Is telepathy science fiction – or should we shove it in the fantasy basket?

Picture of a neuronI’ve always had a thing about telepathy in a science fiction novel. To me, it smacks far too much of ouija boards, mind reading and charlatanism. So when I come across telepathy as a skill in an SF book, I roll my eyes, sigh – but if it’s somebody whose work I like, I’ll keep reading. One such is Linnea Sinclair. Her book Games of Command has two story arcs, one which is high tech SF, the other concerning telepathy. I really enjoyed the book, but I much preferred the high tech action half. Because of my preferences, it took me a long time to actually get around to reading An Accidental Goddess. And again, while I enjoyed the book, the whole mental powers higher human thing required me to not analyze too deeply.

Anne McCaffrey had her telepath type series, too. That was To Ride Pegasus and its sequels and it didn’t press buttons for me. In fact, it was a did-not-finish.

So this article in io9, entitled how much longer until humanity becomes a hive mind, left me somewhat bemused. Because a form of mental telepathy does seem to be… well… just around the corner. Granted, you need electronics to make it work, but even so. Lots of novels (including mine) foresee humans enhancing their mental capability with a neural chip. Not many novels consider the dangers, though. One of my regular readers mentioned the idea of Facebook playing in one’s head. And, of course, viruses, worms and the like. It’s a scenario I consider in The Iron Admiral: Deception. Then there’s who controls the systems? And what about privacy?

But as far as the nuts and bolts are concerned, the thing about this article which really had me thinking was the transmission of ideas. Let’s take something really simple, like colour. As it happens, my husband is colour blind. I’ve often wondered what he sees when he looks at (say) a red rose. I know the flower sort of disappears into the foliage for him, so I’m guessing that his brain sees that wave length the same as what I call green. But really, I don’t know, because his brain is interpreting the signals in a different way to my brain. The same thing takes place when we talk about objects such as trees, or mountains – or anything else you care to name. As the article points out, we use a thing called language to kind of code what we’re talking about. The fact that the tree you visualise in your brain isn’t the same as the tree I visualise in mine, doesn’t matter. So given all that, speech is much, much easier to transmit than a mental picture.

So has all of this changed my mind about telepathy in SF? Show me how its done – with some sort of neural net or nanotech or a chip or something, and yes, I’ll go along for the ride. Otherwise – it sits over in the corner marked ‘magic’, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, though. It’s in good company. The Force is lurking around over there, too.

Thoughts? Telepathy in SF – yes, no?

22 thoughts on “Is telepathy science fiction – or should we shove it in the fantasy basket?

  1. Daniele

    Is it a science telepathy? No, it’s only a phenomenon studied by science. So, in my opinion, telepathy can be both in SF and in fantasy. If a story is only based on telepathy, it’s only a telepathy story, not a SF story.

  2. mformichelli

    I agree with you that unexplained telepathy-and by that I mean telepathy without scientific feasibility is (fantasy—but I’ve also been reading around the ‘net about how MRI studies are getting closer to being able to read thoughts through magnetic field detection in the brain. It seems mind-reading by technology may be around the corner as well (I haven’t read the io9 article yet but I’ll get to it).

    Telepathy in sci-fi is something that has been in the genre by tradition for decades, and is there more on a “Grandfather Clause” than anything else (unless, as you mention, it’s technological). The real trick for me is to wonder if telepathy is biologically feasible. If it’s possible to build a microchip that can read a brain’s magnetic fields and/or transmit information to a biological brain, then is it possible to evolve an organ that does the same thing? I’ve got a degree in biology, and I can say (with my limited knowledge) “maybe.” So I guess, if telepathy in a book is explained in terms of science, I can accept it as sci-fi be it biological or not, but if it’s just some weird “ability” than it’s fantasy—at least that’d be my definition.

    Ah, gotta love gray areas…

  3. Richard Leonard

    I believe colour blindness is due to a deficiency in the retina. The brain is especially suited to detecting, recognising and categorising patterns of changes in input sensory information. If the retina can distinguish red from green then the brain will work with it, otherwise no.
    As for telepathy in SF or Fantasy, I think it should be left to the realms of fantasy unless in SF there is an attempt to explain its mechanism in a scientific way. For example, if it was presented as a controlled bio-quantum entanglement system then that could be interesting. You did it well in the Iron Admiral series with the implant chip which Allysha uses to hook up with the IS.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      I sometimes wonder if the colour blind folks see it right and the rest of us see it wrong. Also, if the red I see is the same as the red everyone else sees. After all, every person’s reality is something constructed for them by their brain.

