A Place for Horror

The Question of Horror

I’ve never been fond of the horror genre.  I just don’t see the point of being scared or (more often) disgusted or repelled by a story.  As Randall Munroe of xkcd puts it:  “I know everyone’s into what they’re into, but I have never understood horror movies.”

Approaching the genre as an outsider, then, my question is:  why is there such a genre at all?  Is it just the desire for a thrill?  Or is the whole interest in horror merely morbid?

An interesting remark in a Diane Duane story recently gave me an inkling of what the function of horror stories might be.  As we’re coming up to Hallowe’en, I thought the point might be worth examining this week.

Horror, and Genre Horror

Alien - movie posterTo be sure, one sometimes bumps up against horror elements incidentally in the course of pursuing other types of stories.  I did watch the movie Alien when it came out in 1979—but that was because it was science fiction, not because it was horror.  It’s both—I recall coming out of the theatre literally shaking.  But I don’t think I’ve watched it a second time.

In a similar way, there’s a good admixture of horror in Jurassic Park (I’m thinking mainly of the 1993 movie).  Plenty of “jump scene” shock moments, and gore; and I have rewatched that one, but it’s for the other elements, most notably the sheer wonder of seeing the paleontologists encounter actual living dinosaurs.  As the xkcd comic mouseover observes, I enjoy it because dinosaurs are cool.  I’m willing to go through a good deal of bad stuff in a story if the good stuff makes it worthwhile.

Even a nice song can turn up unexpected horror elements.  The title song from Carole King’s Tapestry album is a lovely meditative piece that begins “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue . . .”  Pleasant, yes?  But the lyric gradually drifts into a dream, or maybe a nightmare:  the end of the song gives us “. . . A figure, gray and ghostly, beneath a flowing beard / In times of deepest darkness, I’ve seen him dressed in black / Now my tapestry’s unraveling, he’s come to take me back . . .”  That’s rather disturbing, though the song is so pretty that one hardly notices the rather dreadful image.

The Stand - book coverBut what little I have seen of genre horror makes clear that it has its own conventions, its own tendencies and interests, that go beyond these occasional elements.  I recognized this when I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand (1978).  While the story is essentially a fantasy, it has a science-fictionish premise:  an apocalyptic pandemic that wipes out most of humanity.  So I approached it as an SF novel.

Some characters are escaping from New York City (if I recall correctly) through a tunnel jammed with stopped vehicles, which are occupied by the decomposing bodies of plague victims struck down at the wheel.  Not a pleasant place for a trek.  So they enter the tunnel, are appropriately horrified by this commuter charnel house.  They continue on.  And on.  And on.  And at some point I found myself wondering, why are we still in this tunnel?  I get the point.  Why aren’t we moving forward with the plot?  And it dawned on me:  that’s the SF reader’s reaction.  But this is horror.  The dreadful experience of going through the tunnel is the whole point for a horror reader.

Similarly, in Weird Tales-type stories like ”Shambleau” and others of C.L. Moore’s early work, it seems clear that the horror elements are the purpose of the story.  And it’s a durable purpose.  There’s still a thriving cottage industry of pastiches, games, and academic interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, though Lovecraft has been dead since 1937.  (At least, we think he’s dead . . .)

Science Fiction Monsters

The Demon Breed coverOn the other hand, compare this with an SF story that merely has horror elements.  There’s a sizable subgenre of science fiction monster stories, even if we throw out the B-movies and Godzilla remakes.  James H. Schmitz was particularly good at these.  Take a look at his collection A Pride of Monsters:  short stories like “The Winds of Time” (1962) and “Greenface” (1943) have structures very like traditional horror tales.  And the excellent short novel The Demon Breed (1968) makes use of horror tropes in telling an intense adventure story.

But while “Greenface” may read as a horror story, Schmitz’s other monster tales don’t come across that way.  There’s a difference in tone and mood.  Even though there are fairly horrid suggestions in “The Winds of Time”—the (extremely intelligent) monster in that story “preferred . . . to have its snacks still wriggling-fresh as it started them down its gullet”—we don’t dwell on them.  It reads to me more like an SF problem-story, where the characters must come up with inventive means to extricate themselves from a difficult situation.

