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.


How Large Is Your World?

Perceived distance

A story may tell you it covers vast distances—but the reader’s or viewer’s experience doesn’t always bear that out.

Star Wars, for example, opens with the announcement that we’re in “a galaxy far, far away,” leading us to expect events on an immense galactic scale.  And of course the story does involve travel among numerous star systems.

Yet to me, at least, the Star Wars galaxy feels so small as to be almost cozy.  It never seems to take more than a day or two to get from one planet to another.  (Often the trips are made in X-wing fighters or other ships that don’t even seem to be large enough for a bathroom.)  In The Force Awakens, we even have weapons on one planet targeting other planets, as if they were right next door.  We may be instructed that the beam is traversing vast distances via hyperspace—but there’s no visceral sense of great expanses.

This situation isn’t limited to visual media.  I recently read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which has been billed as a space opera—a category that suggests vast scope.  Yet almost all the story’s action takes place within a couple of spacecraft or space stations, lending an almost claustrophobic feel to the tale.  On the other hand, the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey devotes a good deal of time to communicating a sense of the vastness of space.

In contrast to these surprisingly pocket-size space adventures, consider a fantasy like The Lord of the Rings.  To my mind, Tolkien’s epic does suggest great distances and broad landscapes.  But the actual distances involved are infinitesimal on a Star Wars scale.  Middle-Earth is about the same size as western Europe.  The Millennium Falcon could traverse the whole expanse from the Shire to Mordor in seconds (even without hyperdrive).  But Tolkien’s world feels bigger.  By the time we get to the end of it, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey.

Map of Middle-Earth

The same is true of most high fantasies, which at most work on a continental scale, given their technologies.  Paradoxically, the low-tech locales seem to be better at giving us a sense of epic scope.  Why?

Getting there is half the challenge

The most important factor, I think, is travel time.  We experience distances not in terms of their metric size, but in terms of how long it takes for us to cross them.  This is the sense in which technology has “made the world smaller.”

Tolkien’s world seems large because we cross it, with the characters, on foot.  All that walking!  (It’s not for nothing that the Fellowship is sometimes referred to as the “Nine Walkers.”)  This means that it takes weeks to get anywhere.  Frodo and Sam leave the Shire on September 23 and arrive at Mount Doom on March 24, a six-month journey—albeit with some stops along the way.

Strictly speaking, this factor may be time-relative-to-lifespan, rather than days or years directly.  A six-month trip would be brief for the star-traveling characters in Blish’s Cities in Flight stories; they live for centuries.  It bulks much larger in our own lives.

A related factor is difficulty.  A journey may take a long time, not just because our transportation is slow, but also because we have to grapple with trouble on the way.  Even an uneventful sea voyage from, say, England to America in the 1700s might take seven weeks on average.  But the dangers of storms, limited food and water, and being becalmed made the trip more daunting.  One didn’t do it casually.

Oregon Trail game, coverSimilarly, the wagon trains of the American West took the settlers through unknown countries full of dangers and delays.  (Recall that Star Trek was originally sold to studios as a “wagon train to the stars.”)  Even aside from the sheer travel time, these perils made the journey a more formidable challenge.  Anyone remember playing “The Oregon Trail”?  It wasn’t easy to survive the strenuous 2,170-mile trip.

The spice of travel

The wagon-train trek illustrates a third factor.  Variety in the places we pass through also makes a trip more consequential.  An Atlantic crossing might be relatively boring, aside from the weather, if you’re not on the Titanic.  But the different kinds of places we experience on the way—terrains, climates, habitations, cultures—also helps give us a sense of distance, of having come a long way.

To some extent this depends on the unfamiliarity of far places.  If another locale has the same chain stores, the same advertisements, the same customs and fashions, we’ll hardly feel as if we’ve gone anywhere.  Passing through a series of identical places will not give us the sense of transition that we gain from different environments.  But as Tolkien’s heroes traverse the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, Bree, the Wilderlands, Rivendell, Moria, the Anduin . . .  we feel they’ve really traveled.

This unfamiliarity is itself a function of travel time and difficulty.  If it’s hard to get somewhere, not many people in my area will have been there, or know much about it.  Technology also plays a subtler role here.  If we don’t have the technology for recordings—photos, audio, video—then we are dependent on travelers’ tales, less vivid and less exact.  On the other hand, if we’ve immersed ourselves in the imagery and culture of, say, Japan before we visit, the culture shock will be less.  This is another way advanced technology makes the world smaller.

Star Wars universe mapIn a similar way, the different environments we meet on Star Wars planets do provide some sense of genuine travel—though the fact that each planet seems to have a single climate and terrain makes this variety less effective than it might be.

