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In Liu Cixin's novel The Three-Body Problem (2006/2008), the inhabitants of the planet Trisolaris communicate with each other using telepathy and are unable to lie. In Ursula Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Genly Ai is capable of "mindspeech" (essentially telepathy) and says it is impossible to lie when using mindspeech.

The term telepathy dates from the late 19th century, although similar concepts in other cultures may predate the coinage of the word (see e.g. ishin-denshin, which is also perceived as a sincere form of communication [*]).

Characters who don't lie can also be found in fiction. For example, Yudhisthira, a character from the Mahabharata, is said to a unable to lie, but this has nothing to do with telepathy.

So my question is: What is the earliest work of literature in which a character (or several) is capable of telepathy and is unable to lie using that form of communication? (Silent forms of prayer to a divine or semi-divine being are outside the scope of this question.)

Note: [*] It would probably inaccurate to translate "ishin-denshin" as "telepathy", though. There is only a vague similarity in that it is an unspoken form of communication.

  • Similarly, ishin-denshin is simply 'unspoken understanding', not a psychic power; if you are really counting that, then Gilgamesh understanding Enkidu's moods counts as 'telepathy' and any older literature we might find will probably also include examples. – lly Jun 22 '18 at 4:31
  • I don't believe all Hindus would agree with your assessment of the Mahabharata as 'fiction'. If we're treating religion that way, the first 'unspoken communication which can only be truly perceived by its audience' would be 'prayer', nuh? – lly Jun 22 '18 at 4:39
  • @lly Thanks for you comments. I have excluded prayer from the scope of the question. With regard to the Mahabharata: I will consider it as fiction until given proof to the contrary – user800 Jun 22 '18 at 9:25
  • I don't have enough reputation to edit tags, but I don't think the author tags are pertinent here. The question really has nothing to do with the modern authors Liu Cixin and Ursula K. Le Guin. – user14111 Mar 31 at 0:06
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I don't know what the earliest use of telepathy in a work of fiction is, but I don't think there was much in the way of fiction about whole societies of telepaths (without which the lying thing doesn't come into play, since if you're the only telepath in the room, you can still lie) until John W. Campbell became an influential figure in science fiction.

Campbell was fascinated by the potential of psychic ability, and encouraged all writers contributing to Astounding Science Fiction to send him stories about people with such gifts, and explore the implications of that.

The earliest story I know of dealing with telepathic mutants is Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935), but Stapledon didn't really develop the telepathy idea much, having other concerns. I don't think he really got into whether telepaths could deceive each other. (Been a while since I read it.)

But once the idea hopped the puddle to the SF pulps, it got more systematic. A.E. Van Vogt came out with Slan (1946), which deals with a race of scientifically created telepathic supermen, feared and hated by normals (Stan Lee never invented anything), but the protagonist spends most of his time away from fellow Slans, learning to use his superior intelligence, as well as his telepathy. But there is a love interest, a fellow Slan, and there is that idea that there is this special communion between them, the sharing of thoughts and feelings.

Alfred Bester published The Demolished Man in 1952, and that might be the best book ever written about telepaths as a group, what it would be like to be able to communicate without speaking. Very inventive and idealistic, but the antagonist is a non-telepath who wants to hide his crime from the psi-cops by means of using what we'd now call an 'ear-worm'--a TV theme song written by a girlfriend of his. He just thinks it to himself, and it blocks telepaths from accessing his deeper thoughts.

Basically, telepaths don't even try to lie to each other in that book--there's enormous trust and fellow feeling between them--the hero can't hide his feelings from a friend, a fellow telepath who is in love with him--he loves her back, but not in the same way. Bester's point is that we'd be better off if we really could see into each others' minds, get rid of all the secrets. But in some ways, we end up identifying more with the individualist murderer.

Then there was Mutant (1953), by Henry Kuttner (under a pseudonym he shared with his wife, C.L. Moore, but I think this one was mainly his).

That's a series of connected short stories about how telepathic mutants had to fight for survival, and eventually created a world where they are the norm--they hear each others' thoughts all the time. Again, they never try to lie to each other, and it's implied that would be futile. Now and then, they have to fly high up in gliders, to get away from the surface noise, relax. But they still have to return to the interconnected-ness of the hive mind eventually, or they'll perish of loneliness. (Most of these stories can be read as metaphors for ordinary social interaction).

Now most people have seen the movie Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). The scary little blonde kids with the glowing eyes. Very popular. But they're all of one mind about everything, so they wouldn't try to lie to each other. The character played by George Sanders in the movie can briefly block them out by thinking very intently about a brick wall. (Would this work? How would I know?) But this is just a variation on the jingle in Bester's book, which Wyndham had quite certainly read. The idea of a society of telepathic people got darker as time went on.

Octavia Butler wrote the best novel ever about telepathy when she came up with Mind of My Mind (1977) a prequel to a book she'd published a year earlier, about a future world where telepaths/telekinetics battle with each other and with animalistic creatures descended from humans mutated by an alien virus.

But again, telepaths are portrayed as being part of a collective--Butler calls it 'The Pattern' and they can't lie to each other with their thoughts. They are very dangerous to each other, however, because their gift tends to make them very unstable, if not outright psychotic--so they enter each others' minds cautiously, until the heroine of the book finds a way to bring them all together. The antagonist there is the creator of them all, a very early mutation, who isn't telepathic himself, but can psychically feed on hs children (who he's created by selective breeding over millennia), taking over their bodies, and learning everything they know in the process. He can be deceived, but not for very long.

