All In The Mind

Wondering where reality starts. Published by Sphere Books 1968. Cover illustration by Russell Fitzgerald

We hear so much about the obstacles to long-distance manned spaceflight these days – medical, technical or operational – that we might be forgiven for thinking that it will never happen.  But even if those difficulties prove to be insurmountable, the drive to explore the cosmos is unlikely to fade.

There is nothing new about this.  In his 1961 novel Time is the Simplest Thing, the science fiction author Clifford Simak envisaged a future where the dangers posed by cosmic radiation are so severe that a form of psychic projection is the only effective method of travelling to other planets.  The idea of so-called astral projection has been around since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, when it was believed that the soul had the ability to exist outside of the physical body, and to observe it externally.  Some even think that advanced practitioners of yoga today could have this same skill.

But in the context of science fiction, the concept can take on a more scientific basis, controlled under strict conditions which allow the participant to direct the course of the journey and report back on what is observed.  Needless to say, conspiracy theorists see ample opportunity to suggest that our governments are already conducting such research, and possibly even carrying out exercises to assess the benefits – the possible advantages to the military almost go without saying.

In their 1999 book The Stargate Conspiracy, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince suggested, amongst other claims, that Western intelligence agencies have organised “remote viewing” of other planets such as Mars using paranormal techniques.  Indeed, the US government’s Stargate project spent several years looking into the potential for psychic spying using such methods, though its termination in the mid-1990s seems to confirm that it didn’t make as much progress as may have been hoped.

Of course, a little help from advanced aliens, who might well have considerably more experience of such matters, would be of undoubted benefit, as shown in Julian May’s Galactic Milieu science fiction series.  In those novels, the various “metapsychic” abilities of certain humans, including that of farsensing – a form of remote viewing of great significance to the powers-that-be – are given a considerable boost once alien races who have long possessed such powers come on the scene.

Or it might be that extraterrestrials actually control humanity’s use of such an exotic form of travel.  Samuel R Delany described this in his Fall of the Towers trilogy in the 1960s.  The threat posed to our universe by a force of evil which has no physical substance requires selected humans to project their minds into a variety of alien beings on other worlds to do battle with the Lord of the Flames.  The range of experiences which they encounter would be enough to unhinge any ordinary mortal – they find themselves existing in forms which vary from giant worms burrowing through the ground to beings which seem to be kinds of mathematical oscillations inside a star.

But inevitably anyone carrying out such an exercise would question whether it could really be happening.  After all, this is not physical travel, but effectively all in the mind – to what extent could the participant separate delusion from reality?  In The Towers of Toron, the second volume in Delany’s trilogy, the hero asks: “Every time we exorcise the Lord of the Flames and suddenly go hopping around the universe, I wonder…whether this whole thing isn’t a psychotic fantasy after all.”

There lies the core of the problem.  No-one, including the travellers themselves, can be sure whether what is perceived is real or hallucination.  To anyone else, they might be making the whole thing up.  Projecting minds across the cosmos is likely to conclude the same way as the Stargate project – the validity of remote viewing was never proved.  But any journey in the imagination can be interesting.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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