Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sometimes A Great Universal Condition (Telepathy)

Sometimes, sci-fi will introduce a Game Changer. The most common one is a faster-than-light drive of some sort, but the basic thing is that it’s a Universal Condition. It’s not a one-off thing for one episode, and it isn’t a threat to be defeated. It’s a part of the universe, something you set at the start of the game.

Frequently, the Universal Condition has world-shattering implications. To combat this, there are often tons of restrictions on the Game Changer’s powers. Those powers are theoretically infinite, but in practice, they have to be controlled for the good of the story.

The example that works best are the telepaths in Babylon 5. Theoretically, telepathy could be a game-changing skill. You could put a telepath in a given location and s/he would be able to find out everything that’s going down in that location. Theoretically, on one of Bestor’s many visits to Babylon 5, he could walk into the station, scan the whole place and determine exactly who he wants, where they are and what they’re thinking at the time. Then he could immobilize them, or better yet, control their brains and make them walk right up to him.

But if Bestor was able to do all that, every episode with him would be exceedingly boring. The chases are fun, and later on when the main characters start hiding things from Bestor, it becomes imperative
that he not have Godlike Powers. So there have to be limits on the telepath’s ability.

"Also, I can kill you with my brain." -River Tam

First is distance. The guy can’t seek out someone on a different planet; he has to be in the same city-sized area. On a smaller scale, Bestor apparently can’t just cast his mind out and search for someone or something. He can’t pull a Cerebro and look all over the world; he's limited to scanning individual people. Plus, to scan someone, Bestor has to be in the room with that person, preferably within eye contact or at least line-of-sight.

Next is levels; Bestor may be as strong as human telepaths get, but even that isn’t massively strong, and the resident B5 telepath is a P5 to his P12 (which explains why they don’t instantly go to her whenever something goes missing).

Third is the ability to block. Bestor can be blocked by another telepath, and although he can overpower a telepath of lesser level, he’d lose to a group of telepaths. Certain drugs can also block or enhance telepathic ability.

Fourth are PsyCorps regs. Scanning people without their consent is a rule that’s broken more than occasionally on this show, but it is a rule, and one that’s generally kept.

Fifth, Bestor can’t control people’s actions.

Sixth, scans don’t always work out as intended. You don’t always find what you’re looking for, or find it immediately.

And seventh, telepaths generally have to go to some lengths to keep from hearing everyone’s thoughts. It can form an indecipherable background gabble, not a perfect interpretation of what everyone in the area is thinking.
This is the Cosmic Microwave Background. Start thinking about that in terms of background clutter and Bestor and telepaths and lots of random folks thinking, and you get some really scary thoughts.
So you can see how this omnipotent power is cut down to a size that fits what the show’s creators want it to do, bit by bit. You can modify an FTL drive in the same way: it only comes out at a certain place, it takes a certain amount of time to get there or to spin up, it requires a certain fuel, etc. You can take the abstract concept and modify it in any way you want. In other words, the writer can shape the reality and create the rules of the world to get the result he or she desires. I’d never thought of it in those terms before, and it’s scarily empowering.

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