Archives: what if?

Telepathy as Science Fiction

Most people regard telepathy in the modern world as pure fantasy. No solid results have come out of parapsychology, and enough people claim to be telepathic to some degree that it’s almost a superstition these days.So it’s no surprise that some well-known science fiction authors consider telepathy to be outside the genre. Charlie Stross, a hard SF author who has won the Hugo and other awards, goes so far as to consider telepathy in SF novels dumpster-diving (“World building 404“).


Telepathy by topastrodfogna / Mauro Sartori | Flickr

And judging by the 1993 Science Fiction Studies article mentioning that “most critics continue to regard ESP as puerile wish fulfillment,” it’s been considered dumpster-diving for quite some time by more than just Charlie Stross.

In my last post, I argued that the movie Another Earth isn’t science fiction enough. Now I’m going to give telepathy the opposite treatment and declare that it is potential science fiction material.

Telepathy in Science

Recently, we’ve seen scientists peeking in on people’s brains using fMRI and mind-reading the words right out of their heads. All of the tests done in this method have required some pretty high-tech gadgetry, even going so far as to place an electrode net on the surface of the brain itself. No magical thought beams here.

In fact, NeuroSky already has brain-computer interface devices available for the average consumer that can effectively read your mind, or, as they put it, your dominant mental state.

Is this telepathy? Maybe not in the strictest definition of the word, mind-to-mind communication. But it’s the first step on the path.

If “the work paves the way for brain implants that could monitor a person’s thoughts and speak words and sentences as they imagine them” (qtd. from The Guardian) then telepathy is really only a hop, skip, and a jump away.

Telepathy as Science Fiction

Which is exactly how science fiction works. We take science, then make a leap into the unknown. Science: Some computers do a decent job at reading a willing person’s mind. Fiction: By some currently unknown means, a human, creature, alien, or AI can read an unwilling person’s mind.

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who considers telepathy as Class I on the spectrum of impossibility. That is, it’s impossible today but does not violate the laws of physics. Check out his book, Physics of the Impossible, which is one of the few nonfiction books to make it onto my Goodreads to-read shelf.

It’s impossible today, but not impossible altogether, and we’ve already taken baby steps in that direction. Telepathy is not off the table for science fiction.

Telepathic power

Telepathic power by dubitatif / laurent reyes | Flickr

What If?

Science fiction is the genre that asks “What if?” so let’s use this as a diving board for how telepathy might be used in SF. And try not to land in the dumpster.

  • In the future, scientists develop a mind-scanner that allows police to interrogate suspects better than with a polygraph test. (Still not necessarily mind-to-mind communication, but close.)
  • Babies are implanted with tracking devices, and the chip also monitors their brain and speech patterns. The chip reads brain waves and blood patterns, learning those patterns over the course of the child’s life. It can then amplify and broadcast thoughts, allowing another person’s chip to receive and process that broadcast — effectively reading minds.
  • A powerful AI is able to read a combination of a person’s minute eye twitches, muscle movements, perspiration, breathing patterns, blood flow, and even some brain waves (although currently our brains don’t give off much radiation to work with), processing the information fast enough to effectively predict your thoughts and actions.
  • We colonize other worlds and find aliens who can communicate with us telepathically, like in A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber.
  • Aliens endow normal Earth animals with the ability to telepathically communicate with humans as in Catacombs by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.
  • Colonists on an Earth-like planet are infected by a germ that causes thoughts to be loudly broadcast to anyone in hearing range, like in The Knife of Never Letting Go and the rest of the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. (Awesome series — definitely worth checking out.)
  • Alien chemicals cause mutations in humans, and later generations are able to telepathically read other people’s minds, as in my speculative fiction novel, The Last of the Ageless.

Of course telepathy also appears in numerous fantasy books, like the Goblin War books by Jim C. Hines and the Bridge of D’Arnath series by Carol Berg (a series I absolutely love).

What other books have you read that feature mind-to-mind communication?

Unfortunately, WordPress does not currently support telepathic broadcasts, but feel free to leave your science fiction and fantasy ideas for telepathy below.

    Another Earth movie review

    Another Earth movie review

    IMDb categorizes Another Earth under the genres of drama and sci-fi. I would argue that it’s definitely more of a drama, and not really science fiction at all. As an Amazon reviewer stated, the “science fiction” is just window-dressing.

    Short review: As a lover of science fiction books and movies, and someone who generally avoids the drama genre (because it’s such a mixed bag), I don’t recommend this movie. Read on for the full review!

    Science fiction explores science concepts in story format, and while it bends the rules of science, either the rules are bent plausibly enough that the average reader (or viewer) doesn’t need them explained or the story makes at least some token explanation as to how the rules are plausibly bent. The whole idea is, “It could happen.”

    Another Earth doesn’t do any of this. The science fictional idea behind it is that a planet Earth, identical to our own, appears in our sky. If I recall, there’s not much explanation or description around how this came about or any details about the other planet.

    After the discovery of the other earth, the plot meanders along and has nothing at all to do with the other planet for which the movie is named! The main character, Rhoda, goes to prison for four years and when she gets out, not much has changed. (This is not a spoiler as this is the very beginning of the movie.) Nobody appears to have taken much interest in the other planet at all. This seems unrealistic.