Taken together, the difficulty and variety factors suggest that the number of incidents on an expedition contribute a lot to our sense of size.  A very long trip may seem trivial if nothing happens.  But a quite brief excursion can seem extensive if it’s packed with important occurrences.

Generation ships, inside and out

The generation ship, of which we’ve spoken before, provides an interesting example of both types of journey.  Externally, such a vessel covers vast distances—and taking generations to make a voyage is certainly one way to make the reader feel the distance involved.  But the voyage typically proceeds with very little external change:  the ship bores on through space, for years on end.  If events within the ship are not described, the reader or viewer may not gain much sense of distance.  If the people on board are in suspended animation, there won’t be much sense of time or distance at all.  In the 2016 movie Passengers, for example, it’s only once something goes wrong that the story begins.  (Once it does, the passage of time for the characters who are awake is a major plot element.)

Rendezvous with Rama interior illustration

Interior of starship from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (staticflickr.com)

On the other hand, internally, the world-ship itself may seem a vast environment to the inhabitants.  This is especially true if events have deprived the inhabitants of any high-tech means of travel from place to place within the ship.  A long journey or quest inside the traveling world may thus be a major plot element, as we saw in The Star Seekers or Non-Stop.  Here, again, it’s essential that the characters encounter different cultures or locales within the ship if the reader is to have a sense of scale.

Epic scope

To create a story with epic scope, as in space opera or high fantasy, it’s useful to keep this size issue in mind.  If you want to write an epic, make sure you give it room to breathe.  If that sense of scale is lacking, our grand, sweeping conflict may come across looking like a mere tempest in a teapot.


The Sign of the Sequel

Ever find yourself approaching the end of a new book—and you realize there’s no way the author can tie up the plot in what remains of the novel?  It’s that moment when you realize:  we’re in for a sequel.

That realization may be awful, or it may be exciting, depending on how much you enjoy the story so far.  But it changes the way you look at the book you’re reading, to know it isn’t complete in itself, but only part of a larger tapestry.  Your sense of the pacing and the shape of the story has to adjust.

Book, fanned openBut the story alone hasn’t told us there will be a sequel.  Rather, we’re drawing on something outside the text itself—our knowledge of how much of the book remains—to tell us something about the story.

Years ago, when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, I almost missed the last chapter altogether.  The conclusion of the novel consists of a series of successive surprises, each overturning the last.  The second-to-last chapter seemed to end so conclusively that I only turned the page because I was in the habit of reflectively turning over the blank endpapers of a book.  —And there was the final chapter!  I could only make that mistake, however, because the last chapter was so short—six pages in my hardcover edition.

It’s harder to make that kind of observation in an e-book, where there are no physical pages to observe.  You can usually find a percentage or “location” indicator, but it’s not quite as obvious as the physical thickness of the pages.

Let’s call this process of drawing on outside information “meta-reading.”

Sources of Meta-Information

There are a number of sources from which we glean this meta-information, consciously or not.

Starting from the broadest case, we get some information from the genre to which the book belongs.  If you find a book in the science fiction section of the bookstore, then no matter how mundane the opening scenes may be, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is going to turn up at some point.  If you’re reading a genre romance, you can rely on the ironclad rule that a genre romance must have a happy ending:  either “happily ever after,” or at least “happily for now”—HEA or HFN, in the jargon of the trade.  Even if the characters’ relationship seems doomed as you approach the ending, you can be pretty sure it’ll turn out well—which may not be the case in a “mainstream” novel.

Getting to know an author’s habits and preferences is another way to guess what’s going to happen in the end.  If we’ve read a fair sampling of an author’s work, we can gauge fairly well the chances of a happy ending, the likelihood of violence or sex scenes, the kinds of characters you’re likely to meet up with.  It’s a little more tense approaching the end of a book by a new author, because we’re not yet familiar with what kinds of tricks the writer may (or may not) be willing to pull at the denouement.

Then there’s the back-cover blurb, or the flyleaf—often the reason we pick up the book in the first place.  The half-dozen paragraphs or so of teaser text on the flyleaf are designed to tell us just enough to get us interested.  They shouldn’t give away the whole plot, but they do create expectations—which the book as a whole may or may not meet.  Something that comes as a complete surprise to the characters may be something the reader is already primed for, because it’s part of the plot setup that the blurb describes.

Reviews take this principle further.  A review may include spoilers, but even without actual spoilers, it tells is something even before we open page one.

Once we get into the book, there are still more clues.  Chapter titles are out of fashion these days, but if there are such titles, they inevitably tell us something about what’s going to happen.  In my current novel-in-progress, I use temporary chapter titles that remind me what happens in the chapter, but remain obscure enough not to telegraph the outcome to test readers.  Still, when you reach the chapter titled “The Battle of Tremont,” you’re inevitably going to have an idea what to expect.

