Four more lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers.
And more to come! By the end, I'll have posted about 300-400 recommendations, which I will sort into a master list, analyzing in various ways. (If you are a professional philosopher [roughly, Ph.D. and full-time teaching or post-doc] or an SF writer with graduate training in philosophy and you would like to contribute a list to the project, please email me.)
Readers, please feel free to contribute your own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.
List from Keith Frankish (Senior Visiting Research Fellow, The Open University, and Adjunct Professor, Mind and Brain Program, University of Crete):
Henry James, “The Jolly Corner” (short story, 1908). Revisiting his childhood home, a middle-aged man confronts his monstrous alter ego and achieves a sort of redemption. Raises questions about choice, responsibility, character, and personal identity. (For a different take on the same theme, see Basil Dearden’s 1970 film, The Man Who Haunted Himself, starring Roger Moore.)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (novel, 1949). In a grimy Stalinist state, thought is controlled, history rewritten, and the minds of nonconformists ruthlessly reshaped. Themes include collectivism, power, censorship, propaganda, and the relation between language and thought.
Nigel Kneale, The Year of the Sex Olympics (TV play, 1968). Depicts a future in which an elite pacify and control the rest of the population through sensationalist reality television. Themes of hedonism, populism, and the role of the mass media. Parallels with Plato’s case against the poets.
Alain Resnais, Je t’aime, Je t’aime (movie, 1968). A man time travels through the last year of a tragic relationship, re-experiencing events in random order. Uses time travel as a metaphor for memory and the way we construct our identities through narrative.
Terry Nation et al., Survivors (TV series, 1975-7). A plague wipes out most of humanity and the few survivors try to rebuild society. The series explores political and philosophical issues, including the relation between the individual and the collective, the trade-off between freedom and security, and gender politics. Highlights include the episodes “Law and Order”, “Lights of London”, and “Over the Hills”.
Andrei Tarkovsky, Sacrifice (Swedish: ‘Offret’) (movie, 1986). A man makes an irrational personal sacrifice in order to prevent a nuclear war. A poetic film that is open to many interpretations (including religious ones), but which is broadly about how we give meaning to our lives.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light” (TV episode, 1992). An alien probe causes Captain Picard to experience life in a long-dead civilization. A touching episode, which deals with identity, memory, survival, and the representation of time.
Greg Egan, Diaspora (novel, 1997). A story of software-based posthumans, who can create their own identities and virtual environments. Explores what life might be like when completely freed from biology and massively enhanced by technology.
Peter Watts, Blindsight (novel, 2006). An intelligent spaceship crewed by neurologically enhanced humans makes first contact with a terrifyingly alien species, while a narrator skilled in reading body language struggles to make sense of it all. Raises questions about the nature of intelligence and the function of phenomenal consciousness. This book is like crack cocaine for philosophers of mind.
Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). A solitary moon worker discovers that he is merely a token of a person-type. (Or is he the type?)
List from Ben Blumson (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):
Forest Acerkman, “Cosmic Report Card: Earth” (short story, 1973). This short story condenses most of the characteristics of the genre into a single letter.
Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). A novel set in spaces of different dimensions.
Martin Amis, Time's Arrow (novel, 1991). The protagonist of this novel is a Nazi doctor who experiences time in reverse.
John Barth, “Frame-Tale” (short-story, 1968). This metafiction on the theme of looping time has a twist.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (short story, 1941). This short story is a beautiful illustration of a particularly strange form of anti-realism.
Roald Dahl, “William and Mary” (short story, 1960). A non-sceptical brain-in-a-vat scenario.
Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (novel, 1968). A novel about artificial intelligence which makes it difficult to believe that androids could be unconscious.
Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies” (short story, 1959). A looping and incestuous time-travel story.
Ursula K Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (short story, 1973). A purported reductio of utilitarianism.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (novel, 1943). This novel contains the most charming counterexamples to the sufficiency of resemblance for representation.
List from Mason Cash (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Central Florida):
Iain M. Banks, “The State of the Art” (short story, 1991). The Culture (featured in many of Banks’ SF/Space Opera novels), is a post-scarcity libertarian technological utopia, in which AI minds take care of just about all the heavy thinking and planning, and humanoid inhabitants can do and be whatever they want. The theme through many of these novels is how messed up people can still be in such a utopia. A Culture ship and its human crew discover Earth in 1977, at the height of the Cold War and on the brink of nuclear armageddon. Our narrator argues for contact. Another wants to defect to Earth (inconceivably to many of his colleagues). Another argues that the whole insane planet should be destroyed with a micro-black hole. The limits of utopia, the beauty of flawed humanity, the role of scarcity and risk and fragility in human life, and the possibility that important aspects of life might be lost when one can have and do whatever one likes, for as long as one likes.
Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (novel, 2010). Once any civilization develops realistic artificial realities, in which people can upload themselves and live, religious fanatics inevitably use this tech to make sure that there really is a Hell, in which “deserving” people can now be subjected to unending torture and torment. A war is being fought in a series of different virtual realities, to determine whether these Hells should exist. The anti-hell side (including the above mentioned Culture) is losing. Should the virtual war be brought into the real world, if it means saving millions of intelligent beings from eternal torment?
