Folklorist and occultist notions of power have been with us for centuries.
Had Isaac Newton not been inspired by the occult concept of action at a distance, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. Newton’s use of the occult forces of attraction and repulsion between particles, influenced British economist, John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton’s writings on alchemy, to suggest that, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: he was the last of the magicians.”
The study of the occult, usually meaning ‘knowledge of the paranormal’, as opposed to ‘knowledge of the measurable’, is associated with hidden wisdom. For the occultist, such as Newton, it is the study of ‘truth’, a deeper and more profound truth that lies beneath the surface.
Much science fiction has been written about this sense of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences. And for many writers, re-discovered powers based upon such a hidden reality might be developed in the course of man’s future evolution.
Psi Powers is the name given to the full spectrum of mental powers, which are an assumed element of this hidden reality. The name stems from the study of the pseudo-science of parapsychology, and is a widely used term in the science fiction tradition.
The term was particularly prominent during the ‘psi boom’ that John W Campbell Jr promoted in Astounding Science Fiction magazine during the early 1950s.
Indeed, a related term, psionics, a term derived from combining the psi, signifying parapsychology, with electronics, arose in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Again, Campbell was key. Psionics revolved around the application of electronics to psychical research.
An early such instrument was the Hieronymous Machine. Ostensibly the invention of Dr Thomas Galen Hieronymous, but promoted widely by Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction editorials, Hieronymus Machines were mock-ups of real machines. They allegedly worked by analogy or symbolism, and directed by Psi Powers.
For example, one could create a receiver, or similar device, of prisms and vacuum tubes, but instead using cardboard or even schematic representations. Cheaper too. Through the use of Psi Powers, such a machine would function as would the ‘real’ equivalent. Campbell claimed that such machines actually did perform this way. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the concept was never taken seriously elsewhere.
Still, science fiction writers speculated on a future where man would harness such mental capabilities.
Typical is Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). The first dawning of a space age suddenly aborts when enormous alien spaceships one day appear above all of the Earth’s major cities. The aliens, the Overlords, quickly end the arms race and colonialism.
After one hundred years, human children start displaying Psi Powers. They develop telepathy and telekinesis. They become distant from their parents. The Overlords purpose on Earth is finally revealed. They are in service to the Overmind, an amorphous extraterrestrial being of pure energy. The Overlords are charged with the duty of fostering humanity’s transition to a higher plane of existence and merger with the Overmind.
Interestingly, in the preface of a 1990 reprint and partial re-write of Childhood’s End, Clarke attempted to unravel pseudoscience from his extraterrestrial message, “I would be greatly distressed if this book contributed still further to the seduction of the gullible, now cynically exploited by all the media. Bookstores, news-stands and airwaves are all polluted with mind-rotting bilge about UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, pyramid energies.”
But Clarke believes in a future where man will nonetheless meet his superiors in space, “the idea that we are the only intelligent creatures in a cosmos of a hundred billion galaxies is so preposterous that there are very few astronomers today who would take it seriously. It is safest to assume, therefore, that They are out there and to consider the manner in which this fact may impinge upon human society.”