|Alfred Bester, Psi Cop of Babylon 5, played by Walter Koenig.|
Of all the powers of the supernatural, the bizarre, and the unknown, psionics is one of the few that has carved itself a secure niche in the worlds of science fiction rather than fantasy. Its most common subtypes: telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and empathy, feature often and dramatically in some of the most famous examples of the genre from Star Trek to X-Men to Alfred Bester’s numerous works. But science fiction rarely, if ever, provides a scientific explanation for how these abilities work. Is this perhaps because psionics provides the same function for science fiction as magic does for fantasy?
Beyond the trappings of spaceships, robots, aliens, elves, castles, and dragons, the most distinctive definer between science fiction and fantasy is from what they draw their universal rules. Science fiction tries, whether soft or hard, to build its universes upon scientific principles either currently extant or within the realm of theory. Fantasy relies on magic to fill the gaps where it breaks physics, chemistry, biology, and perceivable logic. Psionics also often breaks these rules; where then does it fit?
Somehow, psionics has fallen amidst the science fiction side of the spectrum. But why? Usually, genetics is provided as an explanation for its possession when an explanation is given at all. But this hardly accounts for defining how it works in scientific terms. At best, scientific theory is used when explaining how the power is blocked or controlled, with a drug for example. But how is that different from a plant, a location, an artifact, or some other influence hindering magic? And doesn’t magic frequently follow genetic lines? In fantasy, though, the term is usually bloodlines or inheritance.
Does psionics cling to its place within science fiction because it comes from the discipline of the mind? Yet this doesn’t hold up either. Magic derived from will or complex study and memorization, such as found in role-playing fiction, also comes from the mind. Therefore, psionics and magic blur and become indistinguishable.
Then, perhaps, is psionics simply the science fiction term for magic? After all, even in the real world, the unexplainable occurs. In fiction, this unexplainable must hold even greater significance for the purpose of story and entertainment. In speculative fiction, a need or desire exists for something mystical, awe-inspiring, or mysterious. In fantasy, this is often magic. Science seeks to disprove magic; therefore, a new term is needed to represent a similar function or element in science fiction: psionics.
Fantasy appears more accepting of psionic abilities as magic than science fiction seems willing to accept magic in its ranks. Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds use what can only be described as psionics, yet the series sits proudly in the fantasy category. Science fiction, on the other hand, likes to dismiss the underpinnings of magic and attribute the illusion to logical, straightforward, scientific parts. Is then psionics science fiction’s way of incorporating magic while avoiding the shading of fantasy?
What place do you think psionics fills in science fiction? Is it more science or magic? Why?