Entry updated 2 February 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Telepathy or mind-reading is the most popular and durable paranormal ability in sf; its hypothetical roots in scientific reality are discussed under ESP, as are instances of pre-Genre SF usage and various stories which deal with telepathy as part of a wider spectrum of Psi Powers.
The vogue for telepathy stories in the sf magazines was hugely advanced by John W Campbell Jr, whose enthusiasm for superhuman mental powers (see Superman) led to the notorious "psi-boom" in his Astounding and elsewhere. A notable early work about the social implications of a telepathic Pariah Elite (as distinct from a gifted individual) is A E van Vogt's Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946), in which a new race of telepaths struggles against the prejudices of ordinary mortals. This theme is further explored in such later novels as Henry Kuttner's Mutant (stories February 1945-September 1953 Astounding; fixup 1953), George O Smith's Highways in Hiding (1956) and John Wyndham's Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955). The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) by Alfred Bester ia a bold pioneering attempt to depict a society into which telepaths – though still a distrusted minority – are fully integrated; there is some amusing use of typographic patterns to convey the flavour of telepathic conversation.
Because the psi-boom years coincided with the early years of the Cold War, John W Campbell Jr's writers paid a good deal of attention to the utility of telepathy in espionage – a frequent theme in the solo and collaborative works of Randall Garrett. Telepaths occasionally find such employment in such later works as Stephen Goldin's Mindflight (1978), Daniel Keys Moran's Emerald Eyes (1988) and especially the Sensitives series by Herbert Burkholz – The Sensitives (1987) and Strange Bedfellows (1988). However, they probably do more socially useful work as psychotherapists, like those in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953), John Brunner's The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965), and James H Schmitz's Hub/Telzey Amberdon sequence, where a secretive Psychology Service operates largely behind the scenes.
Several Genre SF authors continued to write engaging stories centred on telepathy even after the psi-boom began to fade. These include James H Schmitz, in Agent of Vega (coll 1960) and the Telzey Amberdon series as above; Arthur Sellings, most notably in Telepath (1962) and The Uncensored Man (1964); and Dan Morgan in the tetralogy begun with The New Minds (1967). Further late examples are noted below.
In Theodore Sturgeon's more extreme stories, particularly More Than Human (fixup 1953) and The Cosmic Rape (1958), the acquisition of telepathic powers becomes a kind of transcendental breakthrough. Similarly transcendental ideas of psionic "cosmic community" cropped up occasionally in the work of Clifford D Simak, notably in Time Is the Simplest Thing (April-July 1961 Analog as "The Fisherman"; 1961). Not all sf stories, however, place mind-to-mind contact in a positive light; the potential loss of mental privacy is more conducive to Paranoia than dreams of Utopia. Thus the kind of telepathic "gestalt-mind" featured in Sturgeon's More Than Human is given more sceptical treatment in The Inner Wheel (1970) by Keith Roberts. The possible embarrassments of telepathy are pointed out in Walter M Miller Jr's "Command Performance" (November 1952 Galaxy; vt "Anybody Else Like Me?" in The View from the Stars, coll 1965). Such novels as André Maurois's La machine à lire les pensées (1937; trans as The Thought-Reading Machine 1938) suggest that telepathic abilities might be utterly insignificant, but other stories tend to an opposite extreme. Numerous tales, including John Brunner's "Protect Me from My Friends" (November 1962 F&SF), Lester del Rey's Pstalemate (1971) and Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted (1984), propose that people endowed with telepathy might very readily become insane, and the well-adjusted telepath generally has to be credited with an ability to screen out unwanted images, thoughts and feelings lest he or she should lose his or her true self, as the hero of Roger Zelazny's Bridge of Ashes (1976) routinely does. Unfortunate consequences of ESP endowment are elaborately described in such novels as Mike Dolinsky's Mind One (1972), and Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside (1972) – the latter effectively portraying telepathic prying as a shoddy short cut (like cheating in examinations) incompatible with the living of a satisfactory life. Partly as a result of these sceptical analyses, the early idea that ESP and telepathy might play a crucial role in future human Evolution has lost much of its fashionableness, although it is a subsidiary element in Storm Constantine's not-altogether-earnest Wraeththu sequence opening with The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit (1987). A notable twenty-first-century treatment of telepathy as an affliction is Patrick Ness's Young Adult trilogy Chaos Walking, opening with The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), in which thoughts and fantasies spill out uncontrollably as telepathic "Noise" and privacy is not easily maintained; echoing the typographic patterns of The Demolished Man (as cited above), the Noise occasionally appears on the page as scrawled, overlapping phrases.
Telepathy is sometimes invoked as a solution to the problem of Communication with Aliens, although the logic of this is somewhat suspect (thought is largely couched in language); one of the more intelligent exercises in this vein is Edward Llewellyn's Word-Bringer (1986). Nevertheless mind-to-mind contact is a frequently used facilitating device in stories whose centre of gravity lies elsewhere. It appears throughout Anne McCaffrey's Pern sequence opening with Dragonflight (fixup 1968), where dragonriders converse freely (in italics) with their speechless though sapient mounts, and occasionally in James White's Sector General space-hospital sequence. Spider Robinson's Telempath (1976) features telepathic communication with invisible gas-plasma entities inhabiting Earth's atmosphere but only lately detected.
Telepathic communication is often assumed to be instantaneous, conveniently sidestepping the limitations of Relativity when chatting over interstellar distances: examples include E E Smith's Lensman series; Robert A Heinlein's Time for the Stars (1956), in which experimental confirmation of instant transmission introduces a new scientific paradigm; Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970; rev 1977), with Alien "Taprisiots" providing the telepathic links; and Robert Silverberg's Starborne (1996).
Despite the various plot conveniences it offers, telepathy has been gradually falling out of fashion since Cyberspace and other forms of neuro-electronic interfacing became established in sf as a more plausible route for mind-to-mind contact – John Meaney's To Hold Infinity (1998) is one of several books to rework the science-fictional conventions of telepathy in such terms – while the ubiquity of cellphones, smartphones and their ilk has accustomed readers to being perpetually in touch via purely mundane routes. As a plot device, telepathy today is only rarely necessary. [DRL/PN/BS]
- George Devereux, editor. Psychoanalysis and the Occult (New York: International Universities Press, 1953) [nonfiction: anth: hb/nonpictorial]
- Roger Luckhurst. The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901 (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2002) [nonfiction: hb/Vearncomb, "Spirit Photograph"]
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