Mind Powers

Mental powers are a staple of both science fiction and fantasy—and even quasi-SF genres like paranormal romance.  The idea’s like the traditional iceberg:  easy to put into a story, but with some major assumptions lurking under the surface.

The Physical and the Non-Physical

In SF, it became fashionable to use the invented term “psionics” to refer to powers of the mind.  The term seems to have originated by analogy to “electronics,” giving it a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) cast, and using the Greek letter psi, the first character of psyche, “soul” or “mind.”  Sometimes simply “psi” is used, as in “psi powers.”  It’s a useful coinage.

There are two broad approaches to psionics.  One treats mental power as acting purely on other minds—what we can loosely call nonphysical:  for example, telepathy.  The other approach allows mental powers to act directly on matter:  the most familiar example is telekinesis, moving things by mind power.

Note that distinguishing “physical” from “nonphysical” already involves some pretty big assumptions—but we’ll get to that.


Professor Xavier using telepathyQuite a few science fiction stories postulate mental powers that have only mental effects, such as talking mind-to-mind.

The “Lens” worn by the “Lensmen” of E.E. Smith’s classic series is essentially a psionic amplifier.  It gives the wearer telepathic abilities.  This is extremely useful in making contact with unfamiliar species—especially in interstellar law enforcement, with instant communication an essential for “lawmen” that might be pursuing criminals into unknown regions of space.  The Lens also serves as a means of identification that cannot be faked, since an individual’s custom-made Lens will kill anyone who touches it if it’s not in contact with the designated wearer.

But Lensmen can’t make things physically happen by mind power alone; they have to use the conventional space-opera gear of ray guns and such.  The Lensmen can communicate mentally; they can influence or even take over the mind of another person; they can erase or implant memories.  But a Lensman can’t lift objects and throw them around without flexing his muscles in classic action-hero fashion.

There are some odd borderline cases.  The main character, Kimball Kinnison, gains a “sense of perception,” allowing him to perceive nearby objects without using the standard five senses.  He can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives.

Now, a contemporary scientist physicist would find this paradoxical, since it’s fundamental to quantum physics that you can’t perceive an object without interacting with it—bouncing photons off it to see with, for example.  But the Lensman stories were planned out in the 1940s, when we were not so acutely aware of quantum-type theories of perception.  The anomaly does illustrate the difference between these two theories of knowledge:  one in which the knower is the passive recipient of information, and the other in which knowledge is always the product of interaction.

James Schmitz, The Hub - Dangerous Territory, coverJames H. Schmitz’s numerous stories set against the background of the interstellar “Federation of the Hub” use a similar theory of psionics.  Telzey Amberdon, one of the main characters, can communicate telepathically with nonhuman creatures such as her massive “pet,” the crest cat TT (who turns to be a formidably intelligent being in his own right).  Hub psis like Telzey can influence other minds and can be extremely dangerous—whether in a good cause or a bad.  But physical objects aren’t affected.

A similar sort of psionics is assumed in A.E. van Vogt’s classic mutation novel Slan, and in one of my childhood favorites, Star Rangers (The Last Planet), by Andre Norton.  For a more well-known example, the movie Independence Day showed the inimical aliens using mind control to speak through a captive human to communicate with other humans.  But to properly destroy humanity, they used conventional physical weapons.  (Well, “conventional” as science fiction goes; the alien weapons were dismayingly novel for the embattled Earthlings.)

Fantasy, too, can feature purely mental abilities.  There are references in The Lord of the Rings to the ability of elves and wizards to speak mind-to-mind.  (This was shown more explicitly, as I recall, in the movie versions of The Hobbit.)  An analogue might even be found in ghost stories.  Ghosts are often portrayed as acting only through influence on human minds, whether through terror or telepathy—as in A Christmas Carol:  the various spirits do not act except on Scrooge’s own consciousness.

