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June 2005
 
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The Mind Readers, by Margery Allingham (1965)

THIS IS A crime novel by one of those legendary English ladies of Golden Age detection, featuring her regular sleuth Albert Campion. However, it revolves around an sf device that isn't merely a convenient McGuffin—like secret death-ray blueprints whose function is to be pursued, not studied. Allingham explores her invention with some speculative insight.

As the title suggests, the gadget is a working telepathic amplifier. Samples are actually in use by a few gifted children. This news convulses a much less successful British ESP research program: Where did the kids get these things?

On the open market, it emerges. Certain radio components contain the new element "Nipponanium" (largely as a marketing gimmick, like previous eras' magic invocations of radium or magnetism). Correctly used, this is a telepathic catalyst. The science is perfunctory, but the resulting "iggy tube"—so called for providing "instant gen"—has plausible effects.

Adults who try the device are overwhelmed, because adult experience is a handicap. Chaotic emotions flood into the mind, all too recognizable and dangerously resonant. For children, though: "The younger you are the fewer people you know, the fewer emotions you arouse and the fewer facts of which you are aware." Innocence and ignorance form a kind of shield.

It's still bad medicine. One schoolboy's ability to learn and reason becomes crippled after long periods of using the iggy tube as a telepathic search engine to tap other minds for information. Painful retraining is needed. In a way, Allingham predicted the modern commonplace of plagiarizing one's assignment from the web rather than doing the work.

—David Langford

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