According to Wikipedia, science fiction is a genre of fiction “… largely based on writing rationally about alternative possible worlds or futures. It is similar to, but differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or … postulated laws of nature.”
When I wrote my novel Osmosis a few years ago, I wasn’t thinking of what genre it fit into. I chose to posit a world just like ours, in today’s time frame, an ordinary American story—with one exception: What would it be like if some people could actually “hear”—even imperfectly—what was in other people’s minds?
In the course of the story, that one anomaly, initially limited in scope to a few main characters, insisted on expanding to potentially change just about everything.
That’s how it is in the “Worlds of If.” A lot of authors have used the technique—change one little thing in reality and see what happens—to explore history and philosophy from slightly different angles. The one I can remember offhand is James Thurber’s hilarious story, “If Grant had been Drinking at Appomatttox,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1930.
That little bit of fantasy for the sake of a story got me thinking a lot about how we communicate with each other. I found John Searle’s book The Mystery of Consciousness, containing references to “mirror neurons”—a portion of the brain that seems to mirror the behavior of other people near us. According to those researchers who have been studying this phenomenon, we (along with some other species) register the actions of people with the same neural circuits that are activated when we perform the same actions. This, they contend, helps explain the fact that we know how others are apt to behave, and even possibly explain such social attributes as empathy. We communicate more—some times much more—than we’re aware of.
This is not the same as “mind reading,” as it is usually understood and as played with in my novel, but it suggests a lot of possible explanations for how we get along with others.
There’s a very good summary of the study of mirror neurons and their functions by Ben Thomas in “What’s So Special about Mirror Neurons” in a Scientific American Guest Blog of November 6, 2012.