Sometimes telepathy is imagined as “hearing” only what people verbalize—what’s put into words; for example, in Al Macy’s novels about mind-reading detective Eric Beckman.  In other cases, telepathy allows direct access to other people’s feelings and inchoate thoughts, somehow getting behind the speech-forming function.  The notion that one can think without words would itself be anathema to many a twentieth-century linguistic philosopher—consider the linguistic relativism or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” so adroitly used in the movie Arrival.  The difference raises basic questions about the relation between speech and thought, and how thinking works.

The divide between mental and physical powers gets further eroded when the story includes telepathic machines.  The Psychology Service in Schmitz’s Hub routinely uses mechanical detectors to monitor psis.  In Slan, “Porgrave broadcasters” can send “recordings” telepathically.  Even aside from the Lens itself, which is a quasi-living physical device, the Lensman series eventually gives us machine-generated mental screens, analogous to the physical force-fields of space-opera lore.  If psionics were confined to minds alone, how can machines handle it?

I’ve spoken loosely about this sort of mind-on-mind power as “nonphysical”; but that involves a very significant assumption—that the mind is not a physical thing.  If the mind were wholly reducible to the brain, there would be no reason in principle why mind powers would only affect matter in the form of other brains.  By analogy, microwaves can be used for communications, but also for cooking dinner.  On this assumption, mind powers would constitute just another kind of physical force, the analogy often being a different “wavelength” of energy.  Second Stage Lensman refers to the “frequency-range of thought” (ch.14), and Smith’s Skylark series presents thought as a “sixth-order wave”—whatever that may be.

Mind Over Matter

We’ve gotten so used to things like telekinesis nowadays that the mind-only abilities discussed above may seem oddly constrained to us.

Vader uses the Force to fling objects at Luke (Empire)The original Star Wars film, A New Hope, showed us that the Force could mediate mental communication, even with the dead (“Use the Force, Luke”), and some degree of mind-control or mental influence (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).  But it was only in the sequel that we saw that it could also enable telekinesis.  I still recall the moment when Luke, ice-cemented to the ceiling in the wampaa’s cave, strains fruitlessly to reach his light-saber—then relaxes and closes his eyes; and I thought with some excitement, so, we’re going to get telekinesis too!  By the end of the episode, we’re watching Darth Vader use mental power to throw objects to distract Luke and keep him off-balance.  You can even use this matter-moving power to move yourself, or in effect to fly without wings—as we saw in one memorable scene in The Last Jedi.

Yoda lifts the X-wing (Empire Strikes Back)By now this sort of mind-over-matter is familiar territory.  But there are still aspects that aren’t obvious on the surface.  For one thing, telekinesis is apparently reactionless.  It’s unclear whether it obeys Newton’s laws of motion, under which action requires an equal and opposite reaction.  It would have been a great comic scene in Empire when Yoda impressively lifts Luke’s X-wing fighter into the air—and Luke had looked over to see Yoda rapidly sinking into the muck, with the entire weight of the X-wing bearing down on his diminutive form.

The simplest fantasy version of telekinesis is the poltergeist, an immaterial spirit which (rather bafflingly) is capable of throwing around physical objects.  Levitation, whether of oneself or of something else, is a commonplace for magicians.  In fantasy, however, mental powers tend to bleed over into magical powers, which we don’t think of in quite the same way—although one way of conceiving magic is as a kind of mind over matter.

There are other kinds of (fictional) mental interactions with matter, over and above mere movement.  A common trope is the ability to start fires, or “pyrokinesis,” as in Stephen King’s Firestarter.  This might be interpreted as a subtle form of telekinesis—since heat consists of motion at the molecular level, maybe a telekinetic could create heat by causing an object’s molecules to move faster.  Such an explanation leaves open the question of where the added energy is coming from; but that’s an issue common to any form of telekinesis.  There may be a certain nerdy satisfaction in supposing that a physically puny specimen like, er, yours truly could throw things around by sheer power of mind, even though one’s muscles aren’t up to it.  But whether things are moving by mind or by muscle, there has to be energy coming from somewhere.

The Golden Torc, second volume of Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, coverThere are other things you can do with matter besides just moving it around.  Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, and related stories, postulate “metapsychic powers” that include “creativity,” allowing metapsychics to change the form of matter and thus materialize or convert physical objects.  Other stories imagine psionic abilities to “read” the history of an object or a place.