Similar observations apply to, say, A.E. van Vogt’s assembly of monster-stories The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1938-1950)—or even van Vogt’s “Asylum” (1942), an early envisioning of science-fictional (as opposed to fantasy or religious) vampires.  The tone and mood are different from those of a true horror tale; they’re appealing to a different audience.

The Appeal of Horror

Why do we include horror elements in a story?

The most obvious answer, from an F&SF perspective, is conflict.  If we’re dealing with an epic or an adventure, we need to see that the evil our heroes are fighting against is, in fact, evil.  And one easy way to do that is to show the bad guys doing horrible things.  Maybe the threat is not merely death, but any of several Fates Worse Than Death.  Not only bodily death, but the soul itself (the theology is a little murky here) is at stake.  Not merely enslavement, but cannibalism.  We accentuate the menace against which the main characters are striving by making it a “parade of horribles.”

More broadly, horror aids contrast.  The good stands out better against a background of evil:  we can more readily appreciate the good when it’s juxtaposed with the bad.  When we return to the Shire, we appreciate it more than in the initial chapters, because we’ve seen far worse places.  (Of course, Tolkien’s actual treatment of “The Scouring of the Shire” is more nuanced and complex than that simple contrast suggests—but the simple contrast still underlies the conclusion of the story.)

Ringwraith looms over hobbitsIn this connection, Darrell Schweitzer notes that Tolkien has an unexpected knack for horror writing (The Fantastic Horizon, ch. 2).  The central concept of the Ring itself is pretty darn creepy:  an innocent-looking but almost-sentient magic item that gradually subverts the wearer’s will.  The Black Riders pursuing the hobbits through a seemingly-idyllic Shire—the night attack on Weathertop—the attack of Shelob at Cirith Ungol—Tolkien knows how to invoke the awful as well as the awesome.

But while these uses explain some horror elements in other kinds of stories, they don’t fully account for the horror genre.  If the horrible is not set up as opposition or contrast, but rather as the main preoccupation of the story, it must be there for some other reason.

Immunization

Interim Errantry coverDiane Duane’s collection of three Young Wizards stories, Interim Errantry (2015) includes a 2011 Hallowe’en story, “Not In My Patch.”  Early in the story, senior wizard Carl Romeo is talking to Nita, the main character, about the reason for elaborate Hallowe’en displays:

“But who doesn’t like being safely scared, occasionally?  Pleasantly scared, by something that can’t really hurt you?  . . . It starts getting you used to fear . . . so when you come up against something really scary, you can cope a little better.”

“Like being vaccinated,” Nita said.  “The weakened bugs make you immune . . .”

This idea suggests a wholesome purpose even for stories that focus primarily on the horrible.  The stories may not be quite as frivolous as the jack-o-lanterns and orange-and-black bunting that we see at this season.  But we can still say to ourselves, “it’s just a story.”  We expose ourselves to the scary or appalling in some degree without having to go through those experiences in real life.  Because there are scary and appalling things in the world; and we don’t want to lead so sheltered a life that we’re wholly incapacitated or unmoored if we should meet them.  As Nita says, it helps us develop an immunity.

Redheaded cartoon witch on broomstickWe can go even further.  If we learn to laugh at horror, we can to some degree deprive it of its self-importance, place ourselves beyond it.  (In the passage excerpted above, Carl notes that the Lone Power “really, really hates not being taken seriously”—a sentiment echoed to good effect at the end of Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos.)  Call it whistling in the dark—but this attitude may help prepare us, in some small way, for those times when we do encounter horror in real life.  It may explain why our Hallowe’en decorations tend toward the ridiculous and cartoonish.  “Here’s a witch no one could be afraid of.”  (In this connection, I can’t resist citing to one of my favorite treatments of the Cthulhu Mythos.)

May you all have a happy Hallowe’en, then, and may all your fears be as abstract and hypothetical as the Great Pumpkin.  “Forth now, and fear no darkness.”

