As a reader, I really enjoy books that employ telepathy in some form. I mean, as a kid, who hasn’t imagined themselves talking to someone with their freaking mind? Naturally, as I grew older, I consumed more books, TV shows, and movies, and was exposed to new, subtler forms of telepathic communication. I gamed a lot, too. Plenty of tabletop stuff, but also a ton of RPGs, some of which had rules and character classes built around telepathic powers. (Shout out to my fellow Rolemaster/Space Master GMs!) Half the fun of consuming that type of media and playing those types of games was seeing (and even experiencing through the RPGs) the ingenious ways telepathy was employed.
Speaking as a writer, telepathy can be a real siren song. Writing a story with characters a continent apart? It can be really tempting to introduce telepathic communication of some sort to bridge that gap. Otherwise, it’s what? Months of travel by horse? Message by raven? I don’t mean to imply my books are chock full of telepaths—they aren’t—but I’ve definitely succumbed to the siren’s call from time to time.
Take Absynth, my new decopunk novel set in a reimagined Roaring 20’s Chicago. The book’s main character is Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive war vet who took part in a military experiment during the Great War that allowed his squad of him, the Devil’s Henchmen, to communicate telepathically. I did not want to focus on that part of his life early on in the story, however. I wanted his memories of him, and his powers of him, to accrue over time. So it is that when we meet Liam, he has amnesia, only, rather curiously, the memory loss is limited to the time he spent with the Devil’s Henchmen during the war.
That Liam’s amnesia isn’t complete introduces the mystery of its underlying cause. It soon becomes clear that his amnesia for him is almost certainly not due to the head wound he suffered near war’s end, as Liam has always assumed, but to something much more sinister. (Pulling back the kimono a bit, Liam’s amnesia is a small nod to Roger Zelazny and Corwin, the main character in Nine Princes in Amber, one of my favorite books of all-time.)
As Absynthe progresses, Liam’s time in the Devil’s Henchmen and the real reason behind his amnesia are slowly revealed. That evolution goes hand in hand with Liam’s regaining his telepathic powers, which gives him and his newfound allies hope in stopping the government’s horrific plans for the country.
I hope you’ll give Absynth to spin. I think you’ll enjoy it. In the meantime, here are five other books that make interesting use of telepathy:
The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey
A classic, particularly in terms of human-to-animal communication, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series begins with Dragonflight. The planet of Pern is home to telepathic dragons that are bred and used to combat the deadly Threads that once fell with regularity on their far-flung world. But it’s been over 400 years since the last Threadfall, and many people are beginning to doubt they will ever return.
Enter F’lar, a boy telepathically bonded to Mnementh, a powerful bronze dragon. F’lar must help convince the populace that the Red Star is nearing once again and that Threadfall is imminent. I loved the book when I read it as a teen, but I especially liked how McCaffrey treated the bonds between the dragons and their riders. I can still recall F’lar’s opening scene, where he emerged from the between on Mnement along with his wingmen from him on their own dragons. The way F’lar and Mnementh communicated was remarkable due to the way the narration downplayed the mechanics of their mental link. It didn’t have to be explained. It simply was. Less was certainly more, in this case.
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
I love the concept of The Lives of Tao. Roen, an out-of-shape IT dude, discovers he has a stowaway passenger inside his brain from him: an ancient alien life-form called Tao. After crash-landing on Earth, the alien race known as the Quasings split into two factions: the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix. Roen soon finds himself caught up in the Quasings’ endless civil war. With the help of his stowaway, Tao, Roen must train to become the ultimate secret agent before the Genjix defeat the Prophus once and for all.
Is the relationship Roen has with Tao telepathy, strictly speaking? Yeah, I think it is. Even though Tao resides inside of Roen, the two sharing the same physical body, their minds are distinct. More importantly, it’s just plain fun and hilarious watching Roen deal with this ancient creature inside his head, even as he struggles to save himself and the world.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
In Ancillary Justice, Breq was once the Justice of Toren, a starship with an artificial intelligence that linked thousands of soldiers together—a hivemind, in essence, with Breq at its core. It was a mesmerizing experience entering Breq’s world and getting glimpses of the life it once led, linking so many in service of the Radtch Empire and its unquenchable thirst for expansion.
the way Ancillary Justice addresses the notions of empire and the costs of war and domination was masterful, but my favorite part was Leckie’s take on an AI navigating the world of humanity after leading a very different life as a starship. The “telepathy” in Ancillary Justice is more like networked data communication, a neural network of sorts, but it still certainly qualifies. It’s an excellent read and one I highly recommend.
“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
While I don’t think Chiang’s brilliant novella fits neatly into the telepathic communication bucket, I mention it because I found (and still find) the blossoming of the main character’s fascinating abilities. In essence, the main character, Dr. Louise Banks, is a linguist who’s called in to help decipher messages from alien ships that have landed on Earth. Through her research she comes to understand the alien language, which is not only elegant and complex but holds the key to the perception of time. When fully submerged in it, Louise finds herself able to perceive her entire life, from birth to death. In this way, Louise is able to relay to her own daughter from her the “story of your life.”
Brilliant and mind-blowing, “Story of Your Life” is a true gem in the sci-fi landscape. Why do I lump it in with telepathy, though? Because Louis is able, in essence, to communicate with the infinite versions of herself across time. She isn’t speaking telepathically in the traditional sense, but communication (the basic purpose of telepathy) is certainly occurring.
The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson
Set in the year 2066, Rosewater is a Nigerian town on the edge of a mysterious alien biodome. The biodome occasionally opens, “healing” groups of humans in strange, unpredictable, and sometimes horrific ways, leading to brutal and tragic “cleansings” on the part of the surviving security forces. The dome also creates “sensitives,” humans who gain telepathic powers, allowing them to manipulate the minds of others, or tap into the xenosphere, a dreamlike place of shared consciousness.
On the surface, our main character, Kaaro, is a finder, a sensitive who immerses himself in the xenosphere then uses his altered state of mind to prevent telepathic attacks on the employees of the bank he works for. Kaaro finds this work dull and has another life entirely. Despite his checkered past of him, he works for a secret government agency that keeps tabs on Rosewater, the biodome, and those who seek to use it for ill gains. When other sensitives mysteriously start dying, Kaaro’s role in the agency becomes more important, and much more personal for Kaaro himself. It’s a heady mixture, told with a noir flare, and I can’t wait to see where Thompson takes the story next.
Brendan Bellecourt was raised in the cold climes of rural Wisconsin, where he lives still with his family and trio of cats. His love of science fiction was sparked early by Frank Herbert’s Dune and CJ Cherryh’s Faded Sun Trilogy. Later influences include Robert Charles Wilson, Ted Chiang, and China Miéville. His favorite stories of him are those with flawed protagonists who are deeply affected by, and later come to influence, some jaw-dropping, world-altering change.