Teleportation—instantaneous movement from one place to another—represents a kind of in-between.  Physical objects are obviously affected, but the physical object in question is typically the practitioner’s own body, and perhaps other objects physically connected (such as clothing—but clothing doesn’t always come along, depending on the story, which can be inconvenient).  Does it count if your mind affects only your own body—the one locus where even theories that sharply separate mind and matter have to assume some crossover between the two?

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) using telekinesisThere’s a long tradition of mental powers in comic books too.  But given the visual nature of the medium, physically effective mental powers tend to predominate over the purely mental.  We do see some of the latter—pure telepathy in Marvel’s Professor Xavier or DC’s Saturn Girl.  But much more popular is Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), whose telekinetic powers make for much more striking imagery.

Minds and Bodies

Considering these two approaches to mind powers raises the philosophical question of whether minds affect matter only in and through a person’s body, or can do so independently.

If we exclude direct physical effects from the scope of (fictional) mental powers, this suggests parallel realms, with thought proceeding on one level while physical actions occur on another, linked only through the minds of humans or other intelligent beings.  It’s almost a Cartesian approach (that is, a theory similar to that of René Descartes) of mind-body dualism, and sinks roots into the long-standing debates over the “mind-body problem.”

The “sense of perception” concept, similarly, functions as if there were two independent metaphysical levels, mental and physical, and this mental sense could allow a person to go “around” the physical senses and inspect an object directly.  The philosophical notion of intentionality (not to be confused with the usual sense of “intentional” or deliberate) is adaptable to such non-sensory knowledge.  But the trend in both philosophy and physics over the last couple hundred years has been to focus on the physical connection between the knower and the known.

It’s become a standard assumption that we can’t know or do anything without a physical connection.  Anything else seems “unscientific.”  What’s interesting is that we seem to be willing to accept the now-unpopular postulate of non-physical knowledge and events when we’re dealing with fiction.

Of course, it’s also possible to meld the two back together by taking the position that mental powers really only reflect physical events taking place at a level we can’t yet detect—as with Smith’s “frequency range.”  But that isn’t the only way to conceive of the relationship.  There is still a certain imaginative appeal, at least, to the notion that mind can act independent of the constraints of the physical body.

I think such stories are helpful.  We’re apt to rush to conclude “science has proven” that the mind equals the brain and the brain is just a particularly subtle form of matter.  Science has not, in fact, proven any such thing.  The physical sciences assume, understandably, that only physics is involved.  But they have by no means demonstrated that all observable phenomena can be wholly explained by physics.  The arguments on this subject are still live.  We should still apply sound standards of evidence, and not leap to conclusions—but that applies in both directions, whether to materialism or to its alternatives.

In other words, there may still be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, and one of the uses of speculative stories is to help us keep an open mind on these subjects.


Sequels in a Changed World

Poster for Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence poster

The last post took off from the impending premiere of the movie Independence Day:  Resurgence.  I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this release; I’m no more than cautiously hopeful about whether it’ll be any good.  But there’s more to be said about this kind of sequel.

In a lot of stories, a sequel can start out more or less where the original tale did, because the status quo ante is preserved.  Each James Bond movie starts in our everyday world, because the world-changing plans of the villains were foiled in the previous episode.  It would be a very different world if the villains had succeeded in starting a nuclear war or whatever.  (The only real changes in Bond’s “initial conditions” come from the fact that the films have been produced over the period of half a century, and the real world itself has changed in the meantime:  the Soviet Union falls, a female head of the agency becomes plausible, actors age out and are replaced, and so forth.)

Even in the Star Wars saga, despite the world-shattering events of each movie, the situation tends to cycle back to the starting point.  Episode IV:  the rebels are on the run.  Episode V:  the rebels are on the run.  Episode VI:  the rebels are still on the run.  Episode VII:  we have a new set of rebels with a different empire to fight – but they’re still on the run.

