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Damien Broderick, Psience Fiction: The Paranormal in Science Fiction Literature (McFarland, 2018, 202pp, £42.95)

Reviewed by Gavin Miller (University of Glasgow)


In Psience Fiction, the critic, author and science writer Damien Broderick turns his talents to an investigation of psychic phenomena in sf. As Broderick points out, ‘psi phenomena’ such as telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, clairvoyance, group minds and (gadget-free) teleportation were abundant in Golden Age sf, and have maintained a significant presence in the genre even if their popularity has declined. Broderick notes that, during its peak, psi was a trope as prevalent as space travel and nuclear technology, but, unlike these latter technologies, parapsychological phenomena have never achieved mainstream scientific and technological legitimation.

Broderick starts by exploring the apparently paradoxical drive in Golden Age sf to treat the paranormal as ‘a kind of science’. The views and activities of John W. Campbell are central to this section, as Broderick explores how Campbell ‘set out to use his magazine Astounding Science Fiction as a vehicle for both the investigation and promotion of psi’. The introduction closes with a brief summary of the critic Peter Lowentrout’s pathfinding work on psi in sf; this material sits oddly, as an afterthought, when it might have been securely integrated into the introduction’s developing argument.

The heart of Broderick’s book consists of forty-four brief chapters, each introducing, summarising and evaluating one or more ‘psience fiction’ narratives. These brief readings are presented in chronological order, but there is no reason to read them this way (particularly since they do not aim at a cumulative argument). They are best dipped into – pursuing stories one already knows in order to be educated further by Broderick’s erudition, or chasing up material from an era or author of interest. The readings are chatty, opinionated and informed by a broad knowledge of the genre, and a close eye for textual detail. I enjoyed, for instance, reading more about Colin Wilson, who Broderick accurately describes as a ‘pop-polymath’, with a ‘magpie attraction to every new or old shiny or rusted idea’. The main niggles come from Broderick’s asides on parapsychological research, his occasional jabs at academia and the somewhat repetitive tone that comes from looking at a large number of narratives that share a conceit. Future researchers on ‘psience fiction’ (even if they don’t accept Broderick’s terminology or wider worldview) will find these brief chapters an immensely valuable aid to their work.

The book deviates from psi phenomena proper into a consideration of the afterlife in sf, which provides an incongruous, if thought-provoking, closing appendix. Broderick notes that belief in a spiritual afterlife is at odds with the Enlightenment assumptions of sf, and offers a fast-paced overview of sf salvations such as cryonic suspension, rejuvenation, life extension, mind uploading and radical posthuman transformation. The appendix, like the rest of the book, displays the author’s intimate familiarity with the fields of sf and technoculture. The analysis could, though, be more rigorous – particularly when sociological issues such as religious fundamentalism are broached.

Broderick offers more than just a literary survey and analysis. He also defends continued parapsychological investigation, and argues for the recovery of (now suppressed) psi knowledge obtained by psychological, natural scientific and military researchers. So-called ‘remote viewing’ by the US military during the Cold War proves particularly fascinating to Broderick, who cites it extensively. To assess the validity of Broderick’s claims is beyond my expertise. The picture that he paints of parapsychology as suppressed and neglected knowledge seem, though, somewhat inaccurate. Anomalistic psychology investigates experience and beliefs in psi phenomena, even though it may preclude explanation by a distinct psi causality. Moreover, methodologically rigorous parapsychological research certainly continues within academia: the University of Edinburgh’s Parapsychology Unit (established 1985) has a Chair of Parapsychology, currently held by Prof Caroline Watt, a respected and well-known researcher in the field.

Psience Fiction is an interesting and provocative survey of parapsychological phenomena in sf, and will be essential reading for literary critics who want to build upon Broderick’s research. The book could do with a tighter focus on literary materials; the defence of parapsychology’s scientific credentials is too brief and too selective to allow a robust argument to emerge. The literary readings, while valuable for their recovery of often neglected works, are frequently rather descriptive and could be more selective: closer, deeper analysis would be welcome, as well as some consideration of the implications of parapsychological psience fiction for the genre as a whole.

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