At its core, this post is about the importance of fiction writers using correct/accurate terms for things in their stories, even things that everyone knows are imaginary/not real.
Several days ago on a Facebook group, there was a discussion about how to describe telepathy in science fiction. One person commented that it’s better to keep it subtle, “[…] so fixing a flashing neon tube by snapping my fingers @ it is a little more obvious […].”
And I replied, “Blatant or not, how would anyone fix a neon tube by reading its thoughts…?”
And they said, “Electrical impulses from finger through air to contact. Ater all, if electricity can leap from overhead train cables to kill kids messing about ner them, surely it’s feasable a finger snap could do the same with light contacts?”
…And this is why I decided that now is a good day to write a long-planned bloggish rant about things that aren’t telepathy/empathy but are sometimes called that by writers (and others) who have no frakkin’ clue.
First, a tiny bit of “backstory” on the other thing that inspired this rant: A while back, I happened to see a link to this post on Pinterest. (Yes, really — Pinterest isn’t just for “SAHMs with a craftsy streak” or whatever. *rolls eyes* There are a lot of good resources for writers and artists there, too.) The writer of that post seems to be under the impression that psychometry (the ability to “read” inanimate objects, usually by touching them, and to know their histories, etc.) is a form of empathy (the ability to know what someone is feeling). *rolls eyes again*
Inanimate objects do not have emotions, kids.
I think the misunderstanding comes from not knowing that empathy is not synonymous with ESP (extra-sensory perception), in the way horse is not synonymous with quadruped. (Shall I draw a Venn diagram to further explain that, or is it clear enough already?)
I ought to point out that belief in empathy, ESP, telepathy, precognition, etc., is not necessary for using the correct/standard/recognized terms for each of these things when writing about them in fiction. After all, most people know not to call a one-horned horse a gryphon, right?
Precognition, to pick one item from the list, is basically the ability to know about an event before it happens (without, of course, the normal hints that everyone gets — it’s cheating if you just read in the news that such-and-such famous person is going to be in your city next week, and then afterward you claim to have received that information through the vibrations of the ether instead of on the internet). Precognition isn’t empathy, because events don’t have emotions.
(“But you’re not qualified to have an opinion about whether precognition is a form of empathy, Weaver, because you’re neither a precog nor an empath, so how would you know?” I’ve never seen a real unicorn, either, but I’d recognize one if I did see it. I do admit, though, that occasionally it’s difficult to discern the difference between empathy and very-short-range precognition — flash-precogs, I call ’em — because you can’t necessarily know whether you’re precogging or hearing someone’s feelings about something they’re about to do, just like the basic tests with Zener cards can’t tell if the test subject is using telepathy, clairvoyance, or short-range precognition to correctly guess the card symbols.)
The following is taken from the article I linked to above. You’ll notice (if you care and are paying attention) that some of the things on the list aren’t even forms of ESP, much less specifically empathy.
Psychometry – the empathic ability to receive energy, information and impressions from objects, photographs or places
Telepathy – the empathic ability to read people’s thoughts
Mediumship – the empathic ability to feel the presence and energies of spirits
Physical Healing – the empathic ability to feel other people’s physical symptoms in your own body (and often the ability to heal, transform or transmute them)
Emotional Healing – the empathic ability to feel another person’s emotions
Animal Communication – the empathic ability to hear, feel and communicate with animals
Nature – the empathic ability to read, feel and communicate with nature and with plants
Geomancy – the empathic ability to read the energy of places and of the land – geomancers can feel the energies of the Earth, such as Ley lines. They can also get headaches, pain or anxiety before earthquakes or other disasters occur anywhere on the planet.
Precognition – the empathic ability to feel when something important is about to happen (often this can be a feeling of inexplicable dread or doom)
Claircognizance or Knowing – the empathic ability to feel what needs to be done in any given circumstance, often accompanied by a feeling of peace and calm, even in the midst of a crisis
Some of this, I’d accept (at least in a work of fiction) if the word empathic were removed, because the descriptions/definitions are otherwise fairly consistent with the usual ones. The definition for emotional healing, however, is actually the usual definition of empathy itself, and telepathy (the ability to “hear” others’ thoughts rather than emotions), although it is a mind talent instead of a physical talent, still isn’t empathy.
So you’ve figured out by now that I don’t agree with the ‘Call it whatever you want cos it’s all imaginary and who cares can the readers understand what you mean?’ view of writing speculative fiction. Words have meanings. Some of those meanings are fluid and may change depending on specific circumstances, but if a word means literally (see what I did there?) whatever the person using it wants it to mean, it doesn’t have any real meaning, because the person hearing/reading it can’t know what is meant.
It doesn’t matter that these things are fictional. You can’t use the term FTL to describe a ship’s drive that’s slower than light and takes decades to travel from Sol to alpha Centauri. You can’t call a one-horned horse a gryphon. And you can’t call the ability to see the future empathy.