Synaesthesia

Tagged: Theme

Item of Terminology relating to Perception, which in normal use denotes association or cross-referencing between the senses, so that (to take a commonplace example) the colour orange may evoke the smell of oranges. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was fond of such metaphorical sense-associations. In the nonfantastic crime novel Opening Night (1951; vt Night at the Vulcan) by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) the protagonist associates colours with voices, with the detective's voice being "a royal blue of the clearest sort"; similar inward linking of colours with numbers or the days of the week has been frequently reported. A frustrated artist needs telepathic aid to communicate his synaesthesia-based creations in John Brunner The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy; fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965), because the rich complex of sensory associations that is central to his internal son et lumière (with the other senses mixed in) cannot normally be shared.

Synaesthesia in sf is generally a more interesting perceptual state in which the senses become literally confused and feed into one another through temporary or permanent neurological cross-wiring – so that, perhaps, a vision may be quite literally smelt. Thus, after the protagonist of H L Gold's "The Man with English" (in Star Science Fiction Stories, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl) has undergone surgery intended to cure a different kind of neural scrambling, he utters the once famous punchline "What smells purple?" Alfred Bester developed this concept to extremes in Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), where, in a compelling passage, the Antihero's apotheosis comes about (with many verbal and typographic fireworks) in a synaesthetic rite of passage which mixes agony and exultation. Sound is perceived as light, motion as sound, colour as pain, touch as taste and smell as touch. In space, with no protective suit:

The cold was the taste of lemons and the vacuum a rake of talons on his skin. The sun and the stars were a shaking ague that racked his bones.

Colin Kapp's homage to Bester in Transfinite Man (November 1963-January 1964 New Worlds as "The Dark Mind"; 1964; vt The Dark Mind 1965) echoes specific imagery from Tiger! Tiger!, with exposure to the chill and vacuum of space again tasting of lemons and feeling like raking talons as above. Cordwainer Smith's use of the device in "Under Old Earth" (February 1966 Galaxy) may be read either as metaphor or as literal experience of a weird son et lumière environment:

They knew it because the music blinded them, the lights deafened them, their senses ran into one another and became confused.

Sensing a psi-based entity (see Psi Powers) in James H Schmitz's The Witches of Karres (December 1949 Astounding; exp 1966) is compared to "hearing dark green, or catching a glimpse of a musky scent." Norman Spinrad envisages synaesthesia as perhaps addictive in his strong story "All the Sounds of the Rainbow" (June 1973 Vertex). A victim of Mad-Scientist neurotherapy in Terry Pratchett's Discworld tale Making Money (2007) reports that "it sounded like the smell of raspberries tastes."

In Television, dialogue in the Futurama (1999-2003, 2010-2013) episode "Roswell That Ends Well" (9 December 2001) nods to "The Man with English" (cited above) in the lines "What smells like blue?" and "Did everything just taste purple for a second?". Heroes (2006-2010) includes a deaf character who develops the ability to perceive sound vibrations as waves of colour. In Comics, the Superhero police team of Alan Moore's Top 10 (12 issues, 1999-2001) includes a member whose working name is Synaesthesia; her crossed perceptions are put to various crime-solving uses, for example sensing a "silent" ultrasonic call as barely perceptible ultraviolet light. [DRL/PN]

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.