White moon with crow and bats (Pixabay)

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The Boot Camp Planet

Training Worlds

Science fiction postulates lots of types of planets—although, for the convenience of humanoid characters, most of the ones shown end up being pretty Earthlike.  (It sometimes seemed that original-series Star Trek planets could be divided into “piles of rocks” and “places exactly like Earth.”  Much easier on the special-effects budget.)  Here I’d like to look at one particular variety—the worlds that serve as training locales for tough guys.

If you want to develop an inhumanly formidable army, you can do it by administering a “super soldier serum,” as in the Marvel comics.  You can do it by postulating a lifetime of intense training, as with Batman.  Or you can do it by throwing your candidates into an environment so fierce that those who survive have to become impossibly “badass” just to live through it.

Dune

Dune, coverWhat TV Tropes calls the “Death World” plays a key role in the plot of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965).  One of the things that allows the galactic Emperor in Dune to stay on top in the civilization’s complex politics is his legion of crack troops.  The “Sardaukar” are so formidable that even the highly-trained private armies of the feudal Houses are reluctant to face them.

It turns out that the Sardaukar are recruited from the Emperor’s prison planet, Salusa Secundus—a planet so hostile that only the strongest can live.  “A man who survives Salusa Secundus starts out being tougher than most others.  When you add the very best of military training—”  (Thufir Hawat, p. 370).

But Arrakis, the planet called Dune, is harsher still.  The “Fremen,” the Dune population, appear to be simple barbarian nomads.  But the exigencies of survival in the Dune environment are so demanding that, as one character realizes, the Fremen are actually “an entire culture trained to military order” (283)—an invaluable resource for the main character, Paul Atreides, who needs such a cadre to recapture the holdings and status that the Emperor and Paul’s Harkonnen enemies have illegally taken away.  The Fremen are so tough that even their civilians, “women and children and old men,” can beat full-fledged Sardaukar (454).

It’s suggested at one point that the Fremen come from the same stock as the original inhabitants of Salusa Secundus—transported there at a time when they had “grown soft with an easy planet” elsewhere (352).  That stock may have been hardy to begin with, but it’s clear that the harsh environment is what made the difference.  Part of Paul’s eventual plan to take over the Imperium himself is to neutralize the Emperor’s forces by making Salusa Secundus “a garden world, full of gentle things” (481)—a much pleasanter place for the former Emperor to retire in peace, but no longer a source of formidable warriors.

Arrakis, like Salusa Secundus, tests its people rigorously, winnowing out the weak, toughening up the strong.

Prison Planets and More

We wouldn’t choose to live in so taxing an environment—which is why the population is generally conceived as being there not entirely by their own choice.

Jerry Pournelle’s “CoDominium” future history postulates a future in which a number of worlds are settled by political prisoners and other riffraff who are sent there by the combined U.S.-Russian world government.  Some of the toughest fighters come from Tanith, a demanding jungle planet that is, as Wikipedia puts it, an “infamous dumping ground for transportees.”

Tom Godwin, The Survivors, coverAs a kid, I was fascinated by a Tom Godwin SF novel called The Survivors (1958; also known by the cheesier title Space Prison; reprinted in the 2003 collection The Cold Equations & Other Stories).  A Terran colony ship is waylaid by the Nazi-like Gerns; the useful emigrants are taken as slaves, while the remainder (“Rejects”) are marooned on what the Gerns mockingly describe as an “Earth-type” planet—Ragnarok, with extreme climates, 1.5 times Earth’s gravity, and fantastically dangerous wildlife.  Driven by the goal of avenging themselves and their people, the abandoned colony of “rejects” survives across the generations despite its hardships.  When they finally encounter their nemeses again, the colonists’ descendants have become so formidable that they succeed in overrunning and capturing a Gern battleship.

In a smaller way, the colony planet of Grayson in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series reflects a similar situation.  Grayson started out as a group of settlers seeking a far-off home for religious reasons.  But their ideal planet turned out to have so high a concentration of heavy metals in the environment that indigenous life was poisonous and it was impossible even to live in the open air.  The realities of interstellar travel in that period made it impractical for the settlers to simply abandon the colony; in effect they were stranded by their own incautious choice.  While the Grayson people start out in the second Honor book as a cliché of religious intolerance, Weber’s perspective gradually shifts until they are regarded as tough, honest allies.