A story that has far-reaching implications can still fail to change the world much.  At the end of E.T., Elliott’s life has certainly been changed.  And there’s a batch of scientists who know something radically new:  there’s other life out there.  But the whole matter has been handled with such mystery and secrecy (for no very good reason) that one can imagine California going right back to its old ways afterwards, after a nine-day wonder about why some government agency swathed Elliott’s house in Saran Wrap for a day or so.  And there’s no reason to think the aliens will be coming back.  (Once they get home, the galactic TripAdvisor probably lists Earth with one star at best:  “Lousy health care, and primitive communications facilities.)  (Of course, there’s only one star in our solar system to begin with.)


But it’s a different matter when the original story changes the world completely.  A sequel to The War of the Worlds would have to be quite different from the original, because Earth could not lapse back into its pre-invasion ignorance of extraterrestrial life—nor ignore all that advanced alien technology lying around for the studying.  Whatever humanity might do in response, it’s unlikely that history would have proceeded as it actually did.  At least one sort-of-sequel to The War of the Worlds recognized this, with Earth’s nations uniting to build a space fleet for a counterattack.

This means that the sequel to a movie like Independence Day needs to be a distinctly different kind of story from the original.  We will not be starting from the same status quo.  Technology will have changed, and with it, ordinary lifestyles.  (“Turn on the force field, would you, dear?  Junior’s going to fall down the steps again.”)  International relations will have changed.  The economics of recovery from mass destruction must be considered.  And most of all, we will not have unsuspecting Earthlings shocked by the extraterrestrial incursion.  We’ve “seen the elephant.”

Science fiction books can get this right.  The first book of David Weber’s Dahak trilogy, Mutineers’ Moon, starts in the near future and reveals an age-old conspiracy with advanced technology.  As a result of the battle against the ancient mutineers, a world government is formed and preparations are put in motion for an attack by an age-old menace.  The second and third books start in a world very different from the present day and logically carry forward the consequences.  (The trilogy is a great read, by the way.)

The marketing difficulty with a film sequel is that the second movie, coming from such a different starting point, may have to be quite different from the first.  This disturbs Hollywood, which typically wants to capture the same audience by giving it more of the same.  There’s a disturbing tendency to pull back from the implications and somehow paste the previous status quo back into place.  For example, Ghostbusters 2 went to considerable trouble to achieve a just-barely-plausible reset in which the universally adored heroes of the original are now forgotten and reduced to underdogs again.

So far, it looks as if the Independence Day sequel may be following Weber’s example.  The tagline for the movie is:  “We had twenty years to prepare.  So did they.”  It sounds as if the Earth that faces another invasion will have changed based on the first story.  How much, we’ll have to see.  Will we start out in a plausible future twenty years on from the end of the first movie?  Time to find out!

How to Stage an Alien Invasion

We love our alien invasions.  Since The War of the Worlds (1897), poor Earth has suffered a steady stream of hostile arrivals—frequently from Mars, but recently from farther afield, as the possibility of other intelligent life in our solar system wanes.

We have one coming up this month, with the June 24 movie premiere of Independence Day:  Resurgence, a sequel to one of the more successful invasions of the last twenty years.  It seems like a good time to look closely at our opponents.

Footfall, a 1985 novel by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (still available in print), is not only a great yarn, but a textbook model of how to write a modern invasion story.  We can look at it as a test case, like an existence proof in mathematics:  What kinds of conditions have to be fulfilled for a believable alien invasion, given what we now know about other planets?


Let’s define the target.  We’re talking about the good old classic invasion story, where the bad guys show up in person, make a direct assault, and we beat them.  That isn’t the only possibility.  There are other variants, such as infiltration, or scenarios where the Earthlings lose and end up a subject species.  But let’s look at what premises make a triumphant Independence Day-style plot viable.


It was easy for Wells.  His relatively nearby Martians could fire off a series of cannon shells, more or less, to land on Earth, break out their tripods, and mount their campaign.  Wells’ tour de force ending, of course, has the Martians beaten not by human opposition, but by humble bacteria.  (Arguably the best moment in the original Independence Day is when Jeff Goldblum realizes we can best the enemy by using a contemporary analogue of the Wellsian microbes—a computer virus.)

