February 20, 2011

Slice of PIE: Who Put the “Psi” in Science Fiction?

Though not original research (bibliography below), I find it highly suspect that the first science fiction novel featuring future beings with psionic powers was Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871).

Was Bulwer-Lytton a major player in the exploration of the mind that began at the end of the 19th Century and continues today with MRI and CAT scans revealing ever more information about the brain and the mind that resides in it?

Did Bulwer-Lytton play an important role in the foundation of the “Institute of Psychical Research” and the invention of words like telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, teleportation and precognition – words that pepper science fiction novels from the 1930s to the early decades of the 21st Century?

Neither. What Bulwer-Lytton is best remembered for is crafting the most awful first sentence ever penned:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

--Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

After reading that sentence, I need to add that there’s a contest held in his “honor” every year that prints the winner (loser?) online and in an anthology. You’ll find the link below.

Nevertheless, what began with Bulwer-Lytton's novel has continued to this day. “Psi” powered humans and aliens have become a staple of SF perpetrated by the biggest names in the industry: Frank Herbert, David Brin, Anne McCaffrey, Julie Czerneda, Catherine Asaro, Peter Hamilton, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Sarah Zettel/C.L. Anderson, Robert A. Heinlein, John Barnes, H. Beam Piper, David R. Palmer – and anyone who has written novels in the STAR TREK, STAR WARS, or BABYLON 5 universes. I’ve enjoyed books by all of these people and I wouldn’t trade their books out of my library for anything.



I wonder how such highly intelligent people would explain extrapolating a future development from nothing but blind speculation. Most of them are careful at creating futuristic devices that have their basis SOMEWHERE in “hard science” be it physics, chemistry, astronomy or biology. Some of them have advanced degrees in these sciences. In fact, some are downright OCD about the correctness of the science in their writing. Yet there isn’t a shred of evidence that human psychic powers exist and years of tests and experiments have yet to produce repeatable results that can be performed by anyone, anywhere who has the right equipment, but "psi" powers are ubiquitous and unquestioned.

Speculative fiction writers accept that when it comes to “psi”, it’s just a matter of evolution and genetic engineering. (“Psi” is short for “psionics”: “John W. Campbell proposed the term "psionics", from psi (psyche) + electronics (machine), which implied that the paranormal powers of the mind could be made to work reliably.”)

What is even stranger – though I would confess that it’s even sadder – is that many of these same writers have removed God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the redeeming power of the Son of God from their belief systems. The same belief system has mostly disappeared from science fiction as well. But “psi” is OK…

I contend that we as Christians carry much of the blame on our own shoulders for this replacement of God with psionic powers. We will have to answer for that when we stand face-to-face with Jesus on our Homecoming day.

So I have a proposal. It’s aimed at those of you who are Nicene Creed Christians and science fiction (and fantasy) fans and/or writers. This is a proposal to create a community of such people who, like John Campbell and Isaac Asimov’s Futurists, promote the future. But we will promote a future in space that not only includes aliens, starships, biotechnology and genetic engineering, our future will include faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. This Christian futurist society – I rather like the synthetic term Eternityst – would take as their mission the same one Jesus laid on the Disciples in Matthew 28:19. We would do it through service, volunteering to work at local, national and international SF and F and speculative fiction events. Once there, we would watch for opportunities to share our Nicene faith in Christ. Those so gifted would also write for publication and do the same thing in their writing and as members of societies and organizations that promote excellence in speculative fiction: draw Outsiders into serious conversation about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation and discipleship.

Let me know if you’d like to join me. There’s nothing formal yet, but I don’t plan on leaving this on paper (or in the blogosphere). I’ve got plans and I’d like to see if there’s anyone out there interested in joining me. You have my blogsite – let me know what you think.

A Bibliography

Pre-Golden Age telepaths:


Article questioning the scientific claims of ESP or “psionics” and this: “In the late 19th century, scholars and scientists in Europe and America turned their collective attention not only to the mind, but to the paranormal. In 1882, the term "telepathy" was coined by a founder of the Society for Psychical Research; a boom in occult, proto-SF, and SF romances featuring various kinds of extra-sensory perceptions followed. Since 1892, as near as I can make out, at least one telepathy-related SF novel has been published every single year. (With one exception: 1910.)” – from an article by Joshua Glenn, io9, April 15, 2009


Psionics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psionics

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

image: http://www.taranfx.com/wp-content/uploads/mind-reader-phone.jpg


Anonymous said...

I'm terribly interested, but unfortunately unlikely to be able to do anything of substance (outside of prayer) about it in the near term.

Just from the sketch you lay out, though, I can see that you are priming a very powerful engine.

Anonymous said...

Egads. The above was me. I think you don't want a technological keysmasher like me on your endeavor anyhow! ;-)