The Animal Sidekick


Zorro on Tornado, against the moonThe hero of a story is frequently attended by a loyal beast of some sort.  Pirate captains have their parrots.  Roy Rogers had his sturdy steed Trigger, and Zorro relies on his horse Tornado—a mount he went to some pains to acquire, for example, in The Mask of Zorro (1998).  Ron Stoppable, sidekick to teenage hero Kim Possible, had his own companion in a naked mole-rat, Rufus.  The Stark siblings in Game of Thrones (I finally got around to watching the first episode last week) each have a direwolf.  For those who remember the 1950s TV series, we might also instance Timmy and Lassie (though in that case arguably Lassie was the lead and Timmy the accessory; she did get top billing).

In fantasy and science fiction, however, such accompanying creatures often get a significant upgrade.  A F&SF character’s animal assistant may be enough of an independent character to be a genuine companion, rather than merely a pet—occasionally rising almost to the level of the more familiar human sidekick.

Quasi-Intelligent Companions

Science fiction and fantasy elements allow for semi-sentient or semi-intelligent versions of what would otherwise be considered pets.  They’re not equal to their human masters—at least not as a rule (see below)—but they’re not just brute animals either.

Defiant Agents coverAndre Norton’s SF novel The Defiant Agents (1962) provides a good example.  When a group of Native American colonists is sent to found a habitation on a far-off planet, with them is a pair of enhanced coyotes.  Norton gives the backstory this way:

. . . The coyote had not only adapted to the country of the white sands; he had evolved into something which could not be dismissed as an animal, clever and cunning, but limited to beast range.  Six cubs had been brought back on the first expedition, coyote in body, their developing minds different.  The grandchildren of those cubs were now in the ship’s cages, their mutated senses alert . . . Sent to Topaz as eyes and ears for less keenly endowed humans, they were not completely under the domination of man.  (ch. 2, p. 19)

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us perhaps the classic case.  The planet Pern is protected by men and women riding flying dragons.  The dragons breathe fire to destroy an alien organic “Thread” that falls from the sky and, if allowed to spread, would multiply to consume the planet.  Moreover, the dragons can teleport from place to place by “going between.”  (Despite the fantasy tropes, the Pern stories are actually science fiction.)  Dragons and their human riders bond for life at the dragons’ birth and communicate telepathically; the bond is so complete that if one partner dies, the other is likely to die as well.

Dragonflight coverA crucial fact is that McCaffrey’s dragons talk.  Speech is a key sign of intelligence.  We might imagine getting an answer back when we speak to a beloved horse or dog; we might wish for such a relationship—but in F&SF that wish can be realized.

Nonetheless, even though it’s the dragons who do most of the work against Thread, they are the subordinate members of the pairings.  They are immature compared to their humans—halfway to the unspeaking beast, as it were.  One of the main characters reflects that “[d]ragon instinct was limited to here-and-now, with no ability to control or anticipate.  Mankind existed in partnership with them to supply wisdom and order . . .”  (Dragonflight (1968), part II, p. 133)

Nonetheless, speech isn’t always necessary to show that a creature is more than an animal.  In particular, if we’re dealing with alien creatures whose thought processes are different from ours, it may be hard to tell how their degree of intelligence compares.

In Alan E. Nourse’s Star Surgeon (1959), the main character is Dal Timgar, an alien Garvian who has just graduated from medical school on Earth.  Like all Garvians, Dal has a symbiotic partner, a fuzzy ball of mutable protoplasm referred to simply as “Fuzzy,” normally found sitting on Dal’s shoulder.  The Garvians and their Fuzzies (not to be confused with H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzies) have the same kind of interdependence as McCaffrey’s dragonriders:  they can’t live without each other.  While Dal’s Fuzzy certainly seems to be a person of sorts, he doesn’t talk.  His telepathic bond with Dal does not express itself in words.  But that bond is a central part of the story.

The Tropes

The animal sidekick gives rise to a number of classifications on TV Tropes.  The broadest is perhaps Loyal Animal Companion, which spans the range from mere pets to non-human peers.  In this last group, where the two are essentially equals—the Non-Human Sidekick—the “Film–Animation” subgroup includes a list of the animal helpers found in most of the Disney fairy-tale films, such as the talking mice in Cinderella (1950).  (Note, though, that in the more realistic 2015 live-action version, the mice don’t talk and are more like pets.)

Daenerys Targaryen, mounted on dragonThe symbiotic relationships described above are captured under the title Bond Creatures, with a separate page devoted to dragon-riders generally—including Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones.  Witches’ or wizards’ familiars, like Svartalf in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos, appear under The Familiar.

There’s also a page for Mons, of which the famous Pokémon are probably the most widely-known.  A human master may have many Pokémon, but Pikachu, for instance, does seem to be a boon companion and not just a fighting pet—although in the animated series his speech (like Groot’s) is limited to variations on his own name.  Note that the upcoming movie version is quite different:  in this movie Pikachu talks and is a complete person—even, apparently, the lead.