But modern invaders have to come from a greater distance.  Regrettably, none of the plausible abodes of life in the solar system have panned out.  Gone are old-time SF’s sweltering jungles of Venus, the canal-crossed deserts of John Carter’s Mars.  Until we’re ready for an attack by potential microbes from Europa, or hypothetical floating denizens of Jupiter’s atmosphere—neither of which, if they exist, have shown any signs of capability for interplanetary excursions—we have to look to interstellar sparring partners for a really good invasion.

This intensifies a long-standing problem with invasion stories.  If they got here, and across the interstellar gulfs at that, their technology must be literally light-years ahead of ours.  How can we expect to beat critters with such vastly advanced technology?  The balance of power is inherently skewed against us.

Paired with this is the question of motivation.  Why are they here?  What do the invaders want that would drive them to come all the way to Earth for it?

This is the easiest place for invasion stories that aren’t built on sound science to go astray.  We need only mention the 1983 TV mini-series “V,” which, though it had many admirable aspects, fell sadly short on the science side.  V gives not one, but two, implausible motives for the seemingly-benevolent Visitors.  They’re here to steal Earth’s water—as if there weren’t vast amounts of ice scattered around our solar system, and probably most other systems, for the taking.  And they’re here to eat us; apparently not only are humans compatible with a completely alien biology, but we’re a tastier treat than more edible and obtainable animals.  Sensible extraterrestrials need a better reason to traipse across the light-years than a local hamburger shortage.


Niven & Pournelle’s epic adventure handles both these questions so beautifully that it might have been plotted specifically to answer them.

Our not-quite-friendly visitors, the fithp (the singular is fi’), arrive in a large interstellar vessel, which launches smaller ships to conduct the attack.  Why are they here?  They’re looking for Lebensraum — living space.  The fithp have been exiled from their homeworld as the result of a conflict among factions—like the Protectors in Niven’s novel Protector.  They need a new place to live.  Among other things, this means “defeat is not an option”:  they can’t go back.  That ups the stakes.

But this exile premise also solves some of the balance-of-power problems.  The fithp’s resources are strictly limited.  There won’t be any reinforcements.  They can’t bring anything more from their homeworld.  All we have to do is defeat this batch of opponents, and we win.

Niven & Pournelle strengthen this limitation on the aliens, and incidentally increase scientific plausibility, by making their mother ship Message Bearer a slower-than-light vessel — a Bussard ramjet.  Their journey takes decades.  This distances the fithp even further from any potential homeworld support.  The authors also use it to introduce another twist:  there’s dissension between the space-born fithp, on one hand, and those who lived on their homeworld and are now awakened from suspended animation, on the other.  This division becomes important as the plot develops.

Without having to account for faster-than-light travel, Niven & Pournelle can give the fithp technology that isn’t too far ahead of our own.  Human numbers—and political, psychological, social characteristics—can make up for the technological imbalance.

In addition, the fithp don’t fully understand their own technology.  They’ve learned a lot of it from records left by their Predecessors, rather than developing the science themselves. This makes them less able to innovate.  By contrast, the humans’ response is a masterpiece of improvisation.  We make the best of what we have.  This, too, helps even the scales.  (Lesson for humans:  Continue fostering that STEM education.)


In the course of this worldbuilding, Niven & Pournelle give us fully fleshed-out aliens, with a coherent culture and society, understandable but different from our own — not an easy task.  Among other things, the fithp are sympathetic characters.  They are people, not just faceless attackers.  We see events from their viewpoints as well as our own.  This makes the story not only more believable, but more interesting.


The original Independence Day scores modestly on these two plausibility counts.  Motivation:  The aliens travel the stars like locusts, stripping planets of their resources.  No details are given, but the basic idea is not unreasonable, particularly in light of contemporary environmental concerns.  Balance of power:  We’re hopelessly behind in technology—but the aliens’ laziness (using our own satellites for signaling), Goldblum’s bright idea, and a captured alien ship get us (barely) over the hump of the willing suspension of disbelief.

We’ll see shortly how these premises play out in the Independence Day sequel—applying the Niven & Pournelle standard.