Usually when people think of science fiction, it is a rule-based setting. Near future, far future, alternate past – the “what if” of a good science fiction novel usually sticks with what could be, if things develop according to the way society is trending and the rules of science allow. But what then do you do with science fiction that adds in something fantastical? For my purposes you get a Science Fiction/Fantasy blend.
Psychic powers are one of the most common fantasy elements that get added to what can otherwise be straightforward science fiction. There is no scientific basis (at this time!) for psychic powers. No proof that they exist or could exist, or would exist if the conditions were right. But they are irresistible to authors in many genres. Some even bother to walk through scientific example of why the powers manifest. But really, they’re just cool. The great thing about genre blends is that authors feel free to borrow whatever cool bits they like from other genres. It’s a big part of why I like blends. So with no further ado, here are some great examples of SF with psychic powers
Start with: Foundation
Asimov’s classic series is the story of a galactic empire in decline. Hari Sheldon is the inventor of psychohistory, the ability to see the future through the use of history, psychology and statistics. He foresees the end of society and brings together humanity’s greatest thinkers to create a safe hold, a foundation at the edge of the galaxy. But that’s not even the psychic part! There is a character of Mule, whose ability to control others through their emotions makes him a dangerous man, and a threat to Hari’s plans. There’s some other psychic stuff running through the series, but none of this makes it any less of a classic of the science fiction genre.
Start with: The Bloody Sun
People have been arguing about the Darkover series since it was first published. SF or fantasy? There are also quite a few arguments over whether it is worth reading. The quality of the series is really, really all over the place. I loved the books as a teen but see their flaws quite clearly as an adult. But somehow I have fond feelings for them, and their cray-cray sf/fantasy weirdness. On the one hand, some of the volumes have a completely fantasy feel, with a feudal society where the aristocracy have psychic powers. Best examples for those books are HawkMistress! or StormQueen! (or as I think of them – the exclamation point books!). But The Bloody Sun is a better example of the books that deal with this feudal, psychic society’s clash with earth, which has a much more SF feel. MZB gives a semi-scientific example for her psychic powers in these later volumes.
Start with: Dune
Hmm… how to talk about the psychic woo-woo stuff in Dune without giving too much away? I fully admit to bouncing off Dune hard when I first tried to read it, as it starts with a very dry explanation of galactic politics. But once you get on the planet of Dune, and our young hero Paul starts to take his place in destiny, it starts to really work. In the series, one of the galaxy’s master manipulators is a group known as the Bene Gesserit. Through a combo of long-game genetic manipulation and the use of the mysterious Spice, found only on Arrakis, they have developed a whole range of psychic powers, especially telepathy and precognition. Oh, and the basis of interstellar travel has a psychic element as well, as the navigators use Spice to put themselves into a weird state that allows faster-than-light travel.
Start with: The Many-Colored Land
In the Pliocene Exile books, a man from the future (just looked it up 2034 – not too future now!) discovers a portal to the past of six million years ago. Ever since, certain disaffected mavericks have made the one-way journey to the presumed peaceful and idyllic era. The first book follows a group that make the trip from 2110 to the Pliocene, only to find two warring humanoid but alien races already living there. Both races have paranormal powers, and the humans find themselves drawn into the conflict between them. The psychic powers are not alien-specific, though. As you read the whole series the set-up is that humanity, as a species, has been developing ESP powers as well. Some of the exiles who chose to jump to the past do so because they feel out of step with the new galactic mind. It’s been decades since I read these books, but I really enjoyed them.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man is a classic of the SF genre. Everyone in the future society written about here has psychic powers – it’s just a matter of how much. The story revolves around a man who is determined to kill a business rival, but how do you commit murder in a society of telepaths? This clever SF/Mystery blend won the Hugo in 1953, and has some obvious noir influences. Bester also dabbled in psychic powers for his novel The Stars My Destination (a book that inspired the name of the SFF bookstore I spent many a happy hour in when I lived in Chicago in the late 1980s and 1990s, The Stars Our Destination). That novel hinges on personal teleportation, a skill that is apparently psychically controlled. Both novels feel like SF (Stars is often cited as a precursor to cyberpunk), while skillfully borrowing the fantastical element of psychic abilities,
Start with: The Rowan
Loosely connected to each other and to other McCaffrey books, this first novel in the Tower and Hive series sets up the premise of a future human society where certain individuals with psychic abilities are known as Talents. Rowan survived an alien attack that destroyed her planet and family when she was a young child. She grew up to be a major Talent, known as a “prime”, and worked for the Federal Telepath & Teleport network, which controls all communication and shipping in the galaxy. Her talents set her apart and leave her lonely, until she hears the distant psychic call of fellow-talent Jeff Raven from across space. The two fall and love and fight aliens together. Like you do.
Start with: A Soldier’s Duty
While most of the books on this list are pretty old (I read most as a teen and I am also old), this is a relatively new series, and one that also blends sf and romance, which is a blend of which I am particularly fond. I just started reading it, so I’ll crib from the publisher blurb. “Ia is a precog, tormented by visions of the future where her home galaxy has been devastated. To prevent this vision from coming true, Ia enlists in the Terran United Planets military with a plan to become a soldier who will inspire generations for the next three hundred years-a soldier history will call Bloody Mary.” As I said, I’m reading this one now, but I loved how Ia sees the future, or should I say the many possible futures, sifting through them to try to get the one she needs, the one that doesn’t end in the death of everyone and everything she loves.