    In fact, there are numerous problems with plausibility in this movie, which even viewers who don’t normally watch science fiction movies might take issue with:

    • No mention is made of whether the other planet has also has a moon
      • If it does, then what kind of crazy gravitational effects might this cause (e.g. wobbling)? 
      • If it doesn’t, then it should be pretty clear which planet is the copy and which one is real (an idea that, disappointingly, isn’t even played with in the movie)
      • Either way, there should be some strange gravitational changes that might result in at least the moon’s orbit changing, which would cause several effects that would most certainly be noticed over four years (e.g. changes in ocean tides)
    • What effects would another planet’s gravitational well have on our orbit around the sun? Our rotation? Our tilt?  
    • No mention is made of whether the other planet looks exactly like ours (same continents, same shorelines)
      • Later, they speculate that people on the other planet were identical to us up to the moment when the two Earths became aware of each other
    • Is the other planet rotating the same way, experiencing the same diurnal and seasonal cycle? 
    • What would result, politically, if another Earth appeared? 
    • What would the military (of various countries) do? 
      • Obviously the first spacecraft going to the other planet wouldn’t be a private one involving a contest

    A change in scientific principles should provoke the rethinking of the entire fictional universe created for the story, as the change should also affect the people living in that universe. Not so in this movie. In four years’ time, they haven’t made contact with the other planet yet, nor sent over any sort of political or military envoy? Really?

    The woman who is apparently the first one to make contact seems utterly shocked that she’s talking to herself. Presumably she and the other people on her team are aware of the fact that the other planet appears to be an identical copy of our own. After four years, they’ve had the chance to examine the other planet, so even if they haven’t made contact with it, the thought has to have crossed her mind that perhaps not just the planet but also the people are copied.

    Good stories in general also keep the reader or viewer engaged and immersed. If something in the story triggers a red flag, it takes the reader or viewer out of the story… the story has drawn attention to itself and the audience no longer maintains the necessary suspension of disbelief to enjoy it. The verisimilitude is broken and the story is effectively ruined for all but the most determined reader or viewer.

    That was my main problem with this supposed “science fiction” movie — it’s got science fictional elements, but the movie does its very best to ignore them.

    WARNING: The paragraphs with asterisks under the image below contain spoilers!

    Alternate explorations of the Another Earth idea are after the spoilers, however, if you’d like to jump to that instead.

    Earth Moon Gravitational Field

    Earth Moon Gravitational Field by J.Gabás Esteban | Flickr


    ***Rhoda is a horrible human being, which makes it difficult to empathize with her or to follow her viewpoint for the entire movie. She gets accepted into MIT and then gets behind the wheel intoxicated, kills two people, and puts a third in a coma. But it’s what she chooses to do (and not do) after the fact that really brings her character to light.

    ***She gets out of prison and is extremely apathetic to the world around her and decides not to pursue higher education (which was her goal at the beginning of the movie). Her only desire seems to be to apologize to John, the man whose family she killed. But she loses her nerve at the last second and lies to him, and he doesn’t recognize her (and since she was a minor at the time, he never knew her name).

    ***She continues to clean his house to maintain her deceit, taking emotional advantage of him, which finally culminates in their lovemaking. Selfishly, she still can’t confess — not until she wins the prize of traveling to the other Earth. I would guess this is because she feels that traveling to the other planet would give her a second shot at a normal life, so she finally feels safe enough to reveal her secret.

    ***At the end, she instead gives John the ticket, hoping he might be able to see his family again, which is the sole redeeming factor to her character. Even then, it’s a pretty small band-aid considering the emotional havoc she’s created in his life. Not to mention the fact that even if he saw his wife and child on the other planet, they presumably already have a husband and father (his other self).

    ***So, the plot of the movie is that a girl kills two people, goes to prison, feels remorse, tries to apologize to the man whose life she screwed over, then she proceeds instead to screw him over in every sense of the word, until she finally tells him the truth and gives him a way out of their toxic relationship and a chance at peace. All of this could have been accomplished without any poorly conceived science fictional elements and it probably would have been a better movie.

    Earth - Illustration
    Earth – Illustration by DonkeyHotey

    Alternate Explorations of This Idea

    Any of these “another Earth appears” ideas could have made for a more interesting science fiction movie:

    • Man loses his wife and child due to a drunk driver, travels to Another Earth (which is better explained and in greater detail), and gets to see them again, but then has to figure out how he can fit into their lives considering his other self already fills the role of husband/father. 
    • Another Earth appears, wildly throwing off our orbit, moon cycle, etc. We discover it was a poor attempt of future Earthlings to avoid certain death in their timeline (solar expansion/giant flare/space debris/aliens/take your pick) by transporting to an alternate dimension… which instead landed them here. 
    • Another Earth appears (which, again, is better explained and in greater detail) and politicians and military groups on both planets take drastic measures to “protect” their Earth. 
    • Another Earth appears due to a strange overlap in two parts of the multiverse. Scientists discover that the multiverse will somehow un-overlap in x number of days. In the meantime, the two Earths learn that they have extremely different histories, resulting in different modern conditions (cancer is cured?), and they try to share as much information as they can before time’s up. 
    • Another Earth appears ahead of us in our orbit, with a moon, but far enough away that our moons don’t interfere with on another. Much debate over which planet is the “real” Earth. A huge meteor strikes one of the Earths and destroys much of the life on the planet, prompting the other Earth to lend aid. 
    • Another Earth appears, but is devoid of human life, and there is no fossil record of humans at all… 
    Can you think of other more interesting, more entertaining ways of exploring the concept of Another Earth?
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      A Trick of Time Dilation

      Have you ever been in an extremely stressful or life-threatening situation and noticed how time seems to slow down? Everything from being in a fight to being in a car crash can cause this feeling. But is it really time dilation?


      Falling by Kevin Morris | Flickr

      Dr. David Eagleman tackled this question by giving his test subjects a chronometer that was going too fast for the human eye to read under normal circumstances. If time really slows down when you’re afraid, then surely the subjects would be able to read the chronometer when they fell 150 feet in the test, right?
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