Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sci Fi Psi

At io9 Charlie Jane Anders wrote about the riffs on Star Wars in the Ewan McGregor-George Clooney movie The Men Who Stare at Goats. The movie is a humorous fictionalized take on Jon Ronson's (supposedly) non-fiction book by the same name, which documents the real-life US Army program to develop psychic soldiers in the 1980s.

At Wired's Danger Room blog, David Hambling takes a closer look at the program, and its origins in New Age woo. But it's woo with a sciency overlay. Just take a look at Lt. Col. Jim Channon's First Earth Batallion manual (pdf), which suggests that psionic powers are a matter of evolution (we may be abled to live on a diet of radio waves and our carbon based bodies may be turning into silicon!).

I kind of like the manual's description of warrior monks who participate in "ethical combat" and are connected into the biosphere and the universe. But I find the psychic powers idea to be pretty silly non-supported by any conclusive evidence that it work. Read the whole Danger Room post for more about what was tried and what they succeeded in doing.

But the idea that the human mind holds untapped abilities is a familiar one to anyone who has read the classics of science fiction from the mid-20th century. That was due in large part to the fascination of John W. Campbell - influential as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction - with pseudoscience. As Wikipedia quotes:
In 1957, novelist and critic James Blish tallied: "From the professional writer's point of view, the primary interest in Astounding Science Fiction continues to center on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ('psi') as a springboard for stories.... 113 pages of the total editorial content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material.... By including the first part of a serial that later becomes a novel about psi the total for these first two issues of 1957 is 145 pages of psi text, and 140 pages of non-psi." James Blish, The Issues at Hand, pages 86-87.
But psi-based science fiction stories didn't start with Campbell. There's a long list of pre-golden age SF featuring telepaths at io9, many of which have passed into the public domain. And moving into mid-century - Campbell's era - there are number of SF classics featuring characters with psi powers: A. E. van Vogt's Slan (1946), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953), Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953), Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation (1953), John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), to name a few.

There is a common theme that development of psychic powers is supposed to move Homo sapiens up the "evolutionary ladder"*:
"E for Esper," he muttered. "Esper for Extra Sensory Perception . . . For Telepaths, Mind Readers, Brain Peepers. [ . . . ] Those damned mind-readers are supposed to be the greatest advance since Homo sapiens evolved. E for Evolution. Bastards! E for Exploitation!
~ The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Definitely good reading, but personally I don't consider telepathy to be "science" no matter how it's dressed up in technical terms. While some parapsychology researchers have claimed to see positive results, those studies are controversial and, even if valid have only demonstrated minor effects.

I get the sense that SF authors sometimes want to write about powerful wizards in a technology-based setting, hence psi-powered supermen that explore the stars. I don't think that's a bad thing, but it does annoy me when people go on about about how "hard" the science was during the olden days "Golden Age".

And coming back around to The Men That Stare at Goats, it sounds very much like the story of people who view the world through a science fiction lens. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

(Danger Room post via BoingBoing)

* Of course evolution has no direction or goal. Continuing human evolution does not mean that Homo sapiens will become more "advanced", only different. Listing the SF stories that get that wrong is a completely different post.

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Arvind Mishra said...

"SF authors sometimes want to write about powerful wizards in a technology-based setting, hence psi-powered supermen that explore the stars."
Quite Logical ,thanks!

Athena Andreadis said...

Then we have John B. Alexander and his ideas about psychic warfare and mind weaponry, which I discussed in my book. Here's a link.

Kosmonavtka said...

Telepathy is the most overused trope in sci-fi - even otherwise "hard" sci-fi! I groan inwardly whenever yet another telepath appears in a plot. (Though some form of synthetic telepathy, using a neural implant with a radio transmitter, might be possible.)

Peggy said...

I do think something like synthetic telepathy might be possible, but it wouldn't be nearly as powerful as the psi powers depicted in SF.