James H. Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub future history hints at the notion of an entire approach to human civilization based on a similar principle—especially in the 1968 novel The Demon Breed.  But that’s a more involved topic for another day.

Herbert’s and Pournelle’s notion of “transportation” to inhospitable climes as a punishment, archaic as it may seem, harks back to actual British practices in the 17th through 19th centuries.  The British colony of Australia, the destination of many a transportee, still retains (at least in American mythology) the air of a land where hardship breeds self-reliance & sturdy independence (“Where women glow and men plunder”), as both expressed and satirized in Crocodile Dundee.  TV Tropes’ Death World page actually has a separate section for “Real Life:  Australia.”

Real-Life Analogues

In the real world, we intentionally create harsh environments to toughen up specific groups.

Military “boot camp” is the most obvious example.  I’ve never gone through armed forces training myself, so I can’t speak from personal experience.  But it seems clear that basic training is made intentionally demanding so that the recruit becomes accustomed to hardship and hostility, able to function despite adverse conditions.  We may not have a separate planet to host those conditions, but we can create a closed, artificial environment for the purpose.

Harvard Law School classroomLaw school provides a much less intense case.  The first-year “acclimatization” to law school involves legendary stresses and challenges.  Of course first-year law students are far better off than military recruits, and even the famous pressures of old-time curricula (as described in the 1971 novel and 1973 film The Paper Chase, or Scott Turow’s 1977 One L) had probably diminished by the mid-1980s, when I attended.  But classroom interrogation by the “Socratic method” certainly seems to be designed, in some respects, to intimidate and unsettle the student.

There’s a reason for this.  Most lawyers will find themselves in practices where they face strenuous and unfriendly opposition, whether in court or at the negotiating table.  If you’re not used to that kind of situation, you’ll have a hard time holding your own.  A lawyer has to learn to perform in the give and take of argument, without losing his cool.  The classroom experience is simply the first step in learning how to do this:  beginning to build up the calluses, so to speak, so we don’t crumple at the first sign of opposition.

I have a notion (again, without personal experience) that a doctor’s residency period may serve a somewhat similar purpose.  Doctors in this stage of practice work traditionally long and stressful hours.  It’s possible that this experience is itself a form of training for the emergency situations in which a physician may find herself, taking life-or-death steps under pressure.

Conclusion

In a much broader theological context, it’s sometimes been suggested—in what might be called a “forge of souls” theodicy—that evil in the world has the function of building character in a way that could not be otherwise achieved.  In some sense, the universe as a whole may be a training camp of sorts.

While the “boot camp world” idea isn’t likely to deal with the problem of evil all by itself, it does provide science fiction writers with a way to push human beings to their maximum potential—creating the larger-than-life characters and institutions that make our fantastic stories so striking, even more than gee-whiz technology and exotic settings.

A Character By Any Other Name

Last time we talked about the complications of naming babies.  Of course, parents have only a few children.  But writers have to name a lot of characters.  Coming up with the right names is tricky; some writers are better at it than others.  Let’s look at how they meet the challenge.

The Familiar

If you’re writing a contemporary story, you’re in much the same position as a proud parent—except that you know how the person turns out, and you can pick a name that carries the implications you want for the character.  Dickens can name one pleasant pair the Cheeryble Brothers and a less prepossessing soul Scrooge to underline their personalities, in case the reader needs to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer to get the point.  Not all authors have to be quite so explicit about it.

As we noted, there are plenty of books and pamphlets to suggest character names, as well as sites like Behind the Names, BabyNameWizard, or Nameberry.  The pamphlets have become a bit more international over the years:  today’s versions contain names from more countries and languages than they used to.  This can help us avoid what you might call “WASP Name Syndrome,” in which all the names tend to be blandly Anglo-Saxon.

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel

Consider, for example, early super-heroes, who tended to have white-bread names like Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne, Barry Allen—not to mention the compulsively alliterative Marvel characters like Reed Richards, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner…  We see at least a little more cultural variety these days, even if it’s still hard to shake the alliteration, as with the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan.