The Sidekick’s Contribution

The Beast Master, coverAnimal sidekicks can aid their principals in many ways.  Some you can ride, like McCaffrey’s dragons or Gandalf’s steed Shadowfax; there’s yet another Tropes page for the Sapient Steed (including the robotic horse Fess in Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock of Gramarye series).  Some act primarily as scouts, as noted for the Norton coyotes above; so also the Falcon’s avian companion Redwing in Marvel comics (sadly reduced to a robotic drone in the movies).  The enhanced or mutated otters in James Schmitz’s The Demon Breed (1968) do some scouting, and can also carry bombs and perform other basic actions; they talk back to main character Nile Etland, though in a simplified way.  Norton’s The Beast Master (1959) features a whole team of animals who assist main character Hosteen Storm, a Native American like The Defiant Agent’s Travis Fox.

The animal companion may also be able to fight alongside you, in ways a human could not match.  We’ve already looked at the dragons of Pern; we should also mention the treecats of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, who have averted at least one assassination by being unexpectedly formidable in an emergency.  Owen Grady’s team of raptors in Jurassic World is at least equally capable.

Ascension of the Sidekick

Frequently, animal sidekicks tend to be a little childlike and essentially innocent.  They’re depicted as simpler than their human sponsors.  The nonhuman creature may be quite bloodthirsty or deadly, but it’s in an innocent way.  We don’t hold animals responsible for being savage; that’s just the way they are.  The more animal sidekicks lack the full intelligence and moral agency of a person, the more they get the benefit of animal innocence.

But sometimes it turns out that the seeming animal is more than it appears.  It may develop that the “sidekick” is really the equal of the human partner—in intelligence, in culture, in overall personhood.  At that point, we pass from subordinate to peer, and the relationship may shift to something more like that of a buddy movie.

Treecat with Stephanie HarringtonThis is true of Weber’s treecats:  as the series progressed, they were revealed to be about as intelligent as humans, though without advanced science.  The Pernese dragons have also shifted gradually in that direction; in particular, Ruth, the eponymous character of The White Dragon (1978), is depicted as a “sport,” human-like in personality and mental capabilities.

Sticking with the dragonrider model, we seen a similar progression in the How to Train Your Dragon movies.  These dragons have always been pretty smart; but the third episode, released in the U.S. in February 2019, gives them a culture and even a governmental structure of their own.

Heinlein was fond of this twist.  He used it in Red Planet (1949), where Willis the “Martian roundhead,” originally the main character’s pet, turns out to be an immature form of the regular civilized Martians and a particularly important individual.  Similarly, in The Star Beast (1954), the main character’s monstrous “pet” Lummox turns out to be a very young royal child of the sophisticated and formidable Hroshii species.

James Schmitz’s first story about Telzey Amberdon, “Novice” (1962, appearing in The Universe Against Her and volume one of the Eric Flint Hub compilation) presents Telzey with a telepathic “pet” named Tick-Tock who is revealed to be one of the indigenous “crest cats”—predators so dangerous that, while humans have been hunting them, the crest cats view themselves as hunting the humans on an equal basis.  (Since Telzey is a formidable character herself, even at age fifteen, the team-up really is a union of equals.)

Role in the Story

Telzey Amberdon with Tick-TockThe animal sidekick’s unique abilities or powers, noted above, afford one explanation for its appearance in a story.  Such a companion can allow characters to do things they couldn’t do on their own, whether it’s adding to their fighting strength, reading other characters’ minds, or teleporting to other places and times.  The sidekick is a helper and an ally.

An animal companion provides such assistance in a different way than a human companion would.  In creating a new separate species, a writer can establish limitations in intelligence, or otherwise that place the sidekick firmly in a secondary role.  We are rightly uncomfortable putting other humans in such a permanent sidekick position; it creates a fundamental tension with the fact of basic human equality.  (It would take us too far afield here to go into the variations of human ancillary characters—the superhero’s assistant; the military servant or “batman,” as with Honor Harrington or James Christian Falkenberg or Jack Aubrey; Jeeves the “gentleman’s personal gentleman.)

An animal ancillary character can provide companionship—empathy, psychological support—for the main character without invoking the kinds of interactions that are inevitable when other human beings are involved.  Instead, the relationship between the principal and the sidekick can explore other kinds of interactions, more analogous to those of parent and child, or teacher and student, than those of peers.

In compiling this survey, I’ve noticed that a lot of the stories are older, often dating from the mid-twentieth century.  It may be that this isn’t an accident.  Contemporary thinking leans strongly toward an assumption of equality among all kinds of beings, reaching out to postulate humanlike rights for (e.g.) whales or chimpanzees.  The whole notion of a permanently subordinate or secondary being may be particularly repugnant to many of today’s readers.

On the other hand, coming from the animal side rather than the human-surrogate side, there may be something to the simple wish to communicate on more of a mutual basis with the other creatures that share the world with us.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to talk to our horse, dog, cat?

Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, coverIn his essay On Fairy-Stories (1939), Tolkien points out that fantasy satisfies “the desire to converse with other living things.  On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales . . .”  If we can’t talk with our actual dogs and cats, we can imagine similarly situated beings with whom we can.  And if they include flying dragons and wily coyotes, so much the better.


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.


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.


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.