If Tolstoy had written Spoonbenders (Knopf, 2017), he might have started it: “All happy families are alike; each family of psychics is unhappy in its own way.” Then again, who needs Tolstoy when you have Daryl Gregory, my guest on this episode of New Books in Science Fiction, whose masterful family drama is tied together with telekinesis, astral traveling, and genuine mindreading magic.
A Nebula Award finalist and an NPR Best Book for 2017, Spoonbenders tells the story of the one-time Amazing Telemachus Family, who have struggled to make ends meet ever since they were exposed as frauds on national TV. Only they really aren’t frauds. Most of them have true psychic gifts. The problem is that psychic gifts aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be.
As Gregory explains, “I was trying to figure out why if people have these powers … wouldn’t they just become rulers of the world? Why wouldn’t they become rich and famous, and I was struck by the rationale that Uri Geller always used, which is ‘there are so many things that can reach out and interfere with your powers that only a faker can make his powers work all the time.’”
Frankie Telemachus, whose get-rich-quick schemes have left him in debt to the mob, can move objects with his mind, but his ability never comes when he needs it. His sister, Irene, a grocery store cashier, is a human lie detector, which makes it impossible to have intimate relationships. And their brother, Buddy, is so worried about the looming end of the world (which he replays over and over again in his clairvoyant mind) that he devotes every waking moment to fretful, obsessive planning to prevent it.
The story is told from five alternating points of view, revealing a cascade of secrets that explain the siblings’ inability to lead fulfilling lives while laying a foundation for their future salvation.
Among the inspirations for the Spoonbenders is the U.S. Army’s Stargate Project, launched in 1978 to study the potential military uses of psychic phenomena. “I was intrigued by the idea that the government was buying into this… Up until 1995, we were throwing millions of dollars into it,” Gregory says. The book, in fact, is set in 1995, when a CIA agent hopes to save the program by recruiting Irene’s adolescent son, Matty, who has just discovered he can astral travel.
Gregory himself doesn’t believe in psychic powers. “I’m a skeptic but I do like it in science fiction.” The only magic he believes in is that which a writer produces from his imagination. “A reader with a writer is making the same kind of contract as an audience with a magician. You know that magician is trying to fool you; you want them to fool you… And that’s what I’m really interested in. You know I’m going to tell you a story… but hopefully you’re willing to go along.”