We’re still in pretty familiar territory when we visit the realm of the historic, or faux-historic—legendary figures living in real or imagined ancient times.  In the Arthurian tales we get ordinary-sounding names like, well, Arthur, as well as less common names (at least at this point in history) like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan and Isolde, which may at least be familiar through repetition.  An author who wants to be (perhaps) historically more accurate as well as exotic can go for Celtic-style spellings:  Bedwyr instead of Bedivere, for example.  I’ve seen such imaginative renditions of “Guinevere” that you can get halfway through the book before you realize who the author is talking about.  (“Gwenhwyfar,” anyone?)

The Semi-Fantastic

We can do the same thing in F&SF—name our hero Luke, our wizard Ben, pedestrian names like that.  We may want the effect of the plain, traditional name for a particular character—for example, to suggest homeliness or familiarity.  (“His real name is Obi-Wan, but I know him as Ben.”)  This is fine if the story is set, say, twenty years from now, when you’d expect names to be relatively unchanged.  But it’s harder to justify—to make believable—if we’re thousands of years in the future, or in a completely separate alternate world, as with much heroic fantasy.

Note this can also be true in SF:  Star Wars looks futuristic, but we’re clearly asked to dissociate ourselves from any specific connection to the present when we’re told, “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…”  The curious reader is likely to wonder, how did these people happen to come up with exactly the same names we use, even without any common (recent) history or heritage?

Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, coverIn Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, refugees from another planet come to Earth and struggle to fit in.  The stories are excellent, but the names sometimes give me pause.  In a story set on the home planet, before they’ve had any contact with Earth, the characters have names such as David, Eve, and Timmy—as well as the less familiar Lytha and ‘Chell (Michelle?).  Why so similar to common Terrestrial names?

Or take the hobbits.  Alongside Sam, Bob, and Rosie we have characters like Frodo, Bilbo, Meriadoc and Pippin.  Tolkien, the master linguist, can explain this—exhaustively (see Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings).  From a narrative point of view, the name-mixture gives us a sense of earthy rustic culture, but also of something a little different from Merrie Olde England.  Tolkien succeeds by being both quaint and quirky.

I’m less sympathetic to George R.R. Martin, who seems determined to give his characters in A Song of Ice and Fire names that are mostly familiar, but misspelled.  If we’re going to have people named Eddard, Catelyn, and Rickard, why not just call them Edward, Cathleen, and Richard—or are we expected to believe that languages in Westeros evolved in almost exact parallel to ours, but not quite?  (I have the same problem with the pseudo-Latin spells in Harry Potter—if you’re going to use Latin, just do it, don’t fake it—though I recently read an article by someone who’s examined Rowling’s quasi-Latin more closely than I and is more forgiving.)

Inventing Fantasy Names

If we’re going for traditional semi-medieval high fantasy, we may want names that are somewhat familiar, but have an antique ring to them.  How do I come up with a fitting title for the mighty barbarian I just rolled up for Dungeons and Dragons?  There are a number of tried-and-true approaches.  As it turns out, TV Tropes has a gallery of naming tropes that cover much of the territory (there’s a list-of-lists at Naming Conventions).

A descriptive name picks out some distinguishing feature:  Erik the Red, Catherine the Great.  Or Charles the Bald, or Pepin the Short, if I’m aiming for humorous or mundane rather than grand and dramatic.  If we don’t like “the,” we can fix on a name like Blackbeard.  Or Bluebeard.  (TV Tropes summarizes the pattern as Captain Colorbeard.)

Naming someone by place of origin (especially in place of a last name) also has a healthy yeomanlike sound to it.  I fondly recall a sturdy D&D character I named John of Redcliff.  A lot of ordinary last names, like Lake or Hill or Rivers, probably started out that way.  If the background allows for it, we can vary the effect by using French (de) or German (von) or other languages’ equivalents.

Occupations also gave us a lot of familiar last names.  “William the Farmer” (to distinguish him from the three other Williams in the village) easily becomes “William Farmer.”  Some of these are less obvious than others:  we may not recall that “sawyer” is what you call someone who wields a saw.

