By Elizabeth Barrette

This list came about when someone brought up the topic of empathy on an email list. He was very curious about empathy both in fiction and in fact, but only knew of a couple sources dealing with it. The following books are good to excellent speculative fiction and well worth reading for entertainment value — but in terms of cultivating empathy as a talent in real life, some are examples of things to try while others are examples of mistakes to avoid. Readers should exercise discretion.

  • Strands of Starlight by Gael Baudino. Signet, 1989. (Fantasy.) Here humans and elves mingle, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not. The main character starts out human and turns into an elf — powerful magic at play — and the elves all have highly developed empathy. This is a good example of how an intensely compassionate culture looks compared with one bereft of empathy.
  • The Forbidden Tower by Marion Zimmer Bradley. DAW Books, 1977. (Science fantasy.) Set in the author’s famous Darkover, this novel tells a tale of romance, tragedy, and political intrigue. Basically it revolves around a bunch of folks who want an alternative to some social arrangements they dislike. Many of the characters have some kind of psychic talent; Damon has the Ridenow gift of empathy. On Darkover, most talents are tied to a particular family and that’s his. Darkovans are usually human but there are a few human-alien crossbreeds. Empathic ability shows up in lots of other Darkover stories too.
  • The Cursed by Dave Duncan. Del Rey, 1995. (Fantasy.) This is one of those rare books based on a genuinely original motif, in this case a plague that leaves some survivors with one of several rather shocking gifts — or curses. The relevant ones ar that of the Muolscath has no emotions of his own but can induce them in others, and the Jaulscath who picks up everyone else’s thoughts. Really good material here on adjusting to traumatic changes and making creative solutions to weird problems. The characters are human but one assumes that the plague makes some major modifications.
  • For Love of Mother-Not by Alan Dean Foster. Del Rey, 1983. (Science fiction.) A boy named Flinx develops an erratic but sometimes spectacular empathic talent, and adopts an Alaspinian miniature dragon which also has empathic abilities. Flinx is human but genetically modified by some highly unethical people. Much mayhem ensues when they track him down and try to retrieve him. This book gives a good look at how awkward it is for an empath to try and fit into a non-empathic society. Later books follow Flinx as his talents grow and cause further problems for him. Part of Foster’s famous “Commonwealth” universe, this is a very well-known book.
  • Challenges by Sharon Green. Avon Eos, 1998. (Court intrigue fantasy.) This is the third book in the “The Blending” and the one I started with; I still don’t have the first one. The human characters each possess an Elemental talent and the Spirit magic user has the ability to read and influence other people’s emotions. There’s quite a spread of ethical and unethical use in here, and both get pretty creative. Subsequent books in this series go into more detail as the characters learn more about their abilities.
  • Commencement by Roby James. Del Rey, 1996. (Science fantasy.) Lost on an unfamiliar planet, Ronica McBride struggles to restore her fragmented talents. She can still sense other people’s feelings but it takes her a while to regain the ability to influence them. Nice rendition of a culture in which almost everyone is talented — and creepy examples of untalented ones too. These are humans, but somewhat influenced by aliens as it turns out.
  • Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey. DAW Books, 1987. (Fantasy.) Newly Chosen as a Herald, Talia finds herself thrown into a whole different culture. Not until the end of this book does she really discover her empathic Gift but it colors the action all along. The sequel, Arrow’s Flight, features a splendid example of empathy getting out of control; the method for getting it under control is slightly exaggerated for literary effect but the degree of tension caused is still perfectly accurate. Most of the characters are pure human, but the horselike Companions are empathic too. One of the best examples of living with empathy.
  • Turning Point by Lisanne Norman. DAW Books, 1993. (Science fiction.) First of the Sholan Alliance novels, this one introduces the human Carrie and the alien Kusac, both of whom have strong empathy, among other abilities. They wind up in a very tight psychic/sexual bond. There’s an interesting thread about Sholan telepaths being unable to fight, too — until they match up with a human. Subsequent books in this series go into much greater depth and include some excellent renditions of empathic overload.
  • Starsong by Dan Parkinson. TSR books, 1988. (Science fantasy.) A group of spacefaring elves return to Earth in a quest to save their world. All of them have varying degrees of empathy, along with other talents, and they can wake similar abilities in some humans. This is one of the best renditions of empathy in action that I’ve found.
  • Psion by Joan D. Vinge. Dell, 1982. (Science fiction.) A street kid named Cat tangles with an overly curious government. Cat is half-human, half-alien and possesses empathic ability courtesy of his Hydran parent.
  • On Basilisk Station by David Weber. Baen Books, 1993. (Military science fiction.) The first of a fabulous series, this novel introduces Honor Harrington and her companion Nimitz, an empathic treecat. Later in the series, Honor herself develops some impressive empathic abilities; she is human, but genetically engineered in some subtle ways, and her bond with Nimitz brings out a lot of hidden talents.