Now I don't know who first came up with the idea that telepaths could block each other out, create psychic shields. But my take is that for the most part, telepaths in science fiction have been portrayed as not wanting to lie to each other, wanting a greater sense of sharing, of community. And perhaps a diminished sense of individuality, but Butler to some extent questioned that. Her telepaths are very competitive, and it's much less positive than in earlier Campbell-influenced takes on the idea.

However, there are so many science fiction stories about telepaths, you could read for a year, and not scratch the surface.

  • Le Guin was a humanist, and she tends to associate exceptional abilities (however they are explained) with better behavior, because she believes exceptional people lead the way to a better future. However, the notion that mind readers must be honest isn't inherent. You could easily decide they are worse than other people, and write it that way. After all, we value privacy very highly, and telepathy robs you of that. I think the idea that telepaths can't lie to each other comes from the understanding that we have all sorts of thoughts we don't express, which represent our true selves. – Christopher Lyons Jun 27 '18 at 15:18
  • Nice essay on the history of telepathy in science fiction, but I don't see anything that answers the actual question. By the way, as far as I know, all of the early (18th and 19th century) telepathy stories I know of are about telepathic societies or races, not lone telepathic mutants. – user14111 Mar 31 at 7:36
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1889: "To Whom This May Come", a short story by Edward Bellamy, originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February 1889. An 1898 reprint is available at Project Gutenberg.


Plot summary from Science-Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler:

An island in the Indian Ocean. The protagonist is shipwrecked on an unknown island peopled by descendants of ancient Magi who were expelled from Asia. The unusual point about them is that they communicate by telepathy and that their vocal organs have almost completely atrophied. A few interpreters of mixed ancestry alone have partial power of speech.


I believe the following excerpts (copied from the 1898 reprint at Project Gutenberg) show that telepaths (called mind-readers) are incapable of lying to one another (or being lied to by anyone):

It must not be supposed, however, that courtesy among the mind-readers prevents them from thinking pointedly and freely concerning one another upon serious occasions, any more than the finest courtesy among the talking races restrains them from speaking to one another with entire plainness when it it desirable to do so. Indeed, among the mind-readers, politeness never can extend to the point of insincerity, as among talking nations, seeing that it is always one another's real and inmost thought that they read.

[. . . .]

I have already told how my first qualms of morbid self-consciousness at knowing that my mind was an open book to all around me disappeared as I learned that the very completeness of the disclosure of my thoughts and motives was a guarantee that I would be judged with a fairness and a sympathy such as even self-judgment cannot pretend to, affected as that is by so many subtle reactions. The assurance of being so judged by every one might well seem an inestimable privilege to one accustomed to a world in which not even the tenderest love is any pledge of comprehension, and yet I soon discovered that open-mindedness had a still greater profit than this. How shall I describe the delightful exhilaration of moral health and cleanness, the breezy oxygenated mental condition, which resulted from the consciousness that I had absolutely nothing concealed! Truly I may say that I enjoyed myself. I think surely that no one needs to have had my marvelous experience to sympathize with this portion of it. Are we not all ready to agree that this having a curtained chamber where we may go to grovel, out of the sight of our fellows, troubled only by a vague apprehension that God may look over the top, is the most demoralizing incident in the human condition? It is the existence within the soul of this secure refuge of lies which has always been the despair of the saint and the exultation of the knave. It is the foul cellar which taints the whole house above, be it never so fine.

What stronger testimony could there be to the instinctive consciousness that concealment is debauching, and openness our only cure, than the world-old conviction of the virtue of confession for the soul, and that the uttermost exposing of one's worst and foulest is the first step toward moral health? The wickedest man, if he could but somehow attain to writhe himself inside out as to his soul, so that its full sickness could be seen, would feel ready for a new life. Nevertheless, owing to the utter impotence of the words to convey mental conditions in their totality, or to give other than mere distortions of them, confession is, we must needs admit, but a mockery of that longing for self-revelation to which it testifies. But think what health and soundness there must be for souls among a people who see in every face a conscience which, unlike their own, they cannot sophisticate, who confess one another with a glance, and shrive with a smile! Ah, friends, let me now predict, though ages may elapse before the slow event shall justify me, that in no way will the mutual vision of minds, when at last it shall be perfected, so enhance the blessedness of mankind as by rending the veil of self, and leaving no spot of darkness in the mind for lies to hide in. Then shall the soul no longer be a coal smoking among ashes, but a star in a crystal sphere.

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Probably "The Hampdenshire Wonder" by J. D. Beresford (also called just "The Wonder") from 1911. I can't find a relevant passage from the novel. And the book may not be completely apropos because it's the opposite of "To Whom This May Come" noted earlier: Only one person (The titular "Wonder," Stott) can tell what others are thinking, but no one else has that ability. However, it's always the case that Stott accurately knows what others are thinking and they are unable to mislead him.

  • Could you elaborate on this answer? How does telepathy work in this work? Can characters using telepathy not lie? Could you also add a passage from the book which would illustrate this? – Gallifreyan Mar 30 at 11:12

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