Finally, in the example I started with, the length of the book tells us something.  As we move through the story, we can measure our sense of pacing with the literal progress through the pages.  There have been a number of cases where it’s looked as if the plot was being wrapped up nicely, and I’ve looked at the mass of material still to come and thought, Something’s bound to come unglued here . . . or we wouldn’t have a hundred pages to go.

Setting Expectations

This kind of insight relies on an awareness of narrative practices.  There are internal necessities to good storytelling.  Guessing the imminence of the climax from the number of remaining pages, for example, depends on our assumptions about how much time after the climax will be devoted to wrapping things up—which, in a long story like The Lord of the Rings, can take quite a while.

Likewise, gauging the amount of space needed to resolve the plot assumes that the plot will be resolved:  good authors, at least, don’t leave things totally dangling.  Our use of meta-reading plays off our assumptions about how stories are told—and can go awry if the author’s views are radically different from the reader’s.

For that very reason, the writer of a story has to take into account the context in which the reader encounters the story, and the expectations raised in that context.  The reader doesn’t come to the story as a blank slate.

If there will be major surprises in the tale, the writer (and publisher) need to make sure they aren’t given away in the blurbs.  If the author wishes to undermine the expectations created by genre classification or advertising, it’s important to be aware of the consequences.  Subverting reader expectations can be illuminating and satisfying to the reader, but it can also be annoying and frustrating. The implicit contract between writer and reader—‘I’m going to tell you a story you will enjoy’—places boundaries on just how subversive one can be without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

The writer’s conversation with the reader, then, extends well beyond the contents of the text itself.  It’s something that’s useful to remember for the writer—and the reader as well.

The Good King

I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings.  In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776.  Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?

Star Kingdoms

We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color:  Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families.  Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting.  Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.

But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too.  Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire.  (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.)  Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov.  Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.”  David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor.  Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders).  It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.

The Lure of Kingship

Aragorn with crownThere’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it.  I encountered this puzzlement directly.  As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King.  I asked myself why.  If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?

The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—

  • Kings are colorful. (So are princesses.)
  • Stability
  • Personal loyalty
  • Individual agency

The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.


It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together.  British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there.  (Literally, at least within my lifetime.)  This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society’s returning to monarchy.

Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye:  “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show.  We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!”  (ch. 40)

Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well.  It depends on who they are.  For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea.  When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.

Too much depends on getting the right monarch.  By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.

Personal Loyalty

Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution.  One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol:  the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.”  Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.

This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch.  Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy.  One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people.  But it’s easiest with an individual.  This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.

Individual Agency

The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved.  “Washington said today . . .”

In fact it’s always people who are acting.  But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on.  “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .”  In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person:  “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).

In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF:  “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”  A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power.  Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change:  “SF is the literature of changing the world.”  The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.

It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules.  We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions.  I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood.  And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.

But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous.  Too much depends on getting the right hero—or the right monarch.  It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good:  virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait.  Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power.  Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.

The Rule of Law

Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law:  “a government of laws, not of men,” in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams.  We can see this as far back as Aristotle:  “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens.  And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.”  (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)

No human being can be trusted with absolute authority.  This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone.  When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.

The Ideal of the Good King

Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence.  This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment).  (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince:  the leader we follow.  But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)

What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?

If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility.  A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master.  Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler.  For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.

The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own.  Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.

In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule:  a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.

Aragorn defers to FrodoIt’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn.  Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble.  The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.”  Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious:  “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:  ‘Praise them with great praise!’”  (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)

We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not:  Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.”  America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.

The Alternative

At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility.  Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.

The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown.  It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect:  Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election.  Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.

If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.

The Missing Mentor

[Discussing stories in detail inevitably involves some spoilers.
The ones in this post, however, should be fairly mild.

Gandalf, polygon art portrait

Image from desktopimages.org

The wise old mentor is a staple, not only in fantasy, but in all kinds of stories.  From a narrative point of view, though, these mentor figures are rather an inconvenience – which is why they so frequently go missing.

Gandalf the Grey, the very archetype of the mentor in an adventuring party, is kept offstage by other engagements for much of The Hobbit.  In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien goes so far as to have him perish (not permanently, to be sure).

In the Harry Potter stories, Albus Dumbledore tends to be curiously inactive – he’s not around when the crises occur – though this changes over the course of the series, until he’s fully engaged toward the end.

Professor X, of the X-Men, is generally confined to a wheelchair, which keeps him out of the action.  In the first couple of X-Men movies, he’s also hors de combat much of the time.

Gordon Ashe, the main character’s mentor in Andre Norton’s Time Traders­ series, often happens to be sick or injured.

