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Marissa Lingen

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Where are they now: science fiction with weird psychic phenomena [Feb. 5th, 2015|01:48 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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So I just finished reading a Peter Dickinson novel that had psychics in it. And it reminded me once again: where did all the science fiction novels with psychics go? I’m not sure I miss them. There are still some places you can find things like telekinetics–mostly superpower-tinged stories like Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith’s Stranger. But Karen Lord’s straight-up interplanetary novel with characters with telepathy felt like the sort of thing I would have read at age 14 and just don’t see any more.

Where did they go? Because ESP/telepathy/mental powers show up very early in SF, and they show up very regularly until somewhere around the time I was in high school. When they just…don’t really any more. Was it that people finally felt comfortable that these things had been debunked, and people who want to write about them write fantasy? Was it that there was a cohort of people writing those stories in the ’80s (Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Julian May, Andre Norton) who then either stopped writing, died, or moved on to other things, leaving “psychic power novels” as feeling like “their” thing rather than a broader genre thing? Was it the overwhelmingly female nature of that group, giving the concept “girl cooties?” (Catherine Asaro was writing about telepaths well into my college days, and she has demonstrated her bravery in the face of girl cooties on a number of fronts, so maybe.) Did it just start to feel old-fashioned, or did it really get played out? Was it the rise of willingness to do superhero/comic book themes in prose that pushed these topics into that category? (Seems like it happened in the opposite order, though.) Do you have an explanation I haven’t thought of?

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2015-02-05 07:27 pm (UTC)
I kind of think of psionics as "old-style SF." It's part of the furniture of 1950s and 1960s stories, along with FTL and time travel that aren't interconvertible, or robots that default to humanoid, macroscopic force fields, personal beam weapons, and various other furniture. You can see most of the package in Star Trek and in the classic sf RPG Traveller, among other places.

From time to time, various old sf ideas fall out of use, at least among writers who are trying to come up with something innovative in scientific/speculative content. It happened with the classic "superman" story about a mutant, or a race of mutants, born with superhuman intelligence and other powers—Odd John, Slan, More than Human, and so on. That sort of story already looked old-fashioned when psionics was at its height.

I don't think this is a matter of the theme being taken over by the comics. I think it's more like Tolkien's metaphor of the old furniture being moved into the nursery: SF themes and motifs that aren't seen as up to date get left to the comics and the film and television writers, where they're more likely to gain acceptance, perhaps because the audience isn't looking for challenging theoretical speculations. But I think the initial move occurs partly because the ideas lose "suspension of disbelief" and partly because they've already been done a lot, and readers familiar with the field will find them too familiar to be exciting. Whatever negative weight the comics or movie associations carry is probably secondary to that originally tipping mechanism.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2015-02-05 07:30 pm (UTC)
Interesting question. It was across a broad range of SF, too, On the one hand you have someone like Zenna Henderson writing something that is, while IMO SF rather than fantasy, very much on the softer girl-cooties side; on the other you have someone like Larry Niven churning out a story about a man who gets lost in fog and ends up in an alternate world where telepathy is standard.

I can think of a couple more recent examples - the YA Cassidy Jones series, for one - but they're rarer and also the telepathy in them seems to be more restricted.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-02-05 07:36 pm (UTC)
We have them in Exordium, too. But I guess it's now considered an old-fashioned trope?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-05 10:29 pm (UTC)
I don't know! I don't think it should be, but I don't want to get rid of planetary diplomacy novels either.
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[User Picture]From: dancinghorse
2015-02-05 07:58 pm (UTC)
I was told by no fewer than three agents, late last year, that psi is now considered "fantasy" and a space opera with psi in it is a complete no-sale.

While telling me they adored the book and loved reading it and blahdy-blah.

Book View Cafe it is, then.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-05 10:30 pm (UTC)
The last time someone reported hearing that sort of news about a sub-genre, several editors protested that they liked that sub-genre, were not closed off to it, etc. So I hope that lots of people--including some who happen to work as editors--pick yours up from BVC.
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[User Picture]From: arkuat
2015-02-05 09:38 pm (UTC)
Yeah, looks like debunking pushed it into fantasy.

I did raise an eyebrow when you suggested girl cooties, though, thinking of Alfred Bester and (as dichroic mentioned above) Larry Niven. The latter at least was still writing "hard" sf centered around psi powers well into the 1980s, and went pretty nuts with it. On the other hand, when I think of the stuff I've read, Butler is the one who captures how horrifying telepathy might be, yet Butler too abandoned this trope in her later works.

And just showing that every change takes longer to show up in teevee scifi, like whswhs said: Bab-5 in the 1990s.
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[User Picture]From: dancinghorse
2015-02-05 09:52 pm (UTC)
Genre lines have hardened, I think. Anne McCaffrey was a John Campbell protegee and her dragons were designed in very sfnal fashion, but the books are now considered fantasy. Because dragons, and low levels of tech. Plus, of course, psi powers.

