad Scientist's scheme in Greg Bear's / <Slant> (1997). Autistic concentration and difficulty with "normal" human relationships are likewise deliberately induced, as "Focus", in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (1999); a kind of induced autism is also central to Cordwainer Smith's much earlier "Scanners Live in Vain" (January 1950 Fantasy Book #6). Karen Ripley's Slow World trilogy, opening with The Persistence of Memory (1993), effectively employs autism as a metaphor; Elizabeth Moon drew on her own experience of raising an autistic adopted son to create the engaging savant narrator of Speed of Dark (2002; vt The Speed of Dark 2003). Ultra-intense magnetic fields in the Alien installation of Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) produce bizarre neurological effects, such as one character's temporary conviction that she is dead, does not exist (Cotard's syndrome).

Mention must also be made of a group of stories dealing with the psychology of sf itself in a rather alarmingly cynical fashion. The pioneer was Robert Lindner's 1954 essay "The Jet-Propelled Couch: The Story of Kirk" (December 1954-January 1955 Harper's Magazine; in The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales, coll 1955; vt The Jet-Propelled Couch and Other True Psychoanalytic Tales 1955), about a psychiatrist's encounter with a patient who believes he has a second existence as the hero of a series of Space Operas, a theme echoed by Iain Banks in The Bridge (1986), where Sword-and-Sorcery motifs obtrude into real life. Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), in which Hitler channels his power-fantasies into pulp sf rather than politics, and Malzberg's Herovit's World (1973) and Galaxies (1975) offer uncompromisingly harsh judgments about the consolations of sf, and at the time aroused considerable ire among sf fans. Some psychoanalytical literary criticism of well known sf works is even harsher – examples are C M Kornbluth's "The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism" (in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, anth 1959, ed Earl Kemp), Robert Plank's analysis of Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) in "Omnipotent Cannibals" (July 1971 Riverside Quarterly; exp in Robert A Heinlein, anth 1978, ed Joseph D Olander and Martin H Greenberg), and Thomas M Disch's analysis of the same author's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) in "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction" (in Science Fiction at Large, anth 1976, ed Peter Nicholls; vt Explorations of the Marvellous 1978). The basic charge of all three essays is infantilism: together with the oft-quoted adage that the Golden Age of SF is twelve, they suggest that sf may appeal particularly strongly to people who cannot (yet) cope with reality, and to those condemned to remain existentially becalmed in psychological pre-adolescence forever. Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale (1983) extrapolates the thesis that tales of the conquest of space are encoded sexual fantasies, and that Spaceships are phallic symbols; the one in the story is propelled by a literal sexual drive. On the other hand, K W Jeter's Dr Adder (1984) suggests that our deep Sex fantasies are much more exotic and much sicker than anything which can routinely be found in sf. Given that no one really knows what secrets lurk in the shadowy recesses of the unconscious mind and how our imaginative fictions are shaped to flatter them, speculation on such matters will presumably continue to roam freely across the whole spectrum of possibilities.

Related theme anthologies include Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction (anth 1974; exp 1977) edited by Martin H Greenberg, Harvey Katz and Patricia Warrick; Hallucination Orbit: Psychology in Science Fiction (anth 1983) edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh; PsiFi: Psychological Theories and Science Fictions (anth 1987) edited by Michele Benjamin and Jim Ridgway, with extensive commentary on the selected stories' implications; and Psychology: A Literary Introduction (anth 2014) edited by Laura Kati Corlew and Charles G Waugh. [BS/DRL]

see also: Communications; Cybernetics; Medicine; Perception; Taboos.

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