We’re Both Thinking of Telepathy: ESP in Genre Fiction

Does anyone have the power of telepathy? I sure don’t. But I always wanted it. I spent hours at childhood slumber parties, hoping to guess whether my friend was thinking of a star or a circle. I was definitely not a telepath, sadly, and my ten-year-old dreams were crushed. Heck, I would’ve been happy to be an anti-telepath: able to predict with 100% accuracy what my friend was absolutely not thinking of.

Telepathy, like many elements of science fiction, is wish-fulfillment. It’s fun to read because it’s fun to imagine. As a power, telepathy is pretty darned useful, depending on how it works and whether the user has control of it.

Here’s a few uses of telepathy in fiction.


Secret Communication

That’s a clear power move in a world of Wikileaks, phone taps, and man-in-the-middle attacks. It’s a dream of secure information transmission, useful to spies, parents, artists, and—well, anyone. We just hope Alexa isn’t telepathic or we might actually order a bag of Kit-Kats whenever we get that damn song virus.

Telepathy solves a literal limit of the human body. It grants newfound power. Think of the applications with spies, politicians, activists, and teenagers. How do you stop your teenager from telepath-texting their sweetie at night instead of going to sleep?

We see telepathy’s power in the bonds between rider and dragon in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, as well as rider and horse in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. In “Dragonflight,” Lessa secretly calls the dragon Mnementh to mate with her own queen dragon, Ramoth. In “Arrow’s Fall,” Talia warns Queen Selenay of the trap in Hardorn, thanks to her mental link with her Companion Rolan.

In my novella Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, Bee’s abilities let her find people, speak from afar, and communicate secretly. These are all potent abilities for any rebel or social activist, and (not coincidentally) Bee knows her powers terrify non-telepaths.


Instant Character Bonds

You know how someone will behave. It’s the benefit of 16 years of married life without the inevitable fights over dishes. (Hi honey!)

In the original Star Trek, Spock’s ability to bond like this lets him connect with a madness-inducing alien in a box, an inmate in an asylum, a nesting lavabeast, and Dr. McCoy. He’s able to understand things best left unspoken. Even in the 24th century, mind-reading your coworkers can get awkward.


Proven Honesty

Your own Veritaserum without the hassle of a potion. Even better, you don’t have to worry about whether your words conveyed your intention. It’s like someone rewrites the words you say into exactly what you meant. See above, and the many fan-fic stories about what Spock and Kirk want to tell each other. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, the Shing defy this usual telepathic standard; they’re able to mindlie. This deception is almost unimaginable to ordinary telepaths, and therefore they struggle to defend against the Shing.


Distant Speaking

This was more of a fantasy before cell phones, back when I was a teenager. Mom would head out for groceries and I’d be starving and would literally DIE if she didn’t get back soon. It was a common fate for teenagers in the era to lose their life to dramatics. Anyway, while cell phones solve this to some degree, they don’t work everywhere, plus they can be tracked.

Most notably, when superheroes are smashing up a city, cell reception can be wonky. Pretty useful for Professor Xavier to be able to telepathically coordinate the X-Men from afar. Fewer explosions and so forth. In the previous example of the Shing, telepathy helps them control their distant empire. They effectively subdue dozens of planets which cannot defend well against them.


 You Just Know

How soothing, to realize you won’t make mistakes! No fear of rejection or surprise. You know whether to ask the cute person you just met on a date. You know whether your boss is lying to you about layoffs and you make plans accordingly. Secret, reliable information guides your decisions. Almost as effectively as time travel, you can make money by winning bets, profiting from the stock market, and all sorts of things.

The Doctor, who sometimes demonstrates telepathy, is notorious for Just Knowing things (it’s practically his whole idiom). The TARDIS has telepathic circuits that translate language as needed. Very useful when one encounters improbable species on a near-daily basis. In “The Big Bang,” the Eleventh Doctor leaves a telepathic message in Amy’s mind so she’ll know what to do when she wakes up 2,000 years later. Like I said: useful. Telepathy: a great gift for that person on your list who has everything else.


So, when it comes to telepathy? Of course law enforcement would shut this down. There’s nothing the state hates more than rogue actors it can’t monitor or control. Don’t get me wrong, the power establishment would benefit from telepaths on their side. Think of the power a psychic detective would have—not just in solving cases, but in bypassing due process and framing innocent people. But telepathy can be massively powerful—and hard for non-telepaths to beat. That danger alone is enough to make some people want to wipe telepathy off the earth.

The best thing about telepathy is the same as any classic power: you’re special. You’re different. You can do something no one else can. And that’s appealing. But in truth, few people have such easy, obvious talents. And even those who do may not see benefit from them; even with hard work, sometimes talent goes unnoticed.

More to the point–even if you did have telepathy, it wouldn’t be enough on its own. You’d need hard work to make ethical use of the talent. Evil is easy; it’s thoughtless and indifferent. Doing good is much harder, regardless of your talents.

But you knew that before I said it.

Vylar Kaftan won a Nebula for her alternate history novella The Weight of the Sunrise. She’s published about 50 short stories in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other places. She lives in the Bay Area.


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