Names that indicate one’s parents—patronymics and matronymics—occur in many languages.  The English have their Josephsons and Richardsons, the Russians their Petrovs and Ivanovnas.

Random alphabet diceScorning these expedients, we can also strike off into the unknown by inventing a name purely from scratch, just for its sound.  This can produce semi-random results—but not entirely random, since speakers of a given language will tend toward combinations of letters and sounds that “make sense” in their language.  TV Tropes’ Law of Alien Names makes some interesting observations about how writers in different genres often approach name generation.

A doctor friend of mine, feeling he wasn’t up to the task of coining a lot of names, used a novel expedient in his D&D campaign:  he used the names of drugs.  This strategy works surprisingly well as long as you stick to obscure pharmaceuticals, which often seem to have been named by plucking letters out of the air (“erenumab”) or by phonetically respelling a chemical term (“Sudafed”).  On the other hand, a fierce warrior character named “Xanax” is going to create some cognitive dissonance for those who know the term in question.

A Variety of Effects

Different writers take different approaches to naming, which contribute to the distinctiveness of their worlds.

At the extreme end of systematic invention stands Tolkien, who once said that he invented his stories and realms only as a place to put his invented languages.  His names add noticeably to the integrity of his imagined world; they hold together so well because they really were derived from a number of separate, fully-developed languages.  We have a pretty good idea whether a name is hobbitish, elven, or dwarven from the sound alone.

Llana of Gathol, coverOr take Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) stories.  Martian heroes and heroines (especially the heroines) tend to have relatively graceful names:  Dejah Thoris, Gahan of Gathol (a place-reference name), Carthoris, Llana.  Male supporting characters and savage green Martians are tougher-sounding:  Tars Tarkas, Mors Kajak, Kantos Kan, Xodar.  Villains’ names are still less graceful:  Phor Tak, Tul Axtar, Luud, U-Dor.  There’s no clear linguistic background for the names, but there’s enough commonality to give us a sense that Barsoomian nomenclature does hold together on a cultural basis.

Telzey Amberdon, book coverThe far future of SF writer James Schmitz yields a completely different style of naming.  Rather than being mellifluously Elvish, like Galadriel or Aragorn, or barbarically guttural, like Tars Tarkas, Schmitz’s names strike me as quintessentially American:  with a contemporary English sound and a sort of casual feel—yet unfamiliar enough to remind us we’re not in Kansas any more.  Recurring character Telzey Amberdon is a good example.  “Telzey,” with the diminutive –ey ending, sounds like a nickname somebody today might bear, but as far as I know, no one actually does.

This laid-back style is characteristic of Schmitz’s Federation of the Hub.  The names have a familiar contemporary sound, but they aren’t actually familiar.  The first names also tend to give few gender clues—which might be related to the fact that Schmitz stories often featured strong female leads.  Nile Etland and Heslet Quillan, along with the single-named Captain Pausert and Goth of The Witches of Karres or Iliff and Pagadan of Agent of Vega, all sound like people we might run into on any street—until we bypass the familiarity of sound and realize we’ve never heard these names before.  The names give Schmitz’s stories a unique feel.

Consistency

We can see how the names help establish the mood and ambiance of a story.  It says something about The Lord of the Rings that it contains both Gandalf the Grey and Freddy Bolger.  As with other aspects of worldbuilding, the names contribute to the “willing suspension of disbelief” when they help us feel the believable solidity of a consistent background—even if it’s a consistency that includes species or cultural variation.

TV Tropes lists a number of ways anomalies can crop up.  There’s “Aerith and Bob,” where familiar conventional names are mixed in unaccountably with unusual ones.  If a particular character’s name is unlike any of the others, we have “Odd Name Out.”  Using a mix of Earthly languages as sources for names gives us “Melting-Pot Nomenclature”—which may be justified if we envision a future in which today’s nations and ethnic groups have intermixed, as in H. Beam Piper’s future history.

