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[GUEST POST] Jeff Somers (AVERY CATES) on Psionics and Science Fiction

Jeff Somers was first sighted in Jersey City, New Jersey after the destruction of a classified government installation in the early 1970s; the area in question is still too radioactive to go near. When asked about this, he will only say that he regrets nothing. He is the author of Lifers, the Avery Cates series from Orbit Books, Chum from Tyrus Books, and the Ustari Cycle from Pocket/Gallery, including We Are Not Good People.

Jeff’s published over thirty short stories as well; his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris and his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He survives on the nickels and quarters he regularly finds behind his ears, his guitar playing is a plague upon his household, and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices, but this is only half true. He has published his own zine, The Inner Swine since 1995, once in print and now in digital format only. A few hardy fools still read that rag, believe it or not. So can you! Today, he makes beer money by writing amazing things for various people. Favorite whiskey: Glenmorangie 10 Year. Yes, it is acceptable to pay me in it.

Point at the Things I Wish to Command: Psionics and Sci-Fi

by Jeff Somers

Having grown up on a steady diet of underage drinking, Saturday Morning Cartoons, and cheap paperbacks, I have a decidedly elastic view of genre divisions. Which serves me well when I sit down to write a book and then ruins me when I attempt to sell a book, because the world still respects genre divisions and no matter how many new genres they invent—Young adult! Middle grade! Science Fantasy! Urban Fantasy! Cli Fi!—the chances that my agent is patiently explaining to me that the novel I want her to sell doesn’t quite fit into any specific one is pretty much 100%.

Even when I do write pretty clearly in a specific genre, I get into trouble. My Avery Cates novels are pretty solidly Science Fiction, sometimes crammed into the pseudo-genre of Cyberpunk. They’re set in an unspecified future, concern concepts like cyborg technology, immortality via brain digitization, and the ability of one determinedly cranky man to destroy the world entire. And yet, despite what I think is a pretty clear Sci Fi pedigree, I do get complaints about the Cates series for one specific reason (well, to be fair my wife The Duchess often complains that there’s no romance, a complaint I ruthlessly ignore on the simple premise that when dodging bullets and fighting murderous cyborgs at the end of the world, romance is probably no one’s number one priority):
The presence of psionic powers.

Good Enough for Soft Sci-Fi

As the TV Tropes page on psychic powers says, “Telepathy, clairvoyance, pyrokinesis—the powers are supernatural, but the names are scientific, which is good enough for soft Sci-Fi.” This sort of disdain is the top layer of a debate that’s been raging for decades about whether or not a story can have psychic powers and still be considered Science Fiction as opposed to Fantasy. The argument is simple: There is absolutely no evidence that supports psychic powers of any kind being possible, and without at least the real-world scientific possibility, they’re essentially magic powers. Which makes your story a Fantasy, thanks for playing, you might as well shove a bearded wizard in there and start reading Wikipedia articles about broadswords.

Anyway, I started thinking about all this recently because I’ve been writing and publishing digital-only short stories set in the Avery Cates universe, and in that universe (from the very beginning) there are psionic (er, psychic) powers. In fact, the new short stories (beginning with The Shattered Gears and eventually comprising six self-contained sections which will be combined into a novel) take place in a civilization long past collapse, as the human race is staggering towards extinction. The psionics in these stories are actively seeking the end of the world in a pseudo-religious mania, and these powers play a huge role in the story. And despite the fact that these powers do in fact resemble magical abilities, I say my books are Science Fiction, and if you think I’m going to be quoting Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction in this essay than you are either very smart or you are a psionic actively reading my mind as I sit here and I would like to be the first to pledge my life to you, my new Psionic Overlord.

 

Sufficiently Advanced

We all know Clarke’s Third Law of prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I would argue that the inverse holds true as well: If something seems like magic, the chances that it is in fact a sufficiently advanced technology are pretty strong. Let’s all agree to call this The Somers Inverse and start using that on social media everywhere so I can become famous.

I’ll go one further: You may have heard of the Turing Paradox in Quantum Physics, which states that an unstable particle, if observed steadily, will never decay, which is a very complex way of saying a watched pot will literally never boil. Guess what? This has been confirmed by actual scientists and basically sounds like magic to me and, I suspect, you, although knowing you you’ll pretend to totally understand all this and smugly tell me that I’ll get it someday and then refuse to explain yourself while smiling at me until I storm off in a rage.
But, if we live in a universe where the quantum state of a particle won’t change while being observed—sort of like when I get caught dancing around naked in my house and stand very, very still until everyone leaves in hopes that no one can see me—then nothing makes sense and science is a lie and why can’t psionic powers be a real scientific possibility?

The rabbit hole for arguments about what’s allowed or not allowed in a creative medium can become quite deep, and at the bottom is madness and quite possibly some very unhappy rabbits, but mainly madness. Let’s just agree that with science being all crazy, psionic powers are perfectly acceptable in a Science Fiction story and then you buy me some very expensive cocktails, okay? Okay.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jeff Somers (AVERY CATES) on Psionics and Science Fiction

  1. You can go back to the wonderful stories by Mark Clifton, published in ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION in the Fifties to see teleportation and psionics in use as important plot elements. ASF didn’t run any fantasy, by the way. The power of the mind to communicate, move and transform has been in SF for longer than that. We’re talking a SF element, not fantasy.

  2. I think the acceptability of psionics depends on the way you write them: if you describe them in terms that bring up memories of J.B. Rhine (or, contra R.K. Robinson, older SF) then people will say “that’s discredited”; but make them fit in wirh the style of your own future world, then, yeah, Clarke’s Law.

  3. “…then nothing makes sense and science is a lie and why can’t psionic powers be a real scientific possibility?” Is an perfect rationale, and one I do not use. However, psi “magic” in the future is probably “science,” so in an imagined “future,” all bets are off, especially when aliens enter the picture, regarding what “powers” are “possible” for humans (and other animals) to display/acquire/refine.

    For my characters in “The Spanners Series,” latent and nascent psi powers are trainable and improvable and become an integral part of the ways humans and many animals interact with one another and their environment due to the awakening of these powers by the acknowledged presence of aliens who use psi as a matter of everyday life.

    Best to you all,

    Sally

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