      And thanks for the compliment

      1. Richard Leonard

        No, the greater the distinction of colours the better, I think. We had a colour blind guy testing software for us a few years ago and I came into the lab to find him cursing and swearing about having no audio out of one of our audio boxes. He couldn’t figure out why. I pointed to the red LED on the front, which is green if all is good, and told him the thing hasn’t booted properly. “Is that red?” he said…

  4. carver22

    Two points:
    1. I agree about telepathy BUT something like it does occur now and then between my wife and myself. I guess it’s just that we’ve been together for so many years that some responses to an external event are bound to overlap. It does sometimes feel like telepathy, though.
    2. Setting aside your dislike of Star Trek, consider the loss for fans if the telepath Deanna Troi were to be made redundant.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      What happens between you and your wife is your own business. 🙂 On the Star Trek issue…well, as I said, if I like the story, I’ll just roll my eyes and move on.

  5. Veronica Sicoe

    I’m with you on this one — if telepathy is explained as a function of technological enhancement, then I’ll accept it. If it’s a natural ability developed because humanity suddenly decided to evolve in a different direction than our genome has over the past millenia, then no, I can’t buy it.

    I have a form of telepathy in my novel (it’s the core idea), but it’s not thought or image transfer, it’s a state transfer (like anxious, angry, happy) and it happens through the “contamination” of both brains with quantum entangled particles that replace neurotransmitters. It’s not between human & human though, but between alien & human, and the particles are part of the alien’s natural nervous system. Basically, the human becomes infected and can emulate the more potent states of the alien counterpart, regardless of distance. 🙂

    1. Greta van der Rol

      Quantum entangled. I like that. Science fiction without science is fantasy – and as long as you have a plausible scientific explanation, I’ll go along with it.

      1. Robin Helweg-Larsen

        I used to be solidly in the telepathy = fantasy camp, until I personally experienced a classic notification of a death communicated by a crow. The only way I can think to explain it is quantum entanglement person to person, with the crow somehow able to “smell” the immediacy of death in my still-unconscious awareness and reacting to it. I blogged the whole event last year:

        http://robinhl.com/2012/03/15/crows-and-ravens-as-an-omen-of-death/

        It was a unique experience, and I’m still mulling it over. It was also immediately preceded by a string of related coincidences, and I no longer know whether to treat them as pure coincidences or not.

        It all makes the Universe look richer and more beautiful than we can absorb.

  6. MonaKarel

    With her telepathic characters, didn’t McCaffery end up with the telepathy as a cover up for the transporter the women had invented? Or was that another writer??
    I did find her dragons fascinating, as a creation of science, not fantasy.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      I loved the dragons, and the telepathy between them and their people was explained fairly well. Not sure about the story you’re referring to. But then, as I said, I usually shy away from telepathy in SF.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      I loathe the whole ‘mating with humans’ thing. It’s one of the main things I hate about Star Trek. It’s so unlikely that we’d have the same DNA. Good grief, we can’t even mate with chimpanzees. Alien species will do whatever alien species do. You can get away with alien telepathy for that reason. Jack McDevitt’s aliens are telepathic (they’re called the Mutes because they don’t talk). That’s fine and it’s not what I’m talking about, really. It’s with human telepathy that I take issue.

      I’d add, though, that the Mutes’ ability to interact with a human brain really had me going “really???” It seems so unlikely to me that two alien species could interact in such a way. It would assume that their brains worked the same way ours does and that the interpretation would be similar.

  7. Marj

    Telepathy is feasible, considering that there really are electrical impulses from the brain, and perhaps certain people under certain conditions can read them. I’m willing to accept telepathy in a Sci-fi novel, but then I’m not particularly concerned if novels follow any rules, whether generally accepted for the genre or not. (That is a handy attitude as it lets me out of any perceived obligation to learn the rules. :D)

  8. juliabarrett

    What would be interesting, and I suppose in a round about way it pertains to your husband’s colorblindness, would be if we could see through a bee’s eyes or a spider’s eyes. I know a flower looks very different to a bee than it looks to a human. Providing humans that ability, in a science fiction novel, would be unique. I suppose it would require genetic tampering.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      I think that could be done. Because animals see more of the radiation spectrum than we do, we would need to know how to interpret those particular wavelengths. At the moment, it’s possible to produce pictures of what scientists ‘think’ bees etc see. Genetic tampering, or just an extra processor in the brain? I’ll be interested in opinions on this.

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