The most thoroughgoing way of establishing a solid background for your names is Tolkien’s:  invent your own languages.  But few of us have the time, patience and talent for that kind of detail.  In practice, we don’t need to go that far.  It’s possible to do the same thing on a small scale by starting from the grass roots:  come up with an interesting name or two and decide to emphasize certain sounds or forms for that language’s words, inventing the rules and common elements (like “de” or “von”) as we go along.

However writers may go about the business of naming, we can appreciate the distinctive flavor given to their stories by how they choose names for their “children”—and if we’re so inclined, we can try out that creative wordplay for ourselves.

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.

Mind-to-Mind

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.

The Internet Strikes Back

Occasionally, science fiction can’t avoid being shaped by actual facts.  Usually these are scientific facts, but sometimes economic, social, and even legal factors play a role.  It’s illuminating to look at the recent court decision on “network neutrality,” or “Internet open access,” from a science fictioneer’s point of view.

The question of “net neutrality,” or whether Internet service providers (ISPs) such as telecommunications and cable companies can control what people send and receive over the Internet, has been in play since at least 1998.  The Internet first became accessible to the general public by dial-up service over the public switched telephone network in the mid-1990s (who can remember the once-familiar sound of a dial-up modem connecting?).  Since the telephone system was a common carrier like a railroad or the Postal Service, required to carry anyone’s traffic as long as it didn’t harm the network, there was initially no question of the carriers’ controlling anyone’s Internet communications.  But when people began shifting to “broadband” Internet service over cable systems, which had not traditionally been treated as common carriers, new questions arose.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tried three times to establish some kind of rules of the road that would prevent ISPs from blocking or altering people’s Internet communications.  Third time lucky:  on June 14, 2016, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for D.C. upheld the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet Order.”  The decision was published as United States Telecom Association v. FCC, __ F. 3d ___ (D.C. Cir. June 14, 2016) (USTA).

 

The ISPs like to frame the dispute in terms of the FCC’s “regulating the Internet.”  Actually, it’s almost the reverse.  All the FCC rules do is prevent the ISPs from regulating the Internet—from controlling what individual users can see on the Web and what they say in messages.  It would be more accurate to say that FCC is setting up rules that foster a free market.  This is why the technology industry, except for carriers and their proxies, is generally in favor of net neutrality.

Like many other tech-driven changes explored in science fiction, our ability to use the Internet has far-reaching consequences.  The court observed:  “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie.”  (p. 26)

This particular change wasn’t often investigated by SF.  You can find early depictions of something like the Internet.  Characters in James H. Schmitz’s 1960s-1970s Federation of the Hub stories use a network presciently dubbed the “ComWeb,” both to communicate and to access information, as one commentator remarked, “on ‘Internet time.’”  The cyberpunk genre deals with world-wide networks—but I don’t recall a story where the neutrality issue played a role.  (On the other hand, I haven’t read all that much cyberpunk.)  Some stories show the Internet “waking up”—Internet as artificial intelligence:  for instance, Spider Robinson’s “Solace” in Callahan’s Legacy, “Webmind” in Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake.  But that’s another matter entirely.  In most of these stories, the network is just there; control over it by the ISPs isn’t an issue.

But, like a science fiction thought-experiment, the net neutrality controversy shows some of the qualities a modern society needs in a communications system.  For example—

  • Transmission integrity—trustworthiness.  If the system arbitrarily changes the information passing through it, it won’t be very useful either for trade or for speech.  As the USTA court said:  “the Commission explained that ‘[u]sers rely on broadband Internet access service to transmit “information of the user’s choosing,” “between or among points specified by the user,”’ without changing the form or content of that information.  2015 Open Internet Order, 30 FCC Rcd. at 5761 ¶ 361 (quoting 47 U.S.C. § 153(50)).”
  • Universality (which implies affordability).  This was a key feature of the original telephone monopoly—the “social contract” under which the Bell System was allowed a legislative monopoly in return for providing universal service at regulated rates.

Much of the battle over net neutrality revolves around visions of the kind of alternate futures that might result from different legal regimes.  The FCC’s rules, which act to clear a space for free action and competition, are designed to ward off certain kinds of problems that could develop in such alternate futures.

