Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Philosophical SF (Science Fiction / Speculative Fiction): Four Lists and a Project

I'm increasingly convinced that science fiction, or more broadly, "speculative fiction" is a powerful philosophical tool. The specificity of the possibilities considered, and its emotional and imagistic power, engages parts of the mind that more abstract forms of speculation leave hungry. Possibilities are livened, affecting how we think about them.

Suppose you agree.  What might you want to read (or watch)?

A couple dozen professional philosophers who enjoy SF, and two SF writers with graduate training in philosophy, have agreed to offer me lists of ten "personal favorite" works of philosophically interesting SF, along with brief "pitches" pointing toward the works' philosophical interest. I'll be rolling out these lists four at a time on the blog.  At the end, I will compile a mega-list of all the lists, as well as some observations about the aggregate results.

I emphasize that individuals' lists are not intended as thoroughly researched "top ten" lists -- just suggestions of some works that the contributors have enjoyed and found philosophically engaging.

If you are a professional philosopher (or an SF writer with graduate training in philosophy) and you would like to contribute a list, email me. (Corrections are also welcome.)

Any reader who wishes to add one or more suggested works to the comments section, please feel free!

So, the first four lists:


List from Josh Dever (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin):

Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves (novel, 2000). The opening of chapter 4 is a beautiful test case in whether a tiny datum can drive a massive theory change.

Samuel Delany, Dhalgren and Triton (novels, 1975 and 1976). Explorations of just about every imaginable alternative sociological and political structure and theory.

Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth (novel, 1976). Time stopped in the first century AD, and restarted in 1945. Come up with a theory of time to make that consistent!

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (novel, 1980). Like that Star Trek episode “Darmok”, except, you know, good. Also, best post-apocalyptic novel ever by a significant author of children’s literature.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, “Quadraturin” (short story, 192-something). There’s a superabundance of science fiction about weird physics and metaphysics of time, but a disappointing dearth of the same with space. This is an exception.

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Author of the Acacia Seeds, and Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics” and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (short stories, 1982 and 1973). The first: always nice when science fiction remembers that linguistics is a science. The second: a powerful counterexample, but note only to certain forms of consequentialism. Think of it as an argument for good social choice theory.

China Miéville, Embassytown and The City & The City (novels, 2011 and 2009). The first is a fun, if a bit clunky, bit of exploratory philosophy of language. The second is a particularly adventurous instance of exploratory metaphysics.

Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, Episode 19 (portion of a novel, 1997). The story of the missing eleven days resulting from the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. More fun metaphysics of time, plus a bit of philosophies of language and gender.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (novel, 1996). Philosophy by virtue of mentioning “Montague Grammar and the Semantics of Physical Modality”, science fiction by virtue of being set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarmet, fun by virtue of including basically everything in between.

H.G. Wells, “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” (short story, 1895). The definitive counterexample to immunity to error through misidentification.


List from Lewis Powell (Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Leonard Richardson, Constellation Games (novel, 2012): Aliens make first contact, and Ariel Blum’s first reaction is to hope that they’ll let us play their video games. They do. The novel is much better than this premise would lead you to expect. Examines issues in social/political philosophy concerning scarcity of resources (and post-scarcity societies), anarchism and social organization, the (dis)value of immortality, and the role of art and games in human life.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974): A gripping story investigating a society that has embraced and internalized a full-blown communalism. Examines issues of privacy and property, and the individual’s relationship to society.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969): first contact story about someone encountering a society with radically different manifestations of gender roles, sexuality, and social norms. Examines issues of gender and sexuality, as well as love and friendship.

Ted Chiang, “Hell is the Absence of God” (short story, 2001): Story set in a world where everyone has concrete evidence of the existence of God and an afterlife, but no better understanding of why there is suffering. Examines issues in philosophy of religion, epistemology, the problem of evil and divine hiddenness.

Ted Chiang, “Division By Zero” (short story, 1991): one of the few works I’ve seen of mathematical science fiction (rather than empirical science fiction), impressive treatment of the possibility that arithmetic is inconsistent.

Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life” / “Evolution of Human Science” (short stories, 1998/2000): These stories are very different, but both raise fascinating questions about the nature of science, the role of humans in science, and the consequences of dealing with scientific progress that exceeds the understanding of individual humans.

PD James/Alfonso Cuaron, The Children of Men (novel, 1992/movie, 2006): While there are a number of plot differences between the film and the book, both do an excellent job of investigating reactions to an existential threat to humanity arising from total infertility.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Who Watches the Watchers” / “First Contact” / “Thine Own Self” (tv episodes, 1989/1991/1994): The prime directive (non-interference with less advanced civilizations) is one of the most fascinating elements from Star Trek. These episodes do an excellent job of exploring the ethics of non-interference and undisclosed observation, and raise questions about the withholding of beneficial advances required by it.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818): It seems almost unnecessary to list this work, which is such a widely read classic. Shelley’s tale of the “modern Prometheus” does an exceptional job of raising questions about the nature of humanity and the ethics of creating life.

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011): A novel about people trying to interact with an alien race who think and communicate in a fundamentally different manner than us. A more sophisticated take on this concept than the TNG episode Darmok, and with considerably more interest for philosophers of language.


List from Amy Kind (Professor of Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College) (short stories only):

Isaac Asimov, “Evidence” (1946). Probes the plausibility of the Turing Test.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Immortal” (1947). An intriguing exploration of why immortality may not be quite what we’d bargained for; pairs well with Bernard Williams’ “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.”

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (1995). Explores the nature of gender roles via a story about an alien race who need humans for procreative purposes.

Arthur Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953). Could God’s having a purpose for us provide our lives with meaningfulness?

Greg Egan, “The Infinite Assassin” (1991). How are we related to our counterparts throughout the multiverse?

Lois Gould, “X: A Fabulous Child’s Story” (1972). What role does gender identity play in our lives? What would life be like without it?

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Nine Lives” (1968). What is it like to be a clone? And more specifically, what is it like to have one’s connection to other clones severed after having been raised together with them?

John Morressy, “Except My Life3” (1991). Another story probing questions of identity via consideration of what life might be like when you’re one of a set of closely connected clones.

Norman Spinrad, “The Weed of Time” (1970). What would it be like to experience time in a non-linear fashion?

Roger Zelazny, “For a Breath I Tarry” (1966). A beautiful depiction of a machine’s quest to understand what it is like to be human. (See also Isaac Asimov’s novella, Bicentennial Man and Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC”)


List from Steven Horst (Chair of Philosophy, Wesleyan University)

C.S. Lewis, Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous Strength (novels, 1938-1945). Notable for using the sci-fi genre to explore Christian ideas of the fall, intelligent aliens, angels, celestial intelligences, magic, and the dangers of totalitarianism wrapped in the mantle of science.

Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver / The Confusion / The System of the World (novels, 2003-2005). Set as historical novels and developed around the core of interactions between Newton and Leibniz, explores the origins of modern systems of science and finance in counterpoint with alchemical memes.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). At the risk of a major spoiler, this book explores ideas of the quantum multiverse, with the added bonus that some characters are stand-ins for the views of people like Husserl, Gödel, and Bohr.

Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time / A Wind in the Door / A Swiftly Tilting Planet (novels, 1962-1978). This may have been my first introduction to science fiction as a child, and while it is not the most intellectually challenging series about time travel (and dimensional travel, in the case of the memorable Cherubim that is both singular and plural), it is perhaps still the most memorable and endearing.

Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix (movie, 1999). Not only the most influential movie about virtual reality, but one that implicitly poses interesting questions about what counts as “real”, as the Matrix-world is both the world we assume to be reality and is thoroughly intersubjective.

Larry Niven, Ringworld and sequels (novels, starting 1970). An enormous engineered world encircling a distant star provides a context for exploration of the variability of the human phenotype and contrasts with two alien species and a third that turns out to not be as alien as we first imagine.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man” (TV episode, 1989). The trial to determine whether the Android Data is a person or the property of Star Fleet provides the context for an engaging exploration of personhood and artificial life.

Battlestar Galactica (TV series, 2003-2009). Over six seasons, we are drawn into an increasingly complicated dialectic about the original metallic Cylons, the Cylon “skin jobs”, and by implication, the nature of humanity and personhood, as well as some teaser forays into shared virtual reality that were to be explored in the uncompleted prequel series Caprica.

Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (novel, 1957). The late British astronomer’s novel starts out looking like a novel about a disaster from deep space, but takes a turn to explore the prospects of communication with an alien intelligence very different from ourselves.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Ainulindalë” (in The Silmarillion, published 1977). Tolkien’s Neo-Platonic creation myth puts the rest of the stories about Middle Earth in a distinctly different cosmic context, hints of which can be seen in the better-known works only after one has read the cosmic “backstory”.


Second list here.


Unknown said...

Fred Hoyle was a Cambridge Professor of Astronomy, not the Astronomer Royal!
End of pedantic comment!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Stephen! I'm forwarding your comment to Steve Horst and we'll attempt to get it straight.

Anonymous said...

Don't think I'm crazy when I say this but you have to add Extraterrestrial Sex Fetish by Supervert. It's one of my favorite books. There are twenty-some chapters on aliens in the history of philosophy. It's a serious book so check it out.

Doctor J said...

This is great. Thanks for the lists!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 10:12: Haven't heard of that one! Thanks for the suggestion. Sex is of course an important part of human life, so it's an important topic for serious speculative fiction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Stephen: Steve did a bit of digging around and found conflicting evidence, so we've revised it to err on the side of caution.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Leigh!

Ike Sharpless said...

Thanks for this - I'm both a political theorist and a lover of speculative fiction, so I was happy to find here a few books to add to my Goodreads queue!

I second Mieville, le Guin, and Stephenson as strong candidates for this list.

Possible Additions (some of these fit the "scifi" genre better than others.)

le Guin's "The Lathe of Heaven" (interesting to me because it can be read as one of the few "conservative" works of specfic)

PKD's "Ubik" and "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch"

Asimov's "Nightfall"

Herbert's "Dune"

Theodore Sturgeon's story "Microcosmic Gods" or books "More than Human" and "The Dreaming Jewels"

Christopher Priest, "The Inverted World"

Stanislaw Lem, "The Cyberiad"

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

Alaistair Reynolds' ouvre

Nick Sagan's Idlewild trilogy

Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War"

Kir Bulychev's "Half a Life"

[Less 'serious', but still great fun and intellectually engaging: Clive Barker's Imajica, Weaveworld, and The Great and Secret Show]

Tina said...

I just posted a comment asking my readers for their ideas on the philosophical novel and nearly all of them mention sci-fi. I have yet to read any, so now I'm convinced that I must.

Sam Clark said...

Charles Stross, Glasshouse: What if Parfit were right about personal identity?

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers: military utopia with interesting connections to The Republic

Greg Egan, Permutation City: is an eternal life worth living? What counts as immortality?

Catherine M. Valente, 'Silently and Very Fast': what is a self, and how does it develop?

Iain M. Banks, Culture sequence beginning with Consider Phlebas: what can give life meaning after the end of scarcity? What is a good life?

Rudy Rucker, Ware sequence beginning with Software: is the mind the brain?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting list, Sam -- thanks!

CF said...

The book "Philosophy Through Science Fiction: A Coursebook with Readings" by Ryan Nichols et al. also offers nice lists pertaining to different topics.

Saoirse1916 said...

The absence of Gene Wolfe and Stanislaw Lem from the list is utterly criminal!

Gene Wolfe
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
The Book of the New Sun
Latro in the Mist

Stanislaw Lem
The Cyberiad
Imaginary Magnitudes
The Futurological Congress

Here are a few others that are must-reads for anyone interested in Speculative Sci-Fi

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

Jack Vance, The Dying Earth

Martin Amis, Time's Arrow

Iain M. Banks, Feersum Endjinn

Walter Miller, Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

Frederick Pohl, Gateway

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic

Unknown said...


There were a lot of hard choices to make in winnowing down my list to 10 (I assume that goes for most people). In some cases, I left things off that I felt confident other people would include, such as Lem's Cyberiad.

Canticle was also on one draft of my list. I did recently encourage a philosopher friend to buy it though, so maybe that makes up for leaving it off.