Even in the Cretaceous however, i.e. late Seventies, Lester Del Rey was telling me that "Fantasy readers seem to tolerate science fiction in their fantasy, but science fiction readers do not return the favor." So while the boundaries have shifted and solidified, the basis for the distinctions goes back pretty far.
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[User Picture]From: sraun
2015-02-05 09:50 pm (UTC)
I admit I don't see a lot of it any more, but Lee & Miller's Liaden Universe is going strong and keeping it going there. But that's a universe that dates back to the late 80's.
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[User Picture]From: elsmi
2015-02-05 11:32 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't really classify the Liaden stuff as being in the same category as the psi books listed above, either. It's very much a story-logic-based fantasy magic system, with all kinds of quirky amorphous powers that sometimes overlap the stuff that shows up in psi novels. But you definitely don't have anyone as a matter of course scanning others' thoughts, or people chatting over mental links.
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[User Picture]From: rezendi
2015-02-05 10:05 pm (UTC)
I've wondered this myself. Armchair theory: we now fantasize about personal magic powers as mediated either by technology (Clarke's Law style) or community (joining the ranks of vampires, werewolves, etc., urban fantasy style.) Psi powers are yesterday's pre-networked zeitgeist.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-05 10:31 pm (UTC)
Oh great, now I'm going to go off and think about Psychic Twitter.
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[User Picture]From: eileenlufkin
2015-02-05 10:50 pm (UTC)

John W Campbell

John W Campbell believed in psychic powers and would pay for science fiction stories that included them.
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[User Picture]From: arkuat
2015-02-06 03:08 am (UTC)

Re: John W Campbell

JWC has a lot to answer for, really.
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[User Picture]From: shana
2015-02-06 12:55 am (UTC)
I believe that Jim Baen wouldn't buy anything with psi. (The Liaden books were a special case; the psychic stuff was subtle and they had an established fan base.)

Jacey Bedford's new book, Empire of Dust, is called a "psi-tech" novel. I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2015-02-06 01:10 am (UTC)
Here, have some near-future SF with psychics:


I see a LOT of psychic powers in romance and a surprising amount in mystery. Don't remember the last time I saw them in SF without some sort of nanoexplanation, though.
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[User Picture]From: anef
2015-02-06 09:27 am (UTC)
Hmm - I read the first one and classified it firmly as fantasy. Its antecedents seem to be pretty clearly Twilight, and a couple of other fantasy blockbusters that I can't bring to mind at the moment. "The Host" on the other hand (Stephenie Meyer) I would call SF, and it reminded me very much of early Anne McCaffrey.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2015-02-06 05:20 am (UTC)
Niven played with various tropes being actually fantasy, and followed out some of the consequences of that. The collection Flight of the Horse mostly considered the consequences of time travel being fantasy, as I recall, but I think that foggy night story showed some of the same thinking.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-02-06 09:51 am (UTC)
A thought I didn't bring up when we talked about this earlier - cyberpunk may have helped kill off the psychic thread of SF, both by providing an emphasis on near futures that focused on more technological kinds of 'human evolution', and by helping set the stage for the fixation on the singularity that spread out from Vinge to infest space opera for a while there.

There's also an argument to be made that what marginalized psychic powers in SF was the emergence of programmers and other computer professionals as the primary audience for its written form...
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[User Picture]From: supergee
2015-02-06 10:28 am (UTC)
Blogging this; thanx
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[User Picture]From: redstapler
2015-02-06 03:09 pm (UTC)
I don't know where it went, but I can tell you that Anne McCaffery's Pegasus and subsequent Rowan/Damia/their lineage series was my jam.

When I got older and did a re-read, I found myself horrified by Damia and Afra's relationship, and even more so by the "He's gay but aliens made him fall in love with a woman!" thing that happens in the third or fourth book.

I would like more stuff like the Pegasus stuff, and even The Rowan, but less sexual squickiness, please.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-06 03:55 pm (UTC)
I'm beginning to think that "I read it when I was older and it had WHAT in it?" should be called a McCaffrey Experience. Because yeah.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-06 03:54 pm (UTC)
I like the idea of the quilt lady. Is the rest of the book worthwhile?

One of the above commenters says of an Anne McCaffrey series that it's their jam, and honestly that's why I'm not writing psionics SF. It's not my jam. I loved Intervention and the Galactic Milieu trilogy, but not in an "I should do that!" way, in an "I am 12 years old and Uncle Rogi is fandom" sort of way.

Also I really love that the message you took from that Asimov story is that we are the field, not that Isaac Asimov specifically was the field. Could've gone either way for a lot of people, but not for you, and I appreciate that about you.
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