For a long time now I’ve been developing a fictional setting in my head. The earlier permutations were posted as webcomics, and I’ve since gone back on those plot ideas. The basics of this setting are that the Fair Folk are real, and they have developed FTL travel. The Sol system where we live was previously the territory of the Summer Empire. Due to mysterious political shenanigans, Earth was largely abandoned by them for the past few centuries. The Winter Empire gains the system by military force, and discover that we (humans) are messing the place up. They put an end to it.
The topic at hand right now is whether the Fair Folk can communicate telepathically. This isn’t part of folklore, but I want to consider it and the consequences it would have.
First, the limitations of speech, for comparison:
- Physical barriers inhibit communication
- The data rate is slow
- The bandwidth is one channel (interestingly, this channel is also occupied by written language)
- Attempting to use more than one channel can prevent using any one of them
- Small range
- The transmission of ideas is lossy
- Transmission is not selective
One possibility is that telepathy is like speaking to a radio built into your head. In this case, limitations 1 and 5 are eliminated. A spoken language is still necessary. It could possibly improve on limitation 2 as well, if encoding to speech can be done faster than actual speech.
But telepathy isn’t made of sound waves. A more auspicious, and perhaps likely, message format of telepathic messages is not speech but something that better approximates a thought. A species with this ability would have little need for a spoken language, but given the restrictions below they might need it anyway. A written language would still be useful, and developing its nature would be interesting. This could solve most of the above limitations, even increasing bandwidth. So, suppose that I do give the faeries this power. The transmissions are not like radio waves, and are not directional, that is they cannot find the source unless it provides its location in a message. They can identify “voices” and determine the identity of the sender though. The loss of transmission power is not dependent on distance or any function of ordinary spacetime, and random blackouts are possible. However, in order to send a signal, a faerie has to detect the recipient with other senses, which have limited range. External equipment is able to enhance and intercept signals, and aid detection, these are not innate abilities. Faeries traditionally wear jewelry which is enchanted to allow them to “sense” their comrades at any distance. They have control over who receives their messages, although anything more specific than one individual requires multiple transmissions without equipment. Faeries cannot fabricate thoughts, they have to actually think them and decide to send them. This makes telling lies telepathically difficult.
However, if the Fair Folk have no spoken language, then there would be a serious communication problem with us mortals. So I must consider how compatible this telepathy is with mortal creatures. One possibility is that it is not at all compatible, because we have no receiver. That’s not much fun though. Since humans and faeries both have brains with somewhat similar features, it may be possible for things to get across. Depends on the mechanism. But humans aren’t known for telepathic powers. I’m thinking that Faeries would need cranial infrastructure to decode proto-thoughts and determine the sender, and humans don’t have this. So when a faerie tries to talk to a human, a proto-thought simply pops into their head. At best, it is indistinguishable from their own thoughts, which has disturbing implications. Most likely, the slight incompatibilities lose some of the information. People with more logical minds tend to be able to detect the intrusive thoughts better. Powerful transmissions may cause epileptic seizures, nausea, and hemorraging. For communication in the other direction, obviously faeries would not have the faculties to process speech, but perhaps they have some limited mind-reading which lets them understand the intent of your speech. These communication methods are not limited to humans, which would in a sense give faeries the ability to “talk to animals” although this ability is heavily dependent on the similarity of their brains to a faeries. Large mammals, especially humans, are most compatible.
Another thing to consider is when a faerie is flooded with transmissions, it is annoying? And if they can shut off communications consciously, do they do it during sleep as well? Would they be able to tell that the recipient is blocking them, as opposed to quiet? How would faeries wake others from sleep in an emergency, besides shaking them? I guess they could consciously control a variable-strength barrier which is maintained at a constant value during sleep. If faeries sleep at all, which they probably do. Unless I find some ingenious explanation for the anomaly that is sleep.
Of course there are problems with the consequences of the above method. Being able to mind-rape lesser creatures on a whim is over-powered, so there is a low limit on transmission power, and only powerful mages able able to do it without melting their brain. Powerful mages’ bodies are in general capable of greater magic throughput than other faeries. There are storytelling issues too, I may have to approximate telepathic messages as speech. In a graphic novel format they could instead have speech bubbles with pictograms. However I’ll probably give them a version that is limited enough to justify the development of spoken language.