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Friday, December 10, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 12/10/10

With no forewarning or hoopla, The Friday Challenge returns. In fact, it backs cautiously into view, with a small bell on the rear axle dinging: realistically, are you going to be in the mood to finish up and submit an entry on New Year's Eve?

Me neither. So let's begin with a discussion: I'm thinking the deadline for this one should be Thursday, January 6, 2011, although I also think a case can be made for pushing it out to January 13. Your thoughts, comments, and suggestions?

While we're at it, we still have yet to come up with a replacement for drop.io. I've heard good things about dropbox.com but as a rule distrust any site that wants to force me to download a binary. Do any of you have any experience with it, or any alternative suggestions?

Now, as regards the challenge itself: in my few spare moments lately, I've been thinking seriously about telepathy. It's one of the grand old tropes of the field; in fact, it dates back to well before the beginnings of the genre itself, back into the primitive days of the 19th century, when phrenology, mesmerism, spiritualism, and racism were all as widely and unquestionably accepted as being scientifically valid as anthropogenic global warmingism is today.

But telepathy as it is usually treated in fiction is more like a convenient super-power—in fact, in Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" novels it's pretty explicity a super-power, which Sookie uses to prevent or solve crimes—and even in the somewhat more thoughtful treatments, such as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, it still works like having a cell phone installed in your head. It's convenient. It's controllable. It's boring.

So let's take two steps back and one to the side, and seriously reexamine the subject.

Clearly, our species is not innately telepathic. If it were, four million years of hominid evolution would have conditioned us to manage the ability as reflexively as we manage talking or flatulence, and there would be no story here. Further, I have to wonder whether functional telepathy would be in fact be an evolutionary advantage, or whether telepaths would tend to be selected out of the gene pool. (I believe the latter, for reasons we can discuss in the Comments.)

Along these same lines, if our species was innately telepathic from the dawn of time, how would it have affected our evolution? Would we even have individual minds? If you've watched a group of teenagers talking and texting lately it doesn't take too much imagination to see that they're constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming the nodes of a crude, short-lived, and ad hoc collective intelligence. Now take away the limiting technological crutch, give innate biological telepathy some thousands of years to develop, and factor in the usual general societal pressure for conformity. In a society of functional telepaths, where everyone else was part of the gestalt, would a person who was born telepathically deaf and dumb actually have an advantage?

There are a lot of directions in which we could take this topic. Decades ago, I started writing a story based on the idea that humans are innately telepathic and capable of forming incredibly powerful gestalt minds, and that kuru was an alien bioweapon dropped here millennia ago to cripple us and keep us down. (To give you some idea of how old this idea is, I started writing it back when they thought kuru was caused by an as-yet-unidentified "slow virus," and long before they even knew what prion disease was. Today, of course, we know that prions would make much better biological weapons—but "weaponized prion disease" is no longer science fiction. Now, it's a hackeyed plot gimmick from 24.)

So the general topic is telepathy, and the challenge for now is to think seriously about the idea, for at least a week, and try to come up with an original take on it, before you begin to think about writing a story.

Beyond that, though, the parameters are wide open. Do you want to write a steampunk story? Perhaps someone in the late 19th century accidentally discovers that a freak interaction between Professor Olafson's Amazing Magnetic Phrenology Helmet and Swami Suresh's Secret Indian Macassar Oil & Hair Tonic suddenly unleashes his innate telepathic abilities.

Do you want to write a mystery? Perhaps Sherlock Holmes is actually a genetic freak and a powerful telepath, and all that nonsense about observation and deduction is just a carefully constructed ploy to hide his true nature.

Or maybe you're working in an alternate 1950s, where all of that open-air nuclear testing has unlocked a Pandora's box of mankind's latent abilities, and Sgt. Friday is just another working-class blue-collar telepath whose constant, "Just the facts, ma'am," is meant to get witnesses to settle down and think clearly, so he can get a good read. Or how about setting it in an alternate 1970s, where all of those great '60s drugs combined with an alien nanoparasite accidentally brought back from the Moon has unleashed...

Oh, you get the idea.

Now, what do you think can do with it?
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