First among those problems is the economic dominance that can be gained through gatekeeper control of communications.  A cabal of ISPs that controlled all communications could prevent entry by competitors; “pick winners and losers,” deciding which new companies and products would succeed; and siphon off the profits from such new and innovative enterprises, right down to the level where a company that relies on communications can barely break even.  Thus, although the ISPs fully recover the network’s costs from end users’ payments (Americans pay more for lower speeds than in many developed countries), they also seek to be paid by the “edge providers” whose Web sites we visit, not only for those companies’ own Internet connections but also for the pure privilege of reaching the ISPs’ subscribers—in other words, to be paid three times for the same network.

In a free market, it’s essential to have a common medium in which trade can take place.  We analogize the Internet to the streets and roads of our transportation system; but if someone owned the only road leading to your home, and could bar certain traffic at will (including mail delivery), they’d have you over a barrel.

We do see examples of this kind of economic dominance by a few organizations in SF stories, though not usually in the communications realm.  In Dune, when the Spacing Guild joins the alliance against the Atreides family, the game is up—the Guild has a monopoly on interstellar travel.  In Heinlein’s Friday, the Shipstone company controls (stored) energy—and in Heinlein’s much more concise short story “Let There Be Light,” we see how entrenched interests can prevent disruptive innovation.  In a similar way, a cartel that controlled communications—without neutrality requirements—in our information-centric society could establish an economic oligarchy.  There are some fascinating stories to be written there . . .

It’s an illusion to think that in the absence of all regulation, we would have free independent individuals trading with each other on an equal basis.  What we’d have is warlords fighting over slices of a steadily shrinking pie.  One of the functions of the rule of law is to create a space in which a free market can exist—to establish the preconditions for free interaction by all economic players.  This is true of enforceable contract law in trade (just as similar principles require enforceable traffic laws on the roads).  A novel example of how legal protections create reliable conditions for trade is the notion of setting up well-policed areas where people who buy and sell online can meet to exchange their goods, without having to fear being robbed—an “Exchange Zone for Online Purchases.”

To gain the advantages of the Internet’s “flat distribution model,” in which even a small business can buy and sell worldwide without having to make major capital investments, one must be able to communicate freely and inexpensively.  The USTA court noted that “[a]ccording to the Commission [FCC], such rules encourage broadband deployment because they ‘preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet.’”  (p. 17, citing Verizon, 740 F.3d at 628)

But we also use the Internet to create pathways for speech—a central First Amendment interest.

Some ISPs—Verizon in an earlier case, Alamo Broadband in the USTA proceeding—have argued that their own First Amendment rights forbid any imposition of net neutrality rules.  Their position is that on the networks they control, they are the “speakers”—and they cannot be compelled (as a common carrier) to transmit any speech they don’t want to carry.  In other words, when you use your Verizon Internet account to read the latest article by your favorite columnist, it isn’t the columnist whose speech is protected by law:  it’s Verizon’s.  And when you e-mail your best friend your opinions on the upcoming election, it isn’t you speaking—it’s Verizon who can exercise “editorial control” over how your message comes out at the other end.  According to this argument, if you wrote “I love Obama” (or Trump, or Sanders, or Hitler), the ISP could substitute “I hate . . .”  It’s their speech.

Fortunately, the USTA court declined to accept this argument.  If the ISPs had prevailed, the results would have been ironic.  It would have been imperative to build a government-owned network at once, one that people could use to communicate without interference—because governments are forbidden by the First Amendment from controlling people’s speech.  And by the same token, the ISPs would have been forced to police every Web site they delivered to subscribers, from pornography to political opinions—since they would be the speakers.

This scenario sounds as absurd as some science-fictional extrapolations.  But in a world where tyrannies around the globe are doing their best to exercise exactly such speech control by acting as Internet gatekeepers, it’s not hard to imagine ISPs doing the same thing.  And it’s hard to say which would be worse.

 

In sum, the FCC and the court have taken the right path in this case.  The alternatives could make extremely interesting ideas for stories.  But unlike the thought-experiments of SF, this is a real-life experiment, with actual consequences.  It’s important that we get it right.