Telepathy in fiction

We read a lot of fantasy and speculative fiction around here.  The other day I was reflecting on how the use of telepathy in fiction is HILARIOUS.

Telepathy is SUCH a convenient plot device for a writer.  Want another character to know something?  They’re telepathic!  Want them to NOT know something?  The other person is telepathically shielding!  It’s the greatest dodge ever.

The device is so cheesy, and yet so useful (thinking as a writer).  Broadcast a mental distress call!  Or suddenly get cut off from contact!  Aliens are telepathic.  Or they’re the only ones who aren’t.  They have a hive-mind.  A stranger lands in a strange society.  How to deal with being mind-blind… or being the only one who isn’t.  What is the nature of individuality, of community, of self?  Are there special pair-bonds that let you hear each other?  Is there one-way or two-way or multi-way communication?  Feelings only (telempathy), thoughts only, or both?  Two or more humans?  A human and a magical animal?  So!  Many! Plots!

Sometimes I think it would be fun to be telepathically projecting for a while, but then I realize that would only stir the pot and people would come out with pitchforks.

Readers, we rely on you for amusement and chuckles.  Have you seen this done really well?  What should we read?  Or, have you seen it done ludicrously badly?  Spill!

26 Responses to “Telepathy in fiction”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    My husband is the sci-fi nut, so he could probably comment. Recently I’ve had some creepy telepathic like things happen to me and I just wonder about the interconnectedness of it all. I was crazy busy one day and all of a sudden I felt the overwhelming urge to reach out to a former mentor of mine and tell her that she had a positive impact on me. It had been a couple of years since I spoke to her. She almost immediately wrote back and she was like..oh my god, how did you know I needed this message today of all days? She was going through a tough time at work with one of her staff and it all came to a head on the day I wrote her. It was just what she needed to regain trust in her own instincts. Frickin Freaky… I forget the other example now but it was like that as well. Bizarro.

  2. EMH Says:

    Wait. You can’t read my mind right now?

    I think close relationships have a sense of telepathy or a melding of minds and that is why telepathy is used so often in fiction. We almost feel like it is a super power that we already own but haven’t quite honed. My husband and I won’t talk for hours and yet, I can tell by his body language or the way his eyes look whether or not he had a good day. Okay, tonight I am going to do a Vulcan mind meld on him.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m always surprised when my partner can’t read my mind. (Like yesterday I had to actually ask him to move a laptop so I could put something down. Usually he just knows to do that sort of thing.)

      • Debbie M Says:

        When I got my wisdom teeth out last month and my mouth was numb and I had to keep my teeth closed to keep the gauze in place, I was communicating by writing. My boyfriend of 13 years would try to finish my sentences for me (to save me some writing and speed things up), but surprisingly he usually guessed wrong. Apparently I am quite the original thinker. And/or my face is less expressive when it is drooping with anesthetics.

        I did just read a book with telepathy (_Threshhold_ by David Palmer). Very exciting (though I like his book _Emergence_ a lot more–the main character is a lot more likeable). The main plot development that the telepathy allowed was to mold the thoughts of unsuspecting others (they don’t recognize the invasive thoughts as such), which was especially fun on a pteradactyl-like character. And then later communicating between species as well.

        Back when I wanted to write a novel, I had decided that the aliens would have both a sign language (which everyone would understand) and a telepathic language (which would be less and less understood as you were less and less closely related), and the earth scientist was going to warn the aliens to never let other humans learn about their second language–it was was of their few advantages against our colonizing species. (I also was going to have him teach them they should try to look very cute and endearing so that other earthlings would protest the coming slaughter–it was very difficult to think of a strategy that would help.) (Alas, I suck at thinking up characters and at thinking up plot, so I’ve concluded I would not be a good novelist.)

        I think I did kind of like that movie “What Women Want” a little more than I should have, but then I’m a sucker for character growth.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        telepathic pteradactyl!!!!!!

  3. Foscavista Says:

    Has the sixth sense become to be a modern-day deus ex machina? Interesting.

  4. Linda Says:

    I think the most interesting book I’ve ever read where telepathy was an important plot point was Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Now I have to re-read it!

    I think my dog can read my mind sometimes, although I know she’s just really reading my body language. It’s kind of freaky when she knows I’m upset or sad and she sits down next to me to just be there for me, or when she gets all excited when I put on pants in the morning because she knows we’re going outside.

  5. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I’m always amused by it too. I find the idea absolutely terrifying because my mind is a dark place

  6. MutantSupermodel Says:

    P.S. Do you know any lawyers who are bloggers?

  7. Rented life Says:

    Last book I read would say things about communicating telepathically but never what was said, so I was left assuming it just meant people who were close enough to guess what the other was thinking. In general I like some aspects of the idea, and have an element of it in what I’m writing. But when I think about someone havin free access to my brain it weirds me out. Maybe that’s usually why it’s about a conversation and not openly reading all your thoughts?

  8. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    All Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books have telepathy as a key plot/thematic element. They’re . . . a little cloying yet addictive. I used to like them more than I do now, yet if I pick one up now I still get sucked away into that world.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh that’s right… I think I read a little of those but didn’t go back to them. Thanks for the reminder.

      • C Says:

        oh, Darkover. Telepathy is huge, and they’re very much “of their time” in terms of being written in the 60s, 70s, 80s. But I love them despite some of the datedness (lesbian separatist feminists! WOOHOO!), and they’re quite innovative on gender issues when compared to other “classics” (though on race not so much iirc). When I was smaller I enjoyed Anne McCaffrey’s series that started with The Rowan.

  9. Revanche Says:

    You’re talking to someone whose first forays into reading started with this sort of thing. Hello Professor X and Jean Grey!
    And then I moved on to things from the Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey line. Did I read anything that didn’t include telepathy?? :) Even David Weber’s Honor Harrington used empathy. Hm, as for well or poorly, I’m a terrible judge. I read for enjoyment and these were all entertaining authors.

  10. Jacq Says:

    I’ve read a few mysteries / thrillers that had telepathics. I’m kind of meh about that, it’s sort of ’80’s-ish.
    On a side note, Cal Newport knocked it out of the park today:

  11. chacha1 Says:

    I couldn’t think of a single specific example, although I *know* I’ve read something quite recently that featured telepathic communication. But thanks to Revanche I am reminded of the Anne McCaffrey “wings of pegasus” stories. And THAT reminded me of Julian May’s books on the Pliocene Exile and the Intervention, which I adored and still have.

    I don’t consider that AM or JM used metaphysical abilities as plot devices; I think for those two, the abilities were an essential part of the world-building. But probably I have read other things where such abilities *were* just plot devices. :-) As plot devices go, I’d rather see extraordinary abilities (even if poorly employed by the writer) than sexist tropes such as one finds all too often in romance novels.

    Hmm, this is probably why I am reading a lot less romance these days. :-)

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