Tuesday, 19 February 2013


In science fiction, some items of futuristic technology become taken-for-granted background cliches:

flying cars;
hand weapons called "blasters;"
force screens;
three dimensional TV called "3V;"
an interrogation device called either a "hypnoprobe" or "psychoprobe."

(I think this list should be longer but I can't think of any other examples right now.)

Asimov's Galactic Imperials use psychoprobes; Anderson's Terran Imperials use hypno-. Both devises extract the truth and can destroy the mind if misused. Either we are not told exactly how they work or the explanation is fairly low key but we get an idea of what they are from how they are referred to.

Anderson's Three Worlds To Conquer (London, 1966) is set in a nearer future and a different timeline than his Terran Empire. Nevertheless, one character says:

" 'They don't have psychoprobe equipment, or I'd never have fooled them. But they do have a couple of tough political officers who know how to, to interrogate.' " (p. 80)

Here, Anderson uses the Asimovian term. This signals to the reader that the character is referring to something much like a hypnoprobe but not in the same timeline as the Terran Empire. There is an underlying assumption that such technology will be developed in future. But, if the interrogators have not brought such equipment with them, then why mention it? Assumptions need to be challenged, especially in sf. The development of background cliches, including even the term "Terran" (not used outside sf) instead of "Terrestrial," contributed to making sf a literary ghetto with regular readers who knew the lingo and occasional or would-be readers maybe repelled by it.

Having said that, I love Anderson's Terran Empire as a fictional setting and the hypnoprobing of Dominic Flandry's son contributes to the dramatic climax of A Knight Of Ghosts And Shadows. Anderson is one writer who could usually make cliches work for instead of against him. But he did not need the reference to "psychoprobe" in Three Worlds To Conquer.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Paul!

You mentioned the hypnoprobing ordered by Dominic Flandry in A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS. A big part of the reason for the dramatic tension of that tragedy was Flandry discovering the prisoner was a traitor serving the Merseian Roidhunate AND that he was brain conditioned to not reveal certain invaluable pieced of information Flandry thought he had. So, instead of a light hypnoprobing revealing what the prisoner knew with no risk to his mind, the 'probing would cause a suicide reaction meant to kill him before the interrogators discovered the information. UNLESS, the interrogators were prepared and hooked up the prisoner to life support machines. But in that case the 'probing would destroy the subject's mind.

So, the tragedy of what happened to the prisoner was in him being revealed as a traitor and Flandry's grim determination to find out what he knew even at the cost of his mind (and eventual death).

I tried to avoid too many spoilers!