And of course Obi-Wan Kenobi dies about a third of the way through Star Wars:  A New Hope – even if he keeps popping up periodically through the three original episodes as a Force ghost.

Why does a writer introduce these characters, only to shuffle them offstage as soon as possible?  Consider what the mentor contributes:

  1. Power.  The mentor is often a fully-developed version of what the hero is becoming, as in Star Wars.  If not, like Gandalf, he is typically a powerful figure in his own right.
  2. Knowledge.  Gandalf knows how to terminate trolls and how to open the doors of Moria (Frodo helps in the movie, but not the book).  Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) know how to train in karate.  Obi-Wan knows where to find Yoda.
  3. Wisdom.  The mentor often advises the hero about life – not specific information, but how to live in a more global sense.  “Do, or do not; there is no try.”  “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”  “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Here’s where the problems start to arise.  If the mentor is a powerful figure, why isn’t the mentor out fighting the battle, rather than sending the hapless (hero) apprentice?  The more impressive the mentor’s abilities, the harder it is to avoid having the mentor displace the hero.  With the mentor in action, things would be too easy for the main characters.  (There’s a parallel problem in children’s adventure stories – how to get the children away from parents and other caregivers so they have to act on their own.)

Knowledge poses a lesser problem, but a good storyteller still rations the mentor’s advice closely.  It makes for better drama if the hero doesn’t quite know what to do and isn’t fully trained.  (The tagline for the first World of Warcraft game expansion was:  “YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!”)  Luke Skywalker is more thrilling as a brash but vulnerable neophyte facing Darth Vader than he would have been as a fully seasoned Jedi knight.  The writer may prefer to have the hero not fully informed – if only to enable a shocking surprise at the right moment.

The problems are not as severe with the mentor’s third role, as dispenser of wisdom – though it still falls to the hero to implement the teacher’s wise counsel, when the crisis comes.

Authors thus expend a lot of effort to keep mentors out of the action, leaving the heroes on their own to apply what they have learned – or fail to do so.

Gandalf dies in Moria; he returns, but by that time he’s cut off from Frodo and Sam, who most need his guidance.  (“Its name was Cirith Ungol . . . Aragorn could perhaps have told them that name and its significance; Gandalf would have warned them.”  The Two Towers, ch. IV.3)  Gandalf is present, however, for the big battle scenes, and is ready to take on the Witch-King at Minas Tirith.  In effect, Tolkien has held Gandalf’s might in reserve:  as the enemies get bigger and worse over the course of the story, it makes sense to bring the powerful mentor back in, to even the scales.  We see the same kind of progression in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore takes a more direct hand as the story goes on (though he’s removed to make the final battle more challenging).

In the Silver Age comics, the wheelchair was enough to keep Professor Xavier out of the action most of the time.  In the movies, his range and power is vastly expanded, and he has to be rendered comatose to keep him out of the fray.

George Lucas managed to eat his cake and still have it.  He opts for the drastic solution by killing off Obi-Wan for good.  But Obi-Wan’s continuation as a ghost allows him to keep providing occasional advice – not to mention retconned explanations (“From a certain point of view”).

E.E. Smith’s classic Lensman series gives us an entire species, the Arisians, as mentors.  One character, a “fusion” of four Arisians, is actually known as Mentor.  Smith crafts his story to produce fairly subtle and plot-central reasons for keeping the Arisians out of the main conflicts.  At first they need to conceal their existence from their Eddorian adversaries.  Later, they need to keep their vast powers under wraps so as not to undermine the confidence and self-reliance of the Galactic Patrol.  But the Arisians do emerge in time for the climactic battle – which could not be won without both the Arisians and the Patrol (and the Children of the Lens, but that’s another story).

The mentor isn’t always missing in action.  A writer can engage the mentor figure in the story, if proper caution is employed to dodge the above problems.  For example, the social conditions of The Karate Kid mean that Mr. Miyagi can’t simply obliterate the adversaries.  He has to equip Daniel to fight a duel, in which third parties aren’t allowed to intervene.

Another way of handling it is to have the hero and mentor fighting on separate tracks.  Thus, in The Mask of Zorro (1998), the older Zorro is supposed to be dead and has to stay in disguise for most of the story.  But during the climax he is revealed and takes on his old nemesis, while the new Zorro is saving lives and fighting his own opposite number.

One of the reasons the absent mentor appeals to us, I think, is that it reflects something we experience in real life.  As we grow older, we do leave our mentors behind.  Generally, we outlive them – and sometimes feel inadequate without the advice and assistance of those who seemed towering figures in our youth.  Yet, just as in a story, this is necessary if we are to grow up.  In the end we succeed our mentors, and become the heroes of our own stories — and, in turn, mentors to the next generation.