Telepaths in Hard Science Fiction?
My NaNoWriMo 2017 novel, Lit By Another Star, features a telepath as the main point of view character. It also claims to be hard science fiction. How can this be? Aren’t Telepaths magic rather than science, shouldn’t it be a fantasy story?
That’s a good question, and I’m glad that you asked. Here’s my take on it. Let’s remember Clarke’s Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Defining Hardness in Science Fiction
Hard science fiction requires that there’s a sound explanation in our current understanding of the universe for the story. We don’t have to have exploited that science yet, and there can be an element of handwavium provided the results are consistent with science as we currently understand it.
The hardness of science fiction is a scalar thing rather than absolute. Too hard makes it either dull or contemporary or both. Too soft and you end up in the fantasy category. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, I enjoy fantasy as much as hard SF. You just want to give a credible pointer to your potential audience so that they know what they will be getting when they choose to read your story.
Telepaths as Science
What could be the scientific basis for Telepaths existing? The brain is electrochemical, and it is possible to pick up electric activity in the brain with external sensors. Research has been looking at how to use this to help paraplegics control wheelchairs and for fast jet pilots to control aircraft.
That research has shown that we can tell what certain thoughts look like from the electrical patterns. More so, we can do it reliably enough to use it for feedback on devices. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/long-fuse-big-bang/201503/mental-telepathy-is-real
External detection of brainwaves
Let’s take a couple of small steps. Let’s say that the level of externally detectable signal varies from person to person. So far the technology has advanced from needing to shave someone’s skull to having pickups built into a helmet. Mostly this is to do with us being better able to produce technology that can measure increasingly smaller signals. It’s also got a component in noise reduction and signal processing.
These are things that exist in nature. Take sharks for instance. They use extremely sensitive electroreception detection to ‘see’ through murky water. Imagine a human had a similar ability, but tuned to human brainwaves. It’d have to be pretty rare or we’d already know about it.
What would the experience of one of these rare Telepaths be like? It’d start in the same vein as speech. Chances are they’d be aware of emotional states of those near them before they could talk, maybe before they were born.
Telepaths wouldn’t get any recognition that others could sense their thoughts unless they were lucky enough to meet another telepath. They’d just come across as unusually perceptive. Some might stumble into better accuracy, reading thoughts as words or images. Depending on the company they keep this might be easy to deal with. Or it might drive them over the edge, especially in a densely packed environment where they can hear many people thinking. Getting in a crowded lift, or on a busy tube train could be a cacophony of others.
Story Implications of Telepaths
I must admit that I’ve found it quite hard to write my Telepaths properly. In fact I think it will probably be a couple more edits before I get them close enough to feel comfortable. That’s one of the reasons I’ve got many unpublished parts on the wattpad version of Lit By Another Star.
What I found was that there need to be rules to how telepaths work and limits to their potential for omniscience. I also gave them some social conventions to work with too. This helps to limit their ability to ruin plot by picking things out of people’s heads.