PSI High & Others: by Alan E. Nourse

I first happened across Alan E. Nourse about 15 years ago, when I was reading anthologies at the rate of two a day; as a result his work must have passed me by. I had opportunity to revisit him when I discovered that some of his stories are out of copyright and can be found in readings of variable quality at librivox (and youtube). PSI High & Others is a trilogy of novellas published by Faber in the UK in 1967, the stories originally appearing in pulps in the late 50s/early 60s. Nourse's future America is depressingly corporate, though not very dystopian - for the most part its heroes are Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Industrialists, and so on. They are the villains too, if that's any consolation. His future US also features a fifth column of PSI capable humans (PSI is ESP+ to us post-Campbellians), which comes gradually to challenge the established order.

The first story, Martyr, has tough as nails Sen. Dan Fowler launch his campaign to have a longevity treatment, currently restricted to a small elite of rich and famous, extended to the general population. He arranges for his brother to have the treatment, and report to the Capitol on its details; but his brother refuses. When quizzed as to why, Paul Fowler tells Dan to look at the life work of those whose lives have been extended. And, sure enough, Dan visits his favourite childhood composer to find the man has been working on the same symphony for 77 years. Fowler writes and presents his own report - that by making human life open-ended, the urgency goes out of endeavour, and nothing ever gets done. Martyr is a deftly arranged story, written up as thriller because the macguffin is near-immortality, which of itself necessitates intrigue. But the only real intrigue in the story belongs to Dan Fowler, because he is dying...

In the title story, PSI High, an alien with powerful mental abilities lands alone on Earth to seek out the fledgling PSI movement and destroy it as a prelude to invasion. The PSI-ers track the alien as it cuts a swathe across America, leaving a trail of mental destruction in its wake. Nothing the PSI movement throws at the alien slows or affects its progress towards its prize - frail and beautiful Jean Sanders, PSI High's most gifted. As the alien gets closer, the PSI-ers form ranks about Jean, and a sort of mental siege takes places, with Nourse ratcheting up the tension by having the government and populace turn against the PSI-ers - they suspect the alien is in league with PSI High; and as it turns out...  The denouement of the story is a twist tied as a noose; but I'm not sure that the weight is correct. The set-up is overly-elaborate and the pay-off rests entirely with the fate of the alien which, while certainly plausible, has rather a touch of Chekhov about it - permitting your raygun to be seen and not used is a delicate narrative choice. Put bluntly (spoiler ahead), the alien dies quietly at its first human encounter - at the hands of a farmer whose dog it has killed. The "alien" they've been tracking turns out to be a human, the next step in PSI development, who used the alien's arrival (and disappearance) as cover to announce his existence. As you would. The story is also a gothic romance of sorts, as a being perceived throughout to be monstrous pursues the mind of a girl. PSI High is a complex tale which probably would have worked better at greater length. Its mood is dark and ambitious, but Nourse's prose is simply not precise enough to allow it to take hold. There are too many competing elements; however, as flawed as it is, PSI High is the best story in the volume, and evidence that Nourse's work is a cut above the norm.

The last story, Mirror Mirror, is a rather grim study of the psychological aspects of war. An alien fleet blunders into the solar system; it violently repels attempts at contact from Earth, destroys a base on Titan, and flees to forbidding Saturn, where it hides in the atmosphere. Earth, always keen to press a disadvantage, builds a space station to orbit Saturn and carries the war to the aliens through "analogues" (shades of Poul Anderson's Call Me Joe and, fwiw, James Cameron's Avatar). The minds of soldiers are encased in electronic drones and fired into the atmosphere of Saturn to harrass the aliens. Upon returning they are given Relief (as opposed to leave), which is the only thing that keeps them sane. One such soldier is John Provost. He has formed a deep bond with one of his Relief pleasures, or "that Turner girl," as she is referred to throughout the text. On returning from a particularly arduous mission he finds "that Turner girl" mouthing suspiciously alien thoughts - she is promptly and brutally killed by the station staff, and the entire garrison goes into meltdown, believing the aliens have somehow infiltrated them. Of course, what Provost might well have been hearing from "that Turner girl" were his own thoughts at remove; his psychological breakdown due to the ravages of war; echoes of combat. The rest of the story is neither here nor there, except to say that in the best tradition of human folly, the cure for pain is more pain.

Nourse is probably best known for the term Blade Runner, which was the title of one of his novels and which was borrowed by Ridley Scott for the director's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He had a fairly active career in the pulps and was lucky enough to see his work collected and issued in hardcover by Faber & Faber in the UK. Why this should be the case, I'm not sure. His novellas are, for the most part, his best work; the novels are weaker in subject matter and it seems obvious (to me) that he made some odd choices as to the possibilities of his ideas. Still, there's no denying that his best work is well-worth reading.

And, thankfully, one of the surviving episodes of the fabled Out of the Unknown is an adaptation of Nourse's The Counterfeit Man, which you can watch here:

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