Call Me Psi-Electronics

Tuesday, December 20th, 2022

With the Avatar sequel coming to theaters, I was reminded of Poul Anderson’s 1957 story, Call Me Joe, which inspired the avatar element of James Cameron’s movie. The story opens like this:

The wind came whipping out of eastern darkness, driving a lash of ammonia dust before it. In minutes, Edward Anglesey was blinded.

He clawed all of his four feet into the broken shards which were soil, hunched down, and groped for his little smelter. The wind was an idiot bassoon in his skull. Something whipped across his back, drawing blood, a tree yanked up by the roots and spat a hundred miles. Lightning cracked, immensely far overhead, where clouds boiled with night.

As if to reply, thunder toned in the ice mountains and a red gout of flame jumped and a hillside came booming down, spilling itself across the valley. The ground beneath him shivered.

Sodium explosion, thought Anglesey in the drumbeat noise. The fire and the lightning gave him enough illumination to find his apparatus. He picked up tools in his muscular hands, his tail gripped the trough, and he battered his way to the tunnel and into his dugout.

It had walls and roof of water, frozen by sun — remoteness and compressed by tons of atmosphere jammed onto every square inch. Ventilated by a tiny smokehole, a lamp of tree oil burning in hydrogen made a dull light for the single room.

Anglesey sprawled his slate-blue form on the floor, panting. It was no use to swear at the storm. These ammonia gales often came at sunset, and there was nothing to do but wait them out. He was tired anyway.

It would be morning in five hours or so. He had hoped to create an axehead, his first, this evening, but maybe it was better to do the job by daylight.

He pulled a decapitated body off a shelf and ate the meat raw, pausing for long gulps of liquid methane from a jug. Things would improve once he had proper tools; so far, everything had been painfully grubbed and hacked into shape using only teeth, claws, chance icicles, and what detestably weak and crumbling fragments remained of the spaceship. Give him a few years and he’d be living as a person should.

He sighed, stretched, and lay down to sleep.

Somewhat more than one hundred and twelve thousand miles away, Edward Anglesey took off his helmet.


He looked around, blinking. After the surface of Jupiter, it was always a little unreal to find himself here again, in the clean, quiet orderliness of the control room.

His muscles ached. They shouldn’t. He had not really been fighting a gale of several hundred miles an hour, under three gravities, and a temperature of 140 Absolute. He had been here, in the almost nonexistent pull of Jupiter V, breathing oxynitrogen. It was Joe who lived down there and filled his lungs with hydrogen and helium at a pressure which could still only be estimated because it broke aneroids and deranged piezo-electrics.

Nevertheless, his body felt worn and beaten. Tension, no doubt — psychosomatics — after all, for a good many hours now. he had, in a sense, been Joe, and Joe had been working hard.

With the helmet off, Anglesey held only a thread of identification. The esprojector was still tuned to Joe’s brain but no longer focused on his own. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew an indescribable feeling of sleep. Now and then, vague forms or colors drifted in the soft black — dreams? Not impossible, that Joe’s brain should dream a little when Anglesey’s mind wasn’t using it.

A light flickered red on the esprojector panel, and a bell whined electronic fear. Anglesey cursed. Thin fingers danced over the controls of his chair, he slued around and shot across to the bank of dials. Yes — there — K-tube oscillating again! The circuit blew out. He wrenched the faceplate off with one hand and fumbled in a drawer with the other.

Inside his mind he could feel the contact with Joe fading. If he once lost it entirely, he wasn’t sure he could regain it. And Joe was an investment of several million dollars and quite a few highly skilled man-years.

Anglesey pulled the offending K-tube from its socket and threw it on the floor. Glass exploded. It eased his temper a bit, just enough so he could find a replacement, plug it in, switch on the current again — as the machine warmed up, once again amplifying, the Joeness in the back alleys of his brain strengthened.

Slowly, then, the man in the electric wheelchair rolled out of the room, into the hall. Let somebody else sweep up the broken tube. To hell with it. To hell with everybody.

Jan Cornelius had never been farther from Earth than some comfortable Lunar resort. He felt much put upon that the Psionics Corporation should tap him for a thirteen-month exile. The fact that he knew as much about esprojectors and their cranky innards as any other man alive was no excuse. Why send anyone at all? Who cared?

Obviously the Federation Science Authority did. It had seemingly given those bearded hermits a blank check on the taxpayers’ account.

Our protagonist, from his electric wheelchair, controls a slate-blue alien form with a prehensile tail on a hostile planet — using an esprojector from the Psionics Corporation. As I read this, in my copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A, I suddenly realized that psionics wasn’t simply a word for psychic powers, the way it was used in the D&D books of my childhood, but was a portmanteau of psi (“psychic phenomena”) and the -onics from electronics:

In 1942, two authors — biologist Bertold Wiesner and psychologist Robert Thouless — had introduced the term “psi” (from the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet) to parapsychology in an article published in the British Journal of Psychology. (This Greek character was chosen as apropos since it is the initial letter of the Greek word psyche, meaning “mind” or “soul”.) The intent was that “psi” would represent the “unknown factor” in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, experiences believed to be unexplained by any known physical or biological mechanisms. In a 1972 book, Thouless insisted that he and Wiesner had coined this usage of the term “psi” prior to its use in science fiction circles, explaining that their intent was to provide a more neutral term than “ESP” that would not suggest a pre-existing theory of mechanism.

The word “psionics” first appeared in print in a novella by science fiction writer Jack Williamson — The Greatest Invention — published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1951. Williamson derived it from the “psion”, a fictitious “unit of mental energy” described in the same story. (Only later was the term retroactively described in non-fiction articles in Astounding as a portmanteau of “psychic electronics”, by editor John W. Campbell.) The new word was derived by analogy with the earlier term radionics. (“Radionics” combined radio with electronics and was itself devised in the 1940s to refer to the work of early 20th century physician and pseudoscientist Albert Abrams.) The same analogy was subsequently taken up in a number of science fiction-themed neologisms, notably bionics (bio- + electronics; coined 1960) and cryonics (cryo- + electronics; coined 1967).


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    So, do you guys think that the new Avatar movie is going to be any good? I’m sure that it will be spectacular – Cameron knows how to make a movie, regardless of what one might think of him otherwise – but I’m tired of giving money to people who hate people like me, so I’ll probably pass.

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