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Psychic Starship Pilot

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Oftentimes when Faster-Than-Light Travel exists, not just any navigator will do. It takes a special individual to guide a ship through FTL travel, in some cases that means having the right kind of Psychic Powers. It might be that precognition is necessary to detect obstacles before colliding with them, or hyperspace is opaque to people without the right senses. Maybe Hyperspace Is a Scary Place and psychics are needed to repel demons.

Whatever the case this trope allows for a more narratively interesting FTL experience by injecting a note of human drama into the whole process. Simple automatic systems doing all the heavy work for our spacefaring heroes is functional but not very exciting. Having the fate of the ship and everyone aboard in the hands of a single talented individual is much better at enabling interesting story situations.

See also The Navigator for the more mundane version. Compare Cyborg Helmsman, who does the same job with cybernetic augmentations. Needing one of these but not having one may lead to a Blind Jump.


Examples

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Heroic Age: Navigating in FTL requires ill-defined psychic powers. The only species that can actually do this reliably is the Silver Tribe, who are all powerful psychics by default. Humanity, by contrast, seems to have a single individual who can do it. Most space-faring civilizations rely on "Star Roads" that were built by Precursors to get around the galaxy, but those don't go everywhere.

    Literature 
  • Brandon Sanderson's novella "Defending Elysium" has a subplot about humanity's lack of FTL travel and alien races refusing to give it to them until they prove themselves responsible enough to handle it. Since the story revolves around a powerful human cytonics user, it seems likely that this trope is in effect. In actuality, the trope is inverted: the calculations are easily automated, but a cytonic user is required to actually power the jump. In other words, a computer can do the FTL navigation, but a superhuman individual is required to act as the FTL drive. His later work Skyward uses the same system, as it's a Stealth Sequel set hundreds of years later in the same universe.
  • In Dune, the Spacing Guild's Navigators immerse themselves in concentrated spice gas to give themselves the prescience needed to find safe passage between stars and planets. Without them, ships engaging in space-folding have a one in ten chance of disappearing without a trace. This is because computers are banned in the Imperium. After the fall of the Spacing Guild and the reemergence of navigation computers, the odds of a Critical Existence Failure dropped significantly.
  • In The Galaxy Primes by E. E. "Doc" Smith, an experimental starship is built based in psionic teleportation. One has to be a high-level psion to even activate the drive, and failure to visualize one's destination results in Teleportation Misfire.
  • Not technically pilots, but "pinlighters" in Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" are psychics who, with the help of their much faster psychic cats who work with them as Partners, defend spaceships from strange space creatures called Dragons.
  • In Known Space, most Kzinti can't see hyperspace, but instead of using mass indicators like humans, they have the few individuals who can see it fly hyper-capable ships. Unlike Kzin telepaths, they're rather well-respected, largely because the Patriarch was so desperate to have hyperdrive that he elevated most who could see hyperspace to nobility and bought their female relatives for his harem.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel in The Sirantha Jax Series relies on jumpers, people with a gene that allows them to perceive beacons placed in grimspace by a Precursor race. A ship that enters grimspace without a jumper will inevitably be lost. Trouble is, grimspace progressively eats jumpers' brains, which eventually causes them to die while jumping (they leave their mind behind in grimspace). It's called Navigator Burnout Syndrome.
  • In The Stars Are Cold Toys, baseline humans are the only ones able to pilot FTL ships despite the setting being full of superhuman aliens. All other species must be frozen solid for FTL jumps, lest they die instantly or go incurably insane. Rather than this making humanity a galactic superpower, however, the result is that humanity and Earth are quickly pigeonholed by more powerful species into the role of the galactic taxi drivers. Truth be told, the other races have other means of FTL, but it takes them months to get to other stars, while humans can do it in a day. This ends up becoming moot after the means by which the Geometers travel, which involves combining both methods of FTL that is both incredibly fast and safe for all species.
  • While they normally use navigation computers or astromech droids to calculate safe hyperspace jumps, more than one Star Wars novel has had Force-users making a Blind Jump due to extenuating circumstances and using the Force to navigate by instinct instead of the usual calculations. Thrawn: Alliances mentions that this is standard practice for capital ships of the Chiss ascendancy; the navigators are Force-sensitive Chiss children, who lose their Force sensitivity as they grow up.
  • Tower and the Hive: In an advanced interstellar society, psychics with telekinetic powers are used to teleport starships from one solar system to another.
  • In Uplift, the Tandu designed one of their Client races, the Episiarchs, to warp reality for a method of FTL that is much faster than the more common hyperdrives and probability drives, but very dangerous.
  • For a time in the backstory of The Worthing Saga, all starship pilots had the Swipe (telepathy), not because it was necessary to navigate, but because telepathy is such an advantage in ship-to-ship combat that a pilot without the Swipe would be easy pickings for military enemies or Space Pirates whose pilots did. Then all the Swipe pilots got together to try to force an end to an interstellar war and the non-Swipe humans got paranoid about the Swipes taking over and wiped them out.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Downplayed in Andromeda: organic pilots are needed to navigate slipstream. A ship's AI can't make the intuitive leaps that a living brain can, which is necessary to navigate slipstream.
  • In the Doctor Who story "Warriors' Gate", the only way known to the culture featured in the story to navigate in trackless and non-linear hyperspace is to have a navigator with precognitive powers. These "time-sensitives" can foresee which path the ship needs to take to arrive safely. To this end, they have enslaved a time-sensitive species called the Tharils.
  • In Star Trek: Discovery, the spore drive can only be safely navigated by a sentient being who can communicate with the spores. A mysterious species called the tardigrade can do it, but that only shifts the problem because the crew still needs to communicate with the tardigrade itself. At least some empaths can pilot the spore drive... plus the one human who was reckless enough to break Federation law by injecting himself with tardigrade DNA.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Myriad Song, FTL navigation is done by Xenharmonically sensitive "Conductors" who can sense the "magh signal" broadcast throughout the universe. One of the Gift prerequisites is an "unusual appearance" to indicate Syndic genetic modification or cybernetics. They can take additional Gifts to teleport short distances without a ship.
  • Navigators in Warhammer 40,000 are inbred mutants with three eyes (the third in the middle of the forehead and will kill anyone looking into it). They can perceive the Warp without going mad(der), and especially the Astronomicon beacon powered by the Emperor.

    Video Games 
  • In Stellaris, it's possible to research "Psi Jump Drives" that draw upon the crew's psionic energies to jump a ship vast distances instantaneously. The strategic resource Zro dust enhances psi ability and improves conventional FTL speed.

    Webcomics 
  • Drive (Dave Kellett): Skitter's species has a gravity-sensing organ that allows him to sense upcoming debris while piloting a ship with ring drive. It also makes him telepathic, somehow.
  • Homestuck: After the rebellion fails the Psiioniic is forcibly grafted to the empress' flagship and is made to power it with his immense telekinetic powers, allowing her the pleasure of being the first of the invasion force to reach any hapless planet her army encounters. This, combined with the fact that later in the story two other psionic trolls accelerate a meteor to lightspeed solely through telekinesis and that Hiveswap reveals that trolls do not have atmospheric flight technology, implies that trolls don't have psychic-powered FTL engines as such but rather directly have their psions hurl their ships around at lightspeed.
  • Spacetrawler: FTL travel is achieved by having a lobotomized alien sitting at the front of the ship and using their psychic abilities to deflect debris in front of the ship and into the engines for propulsion. After they're freed, it's replaced by a different form of FTL, the physics of which aren't explained.
  • Zap!: The Excelsior requires a psychic pilot, possibly because she's a prototype Living Ship built by a psychic.

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