Psionics, in my books, is the science of understanding how the brain interacts with the underlying quantum reality of the universe. Readers will sometimes confuse it with a belief in psychism, which is often just a load of nonsense.
Psionics in science fiction is most often represented by mental powers such as telepathy, empathy, and teleportation. Given what we know about how the mind interacts with quantum reality, it isn’t outside the realm of speculation to assume a better understanding in the future. I often have characters with psionic abilities in my stories. I find it an interesting literary device. It lets me play with additional information within a tight-focus viewpoint when writing.
For example: Commander Hrothgar Tebrey (from The Awakening Series) is a psionic commando. He has spent years training, honing his mind to be sensitive to the thoughts and emotions of others. I try to show useful and harmful sides to his abilities. Yes, he can read minds. He also is effected by the emotions of those around him, for better or worse.
As strange as it may seem, there is actually a slight scientific basis for the idea of psionics. It can be seen in experiments with the basic particle of light, the photon.
For most of the last century there were arguments about whether light was a particle or a wave. The math worked for both. Scientists on both sides of the argument conduced repeatable experiments that proved they were right. Words got heated. Then they conducted the experiments together and things really got strange.
You see, light is either a particle or a wave depending upon the desire of the experimenter.
Yes, you read that right. Somehow the minds of the scientists were able to alter the fundamental nature of a photon. It is a fun experiment, I’ve done it myself in the lab. What we don’t know, is how the mind is able to interact with the photon. We know that it has something to do with the mind changing the probability wave of the photon. To me, this is where psionics comes in.
So, on to influences in my work. Below is a by no means comprehensive list of psionics in science fiction. It is just a list of the books I felt influenced me the most when it came time to include psionics in my own stories.
The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
This collection is actually the three novels Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon. I read these first when I was ten, but have read them again most years since. I may have fallen in love with Lessa… The stories tell the tale of a colony of humans cut off from the rest of civilization and trying to survive on a planet that has some very unpleasant visitors sometimes… If you haven’t read these, I heartily suggest that you do, as they are excellently written, and a lot of fun. Psionics in the stories is low-key, mostly telepathy and empathy in a few rare individuals. The eponymous dragons of the stories are bioengineered from local wildlife and have the ability to teleport. There is also a thread (hah!)of archaeology in the stories as the descendants of the colonists attempt to rediscover their past. Most of that is in The White Dragon and All the Weyrs of Pern.
The Lensman Saga by E. E. “Doc” Smith
This series, which begins with Triplanetary, is simply epic in scale. It begins at the dawn of the galaxy and spans far into the future. Once you get to the third book, the timeline stops jumping forward by leaps and bounds and follows Kip Kinnison, a Lensman of the Galactic Patrol. Arguably space opera, these books nevertheless have many firsts. Atomic weapons (prior to WW2), huge space battles, psionics soldiers, the first powered armor I’ve ever come across in a story, and lots of aliens that aren’t really like humans at all, but are still treated as people. Robert A. Heinlein cited Smith as a direct influence, as have many authors since. You can see the influence of these books in many modern movies, such as Alien and Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, Green Lantern is a (bad) comic book version of the story! You’ll see these stories come up again when I talk about powered armor in a future post. 🙂 I really want a Grey Lensman outfit for a convention…
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
This is an excellent story about teleportation and its impact on society. It is hard to talk about without giving away the plot, but imagine a world where people can teleport, and what that might mean… This is a great story with an unlikable character. It influenced Babylon 5 (Bester the psi cop?) and authors as far ranging as Roger Zelazny.
Falcon by Emma Bull
Falcon is about a lot of things, but at the core it is about a program to create pilots for starships where the pilot is also the engine. It has precognition, teleportation, empathy, and a few other abilities tastefully done. It is a great and under-read novel. The story is told in two parts that seem unrelated at first. Keep reading. Like most stories by Emma Bull, the payoff is worth it.
The Foundation Series by Isaak Asimov
This series is a little dry by todays standards, but still a great piece of storytelling. It is the story of the long slow collapse of galactic civilization and the foundations that were established to try to bring it back after the fall. Truly epic in scale. This solid work of science fiction includes telepathy in the later books, and it is masterfully done.
Breed to Come by Andre Norton
This is a complex story (incidentally published in the year of my birth, 1972) of an earth where humans are extinct, and the ruins are populated by intelligent animals evolved from animals mutated by a plague that killed off humans. This theme is present in modern stories and movies. Some of the animals, those evolved from cats in particular, have slight psionic abilities. Besides being a great story, it has several themes that are very relevant today, such as worldwide ecological disaster. This book, along with The Beast Master were strong influences on my early stories. Also, I love this cover.
The Humanoid Touch by Jack Williamson
Psionics is a core part of this story, along with robots that smother life under kindness. Williamson took the idea of robots protecting humans from themselves to a scary place. This book is required reading at the MIT robotics lab. Really. In this story, psi phenomena is related to the rhodomagnetic triad, characterized by ruthenium, rhodium, and palladium. An energy spectra similar to the ferromagnetic triad, but having tachyonic properties. The story is cool, scary, and heartbreaking. It was important for me, because it was the first time I’d seen psionics treated like a science. The characters build devices that detect, effect, and enhance psionics as well.
There are hundreds of other great works I could write about, but these were strong influences. Thanks for reading!