Psychiatric Report

BIS Odyssey

Exploring the farthest reaches of the human mind. This edition published by Four Square Books 1964.

Improved physical health and well-being for human beings are, broadly speaking, accepted as the norm these days as amazing advances in medical science appear every day, and fictional projections for the near future imply that this trend will continue.  Well, most of the time.  But we don’t seem to have the same assurance that mental health will be getting better and better, and there are all too many worrying signs that the tendency overall may not be moving in such a positive direction.

The science fiction author Henry Kuttner devoted a significant amount of his writing to considering the future of the human mind, and how ordinary people might react in highly unusual situations.  His stories of the “Hogben hillbillies” demonstrate his sense of humour; this group of mutants have a range of exceptional abilities such as ESP, but don’t think that they’re anything out of the ordinary themselves.  On the other hand, his Mutant from 1949 describes future conflicts between “good” telepaths, “bad” telepaths, ordinary humans and various “freaks” in a post-holocaust world.

Contact with someone who has ESP, or the knowledge that one has such powers oneself, would be bound to affect the mind considerably.  In the 1978 film The Medusa Touch, based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Peter Van Greenaway, the main character, acted with appropriate style by Richard Burton, knows he has vast psychokinetic abilities but recognises the inevitable reaction of psychiatrists to anyone who believes he is different: “delusions, my dear friend, delusions.”

Kuttner’s explorations of the mind are demonstrated well in his anthology Ahead of Time, which received a number of favourable reviews at the time of publication in 1953.  Much of his work after his marriage to CL Moore is known to have been written in collaboration with her, and they produced some exceptional stories together, often under the name of Lewis Padgett.  Their 1945 story Camouflage, which appears in the collection, considers the psychological effects on a brain which has been enclosed in a mechanised environment, questioning whether his humanity ends up slowly slipping away.  The combination of a spaceship and human brain depicted in the story might be a feasible method of enabling long-distance space travel, as Anne McCaffrey described in her 1969 novel The Ship Who Sang and as I discussed in a previous post, Going into Chimp Mode.

Involvement with aliens, and often superior, intelligence is a frequent theme in Kuttner and Moore’s stories.  In their 1953 short story A Wild Surmise, an Earthling exchanges minds with a Martian psychiatrist.  However, their 1943 masterpiece Mimsy Were The Borogoves has the underlying theme that any immensely superior intelligence will always be obscure to normal human minds.

Ahead of Time also includes the classic Or Else, which portrays the human race’s inability to break free from its preconceived ideas when a peace-loving alien arrives on Earth to encourage people, in this case, two feuding farmers, to settle their differences and live in peace.  A different, and far more disturbing, instance of first contact takes place in the unforgettable De Profundis; a man is regularly contacted by telepathic aliens – or are they the delusions of a schizophrenic with a long psychotic history who is imprisoned in a sanatorium?  As the patient says, “the gyroscope of my mind is oscillating wildly”, which is surely the response many would have to such a momentous event.

Now, we can easily convince ourselves that each of these future scenarios – enhanced human abilities, human-machine connections, alien contact, or whatever – is highly unlikely to occur in reality, so we can dismiss them as the fiction that they are.  But what we can be fairly certain about is that the rate of change is getting ever faster, and there will be consequences – possibly serious – for the way we see the world.  Being prepared for the effects on the human mind will be essential.

 


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Prisons in the Mind| The Fear of Space

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