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Sensory Deprivation

Entry updated 19 May 2017. Tagged: Theme.

The real-world Technology of the sensory deprivation chamber or tank has been frequently invoked in borderline sf as well as Genre SF. A typical setup might be a tank of lukewarm water in which the suitably garbed subject floats, supplied with air but cut off from such normal senses of Perception as sight, hearing and touch. Sensory deprivation techniques are invoked as brainwashing or conditioning tools in the film Man in the Moon (1960), directed by Basil Dearden, and in James Kennaway's borderline novel The Mind Benders (1963). Their use in Psychology generally suggests an element of endurance testing, as in the episode "The Conditioned Reflex" of Stanisław Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot (coll 1968; cut trans 1979), whose hero Pirx does well to cope with seven hours of isolation and progressive loss of Identity in the tank. Building on this with added drama or melodrama, sensory deprivation is easily recast as a sophisticated form of Torture – as in "The Quaker Cannon" (August 1961 Analog) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, whose protagonist is twice subjected to the feared "Blank Tank"; Colin Wilson's The Black Room (1971), which is couched as a spy thriller; and James Patterson's Maximum Ride, Book 2: School's Out – Forever (2006). A sensory deprivation chamber features in scientific and occult experimentation on a female child in Dean Koontz's The Door to December (1985) as by Richard Paige.

Sensory deprivation can also be seen as a route to various forms of inner Transcendence, as is characteristically the case in Colin Wilson's above-cited Technothriller The Black Room; therapeutic use of a "Black Room" also features in his more ambitious The Philosopher's Stone (1969). A tank's psychedelic effects somehow rewrite the protagonist's DNA and lead to bizarre transformations and Devolution in Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States (1978), filmed as Altered States (1980) directed by Ken Russell. Further tanks are deployed to help access other realities or aspects of reality in Tad Williams's City of Golden Shadow (1996), facilitating Cyberspace access to a remarkable Virtual Reality; in Minority Report (2002), where the entankment of a trio of psychics seemingly helps focus their power of Precognition; in the pilot of Fringe (2008-2013); and in an episode of Stranger Things (2016-current) featuring a Parallel World or Dimension.

That challenging state of zero sensory input can of course be attained by other means than the usual apparatus of chambers or tanks. The protagonist of Charles Harness's The Ring of Ritornel (1968) lives through an enormous subjective Time Abyss during a few actual days in the "Deep" outside normal space/time, where there is literally nothing to sense. The Cyborg heroine of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969) is tormented in the episode "The Ship Who Dissembled" (March 1969 If as "The Ship Who Disappeared") by disconnection of her sensory inputs, a procedure which drives another of her kind insane. In Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), a major character briefly re-embodied in robot form has his sensorium simply switched off. [DRL]

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