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Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Je...

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Jean-Luc Picard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier, I posted on the difference between the terms “telepathy” and “mind reading” as they relate to si-fi and fantasy.  And then the author of one of my favorite books responded, and that was amazing.  I’d never really thought about how some authors actually pay attention to what you write about them.  And of course, that just reminded me once again how important it is to always say nice things about people you like when you’re online, because there are no “private thoughts” on the internet.

Which brings me to my topic for the day, the continuation of my musings about the difficulties of writing about telepathy.  What makes the difference between a public thought (one that people other than the thinker are aware of) and a private thought that only the actual thinker can know?  Do the telepaths just imagine other people being able to hear them and then suddenly they can?  That seems convenient  but then again, it’s not that different from what we do in real life.  I think “at” other people sometimes (“Hey buddy, you’re in the middle of two lanes.  Are you gonna move over?”  “Sweetie, you are wearing WAY too much make-up right now.”) but so far, I don’t think they’ve heard me yet.  At least, I hope not.

The trouble is, I can’t see that there’s any way to take one particular thought and label it as the one other people should be able to hear.  Maybe that’s why I’m not telepathic.  But as far as I know there are only two kinds of thoughts, the subconscious ones that you’re not really aware of, and the conscious ones that you actually use to try to get things done in your head.  And if, in a fictional world, the distinction is based on subconscious vs. conscious thoughts, then all the characters in the story world are going to be in trouble, because if they can hear each other’s conscious thoughts, then they know each other as well as they know themselves, and if it’s the subconscious thoughts they can hear, then they know each other even better.

But what’s so bad though, you may ask, about writing about a society in which the characters know each other’s thoughts all the time?  Nothing really, except that it would be kind of boring to write about.  There would be no misunderstandings, no conflicts for very long (because people who experienced each other’s pain telepathically would soon realize it was in everybody’s interest to come to a compromise), no secrets, no lies, and probably no reason for people to think of themselves as individuals.  After all, if you’re as aware of everybody else’s thoughts as you are of your own, you’re probably much more likely to feel like a part of the societal whole rather than just a separate thing.

So writing, or reading, about a telepathic culture where people shared everything would be a lot like reading about one person who lived all alone and never interacted with anybody else, or worse, about that person’s cells interacting as they performed bodily functions.  Since that’s what individuals in the telepathic hive would be, essentially.  Cells.  It’s like the Borg, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  There’s a reason we never get to see them onscreen unless there’s a non-Borg in the room with them.  They’re only interesting when they interact with individuals in other cultures, not with each other.

So the question is, when you write a story about telepathy, how do you leave the characters a private thought space where they can still be themselves?  Here are a few of my ideas.

Deanna Troi

Deanna Troi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. The telepathy is more about emotions than it is about actual thoughts.  Then you have characters like Deanna Troi, also from Next Generation, but who, unlike the Borg, can be mistaken about her shipmates.  Since she can only sense emotions, she knows when someone is lying, or trying to hide something, but she can’t tell for sure what the thoughts behind the emotions are, which makes her capable of functioning as an individual rather than as a mere receptacle for other people’s thoughts.

2. The technologically enabled telepathy can be controlled, or even switched off.  In H+: The Digital Series, which is on YouTube right now, people connect to the internet directly through their brains.  This means that they can send information directly from head to head if they want to, but putting their thoughts “online” is still a choice (hopefully) thanks to the mind/computer interface they have.  Furthermore, it appears that if they want to they can switch their internet connection off entirely, thereby shutting themselves off from other people.  (Note: I have not see the whole series, so I may be wrong about how the technology works.  If so, please forgive me.  I’m only speaking of this by way of illustration.) In any case, this is an example of how members of a telepathic society could maintain their individuality. *

3. The telepaths are spread out.  A story about a society in which the most of the members experience each other’s thoughts as we do, but a few of them do not, could be fascinating   For example, if you had an otherwise normal society with a few mind readers sprinkled throughout, the mind readers themselves might have a tough time maintaining their individuality, particularly when they bumped into each other, but everybody else would be fine.

4. Telepathy requires a special state of mind.  Maybe the key to a telepathic connection is some deep emotional bond that normal people don’t have, one that could be turned on and off with a little bit of work.  That would let people be telepathic when they wanted to be, but otherwise not.

5. Telepathy requires that the people be actually physically touching each other.  This one’s self-explanatory, I hope.

Anyway, those are a few possible methods for writers to avoid assimilating their telepaths into the Borg collective.  If you have any other thoughts or examples on how to set private and public thoughts apart in fiction, feel free to comment (at the top of the page).  But just remember that, when it comes to keeping your individuality in a telepathic world, “Resistance is NOT futile.”

* Update.  I have now watched more of the H+ series.  I usually try to avoid connecting people to “mature” stuff, so let me just add here that if the YouTube episodes were broadcasts the content of Episode 3 might be rated PG-13 for sensuality and the content of Episode 10 would be rated R for language.  Episode 10 is skip-able though (all the new information you get in it seems to be re-capped later on).