2019’s The Infinite Noise is the first volume in Lauren Shippen’s The Bright Sessions series.
Stressed and unable to maintain a passing grade, high school football player Caleb gives a class bully a well deserved and at the same time completely unsanctioned beating. Disciplinary consequences follow, including therapy.
Caleb’s circumstances are complicated by a superpower he has no idea he possesses. Luckily for Caleb, his therapist is not a bald telepath in a wheelchair looking for more child soldiers. Caleb’s therapist is Doctor Bright.
Against all the traditions of superpower psychotherapy, Doctor Bright has her patient’s best interests at heart1. She also has some experience with “atypicals,” as the superpowered are called in this setting. It does not take Bright long to discover Caleb’s power. He is an empath and the noise of other people’s emotions is driving him up the wall.
Understanding the issue permits adopting coping mechanisms. Caleb may be trapped in an endless sea of his fellow teens’ feelings, but now he can tell the difference between his own emotions and emotional static from the hormone-crazed adolescents who surround him.
Knowing how other people feel gives him a leg up on dealing with his fellow teens. It does not take long for some of Caleb’s fellow students to notice how perceptive Caleb can be. In fact, so insightful is he that he almost seems to be reading other people’s minds. Knowing that he should keep his power secret does not necessarily mean Caleb is any good at it.
Enhanced empathy could be romance on speed dial, if only because Caleb does not have to guess what other people are feeling. Nevertheless, it takes Caleb and Adam a surprising long time to work out their mutual attraction, almost as though they were teenagers with no idea what they are doing.
Caleb and Adam’s school being an unexpectedly chill place, nobody has any particular problem with two boys dating. The real issue is Adam’s parents. Not that they mind Adam dating Caleb! The issue is that both of Adam’s parents are researchers, consultants to shadowy organizations. Their particular field of specialty?
Atypicals just like Caleb.
One can tell this is science fiction because there are people with psychic powers and because the high school administrators are neither grossly incompetent nor wildly malicious when it comes to high school bullying. The novel might as well have flying cars.
Adam’s parents firmly deny that their activities support malevolent entities. These denials are unconvincing and also largely unexplored. Material for sequels!
Comic book readers and superhero roleplaying game players may be a bit surprised that at no point does Caleb sit down to work out to what stupendous purpose he could put his empathic powers. While he does get use out of them, it’s not purposeful. This is because his conscious efforts are focused on dealing with the incessant noise in his head rather than on utilitarian applications.
The novel raises an interesting point where Caleb is concerned, which is that since it is potentially very difficult for him to sort out which of the feelings, he is feeling are his and which are those of people in proximity to him, working out whether he is actually attracted to someone or just mirroring their crush on him can be tricky. In fact, one does not need superpowers for this to be an issue. How much of any given romance is driven by unintended side effects of trying to model someone else’s cognitive state2? And will thinking about the root causes of infatuation while engaging in a romance prove useful in any way? Or will it lead to a cycle of positive feedback that ends in a meltdown?
Infinite Noise is very amiable, very skillfully written … but it wasn’t my cup of tea. But you might like it.
1: Which puts the novel much closer to the Children of the Atom end of the scale, far from the X‑Men. There’s drama but it’s on a personal level, not laying waste to whole neighborhoods over a point of philosophy.
2: That there’s some sort of feedback loop involved makes a lot more sense than the mathematically untenable One True Love model. Consider: there are seven or eight billion people alive on the planet. If individuals have one and only one TL, the odds they would ever be in the same city, let alone meet, are absurdly low. And this assumes that OTLs will be alive in the same era and on the same planet.