There have been a lot of mind-readers in fiction already. So many that I was a little leery of adding one more to the pile. But I thought, what the hell, it didn’t really stop me with vampires.
So I listened to the voices in my head and wrote Killfile, the story of a former psychic soldier trained by the U.S. government who now works for the highest bidder. John Smith has learned to weaponize his gift. He doesn’t just read minds. He can hack into other people’s brains and scan their thoughts, anticipate their moves, and even trigger pain or bad memories. The only catch is, he always gets a percentage of whatever punishment he inflicts. And he can’t keep all the noise out. He wants nothing more than to earn enough money get away from humanity forever.
Before I came up with Smith, I read a lot of books about telepaths. And I decided a long time ago that it’s good that psychics are limited to fiction. Like vampires, even the good ones are a little creepy. If they were real, the idea of someone who can actually dig into your most private thoughts — or who can override your free will with their own — ought to send any sane person screaming from the room. (See Killgrave, AKA the Purple Man, in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, or Doro, from Octavia Butler’s Patternist series, if you need proof.)
That’s why the best fictional psychics either have limitations or a conscience, or both. They use their abilities to save the day instead of ruining other peoples’ lives. And it generally costs them their sanity just to be around us, as our chattering minds intrude on their own thoughts. But they do it anyway.
5. Professor Charles Xavier — Mutant, Headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, founder of the X-Men.
PROS: Xavier is known as the most powerful telepath in the Marvel Universe. He can send his thoughts across the planet and even across space. He can control others’ minds, implant thoughts, erase memories, and strike people unconscious with psi-bolts. What’s admirable about Xavier is how rarely he actually uses his abilities to interfere with free will. He’s revealed to be powerful enough to simply force the world to behave the way he wants, but he never takes this step. He wants mutants and humans to live together in peace by choice.
CONS: It’s rare that Xavier uses his ability to meddle with other people’s minds. Unfortunately, it’s not rare enough. He’s manipulated his beloved students so often that he qualifies as an abusive parent. (He erased Cyclops’ memory of his brother, shackled Jean Grey’s latent potential and altered her memories, and faked his own death.) He’s also turned evil at least twice and nearly caused the end of the world once with all his repressed rage. Although he’s currently dead, he’s still causing problems: the Red Skull dissected his brain and sewed it into his own head, and now has all Xavier’s powers.
4. Sookie Stackhouse — Part fairy, telepath, waitress.
PROS: The hero of Charlaine Harris’ novels and the HBO series True Blood, Sookie Stackhouse was born with the ability to hear the thoughts of others, which always set her apart from other people in her small Louisiana town. She couldn’t help but learn everyone else’s secrets. But it came in handy when vampires revealed themselves to humanity. Sookie used her gift and her considerable courage and resourcefulness to deal with all manner of evil that came out of the dark with them. She cares about others, and does her best to make sure everyone gets home alive.
CONS: Terrible taste in boyfriends.
3. Lincoln Powell — Class 1 Esper, Prefect of Police.
PROS: In Alfred Bester’s classic The Demolished Man, future police work is done by telepaths, or “Espers,” who can read the minds of suspects and solve almost any crime. Lincoln Powell is at the very top of his profession when he encounters a charming sociopath named Ben Reich who’s determined to get away with the first murder in decades. Powell relishes the challenge as Reich finds a way to block Powell out of his mind.
CONS: Powell is honest and dedicated, but even he can’t resist playing with the lives of other people. In the end — spoiler alert for a 63-year-old novel — he decides to erase Reich’s mind when he can’t get the evidence necessary to convict him.
PROS: This other John Smith was created by Stephen King in his brilliant and dark 1979 novel The Dead Zone. Smith was a teacher who could read minds and see the future when he made physical contact with people after waking from a four-year-coma. He helps catch a serial killer, then realizes he has to save the world from presidential candidate Greg Stillson after learning that Stillson will one day launch a nuclear war.
CONS: Not around to save us from Donald Trump.
1. Matthew Price, AKA Brain Boy — Telepath, telekinetic, government agent.
PROS: Brain Boy first appeared in only seven issues of a series published by Dell Comics back in the 1960s, but will always be first in my heart, mainly because he once fought a telepathic dinosaur. An electrical accident killed Matt Price’s parents when his mother was pregnant with him, giving him psychic abilities including telepathy and telekinesis. He mostly battled communists for the U.S. government, but he never wore a costume and never had an official superhero name. Fred Van Lente revived the character in an excellent series for Dark Horse in 2013, but sadly, he seems to have slipped into limbo again.
CONS: Not enough stories about him.
Killfile is out on August 11 from Zaffre