Anonymous said...

Frank Herbert's novel 'Dune'.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestions, folks! And just to be clear:

No fair criticizing the contributors for not including certain works.

They are not pretending to be authoritative experts. These are not "Top Ten Best" lists but just personal favorites. I was very explicit about that with the contributors.

So if Author X happens not to be contributor Y's favorite, for whatever reason (including Y's never having read X or Y's idiosyncratic feeling of being left cold by X) Author X doesn't go on the list regardless of objective, intersubjective, or cultural importance.

That said, further suggestions are welcome -- more than welcome!

Saoirse1916 said...

I shan't be swayed, Eric. If I do not loudly point out Lewis' enormous failings as a self-proclaimed sci-fi fan, then who else will? Lewis may be content to live in a world where no one reads Wolfe and Lem because of willing and pernicious buck-passers like Lewis, who despite knowing truth's radiance wantonly hide its light from others. 'Tis the Lewises I blame for the sad, weary state of contemporary Sci-Fi, where amidst blights of Brown, hordes of Hubbard, cataclysms of Crichton, and plague upon plague of Robot Transformations unable to be held at Bay, hungry fools treat meager and stale crumbs of Galactica as the most sumptuous of royal feasts or through simple tricks of light find themselves gorging upon unending portions of inedible tripe formed then reformed both below the noxious Abramistic bowels and above the false heights atop Whedonic lowland hills.

By God, if you have mouths, then you must scream!

'Sup, Lewis

David Therapy Los Angeles said...

I never thought of Infinite Jest as science or speculative fiction, but I agree with the article's thesis in general.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

LOL, Christy -- of course if you're razzing Lewis as a friend, that's totally different!

Neil said...

What's that book set in a bizarre alternative universe where Embassytown is a bit clunky? That one.

casey said...

I'm actually working on a syllabus that is based on the fiction of Philip K. Dick. Most of his short stories are awesomely philosophical ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" on persons and memory; "Minority Report" on free will and determinism, etc.) An advantage is that many of his stories have been made into films.

Simon Fokt said...

Not wanting to specifically blame anyone, but I'd agree that Lem cannot be omitted! Here's a more specific list (thematically):

Stanisław Lem
Solaris (novel, 1961)
Issues related to limitations of knowledge and communication, philosophy of mind and radically different minds.

His Master's Voice (novel, 1968)
Fiasco (novel, 1986)
Two more novels exploring the linguistic and cognitive limitations on understanding and communicating with truly different, alien life forms.

Golem XIV (novel, 1981)
Story of an AI which achieves consciousness, asks questions in philosophy of mind and questions human ethics.

The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971)
On distinguishing reality from hallucination, scepticism and knowledge.

The Investigation (novel, 1959)
Issues in knowledge acquisition and justification.

Return from the Stars (novel, 1961)
Is a utopian society possible for humans? What is the value of suffering, danger and risk?

Wizja lokalna (novel, 1982 - not translated)
Moral issues related to artificial intelligences and immortality.

If you plan to include authors writing in other languages, an amazing Polish writer, Jacek Dukaj, has some fantastic novels, sadly not translated.

Inne Pieśni (Other Songs) (novel, 2003)
Aristotle's physics is actually true - there are five elements, form and matter, and some people have the power to will form onto matter.

Lód (Ice) (novel, 2007)
The Tunguska Meteorite creates the Ice which freezes history and laws of logic in a part of the world - under the ice logic is two-valued, while outside it it's many-valued.

Czarne oceany (Black Oceans) (novel, 2001)
Extensa (novel, 2002)
Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (An Ideal Imperfection) (novel, 2004)
Explore post-humanism, the limits of human cognition and self, personal identity and persistence.

Anonymous said...

Great idea! Thanks for putting this together.

Anonymous said...

Good to see that Anathem and Dhalgren (which I'm currently about half-way through) are listed. Personally I think there is potentially more in Anathem than many give it credit for.

I think that one of the keys to why science fiction is a great way to explore philosophy is the challenge it presents to our assumptions.

Anyway, I'll have have a think and get back to you with a list of the books I'd add (and why).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'll be interested to see, Sam D.!