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (a collection of connected short stories, 1957). Possibly the most charming existential novel you will find. Douglas Spaulding, 12 years old, living in Green Town Illinois in 1927, realizes that he is alive. But with that comes the realization that one day he also will die. A rumination about what it means to really live, love, and be happy. It’s not obviously SF, but by an SF author, and includes a time machine, an attempt to build a virtual reality “happiness machine” (c.f. Nozick’s “experience machine”), a tragic love story about a reincarnated lover, a ready-to-die great-grandma's thoughts on immortality, a 9 year old’s inspiring thoughts on happy endings, a serial killer horror story and the need for scary stories that add danger to life, a mechanical gypsy fortune-teller who cries for help, and bottling all the joys of a summer day into a bottle of dandelion wine.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (novel, 2008). Irrefutable proof of an alien civilization is discovered, and we could get there in just a few years’ travel time. While the UN is deliberating about what to do, the Jesuits recognize a message from God in the circumstances of the discovery, and so organize a secret Mission to this world. But the mission ends in horrific disaster. A Jesuit priest and linguist is the sole survivor, rescued 40 years later, now broken, bitter, disillusioned, and reluctant to discuss the mission. Alternating chapters set at the beginning and end of the mission explore how this disaster happened. Themes of interspecies interpretation (and misinterpretation), what the existence of an alien civilization means for religion (is our God also their God?), interpretation of God’s will (if He so obviously wanted us to go there, how could He let it become such a disaster)?
Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (novel, 1995). A cyberpunk novel set in a post-scarcity (sort of) world in which any material can be constructed by nanotechnology “compilers” out of “the Feed”; a supply pipe of energy and basic elements. A wealthy engineer creates an AI “primer” book that will provide the best possible education for his daughter, by telling her stories that teach her about life and help instill whatever skills she will need (the book is a combination of AI adaptive scriptwriter that learns what its person needs, and a remote human actor who gives the script real human voice and emotion). The primer falls into the hands of Nell, a slum dweller. Explores the role of education, the economics and class structure of a post-scarcity Earth, the power of those who control the Feed, and artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). In this advanced-tech world, Arbre, “avout” academics are cloistered from "saecuar” society, living simple lives in monastic institutions (“concents") doing science, philosophy, and studying -- over thousands of years -- the way the civilizations outside their walls rise and fall. Many of the academics have views paralleling Earth philosophers and scientists. A recurring debate between advocates of platonic realism and mathematical formalism plays a role in solving a mystery/problem/potential threat of world-changing scale and significance. (Geek fun: identify the Earth philosopher/scientist whose views are paralleled.)
Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Biologically engineered artificial intelligence “replicants” are indistinguishable from humans in almost every way. But they are not seen as “persons”. Humans fear them, and have banned them from Earth, they are only used off-world slave labor. They also have a four-year life-span. The main character, Deckard, is a Bladerunner, whose job is to hunt and “retire” any replicants found on Earth. A group of them have returned to Earth, because they are nearing four years, and don’t want to die. Are they really alive, and deserving of respect and autonomy? Or are they mere machines, that can be “retired” with impunity? Explores the important ethical dimensions of AI, especially critiquing the idea that humans are special as pure hubris, motivated by an unjustified belief in the “supremacy” of the biological over the artificial. (See also Battlestar Galactica (2004-9), Bicentennial Man, and Star Trek TNG’s “Measure of a Man” episode).
George H.R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO drama 2011- / novels 1996- ). An extended meditation on the nature of power, set in a mediaeval/magical world. Many aspects of political philosophy are explored here. Political power, military power, religious influence, wealth, the institutions of nobility and inheritance, the irrelevance of “fairness”, the “soft” power of women in a patriarchy, the limitations of “honorable” conduct in a dishonorable world, the perceived importance (or not) of familial love and bonds, the military advantages of powerful weapons (dragons), the plight of the common people when “powerful” people go to war for more power, the horrors of war, what successful leadership requires, the distraction of human power-games in the face of a largely-ignored world-threatening common problem....
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (five book “trilogy” 1979-92; also 1978-80 radio play, 2005 movie, 1984 video game, a comic book, and a set of towels). SF comedy classic; tells the story of a “wholly remarkable book” through the story of Arthur Dent, an Earthling whose planet is destroyed to make room for a hyperspace bypass and his friend Ford Prefect who turns out to be from a planet near Betelgeuse, and who writes for the book. (Ironically the story of Arthur Dent is often punctuated by excerpts from the book.) The book’s entire entry on the planet Earth reads “Mostly harmless”. Explores many philosophical ideas. See especially the Total Perspective Vortex, a proof of God’s existence (which thus proves that He cannot exist), the End of the Universe, an ethical meat that wants to be eaten, a virtual reality universe, and a supercomputer programmed to compute the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (philosophers threaten to strike if the machine does their job, until the machine proposes a better idea). Also reveals the true origin of the Earth and of Humanity.
Paul Verhoeven/ Phillip K Dick, Total Recall (movie, 1990; very loosely based on a PKD short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”). Themes of memory and identity; illusion and reality. Who are you really? and what is “real“ anyway? Quaid dreams about Mars. He tries resolving this by taking a virtual vacation involving installing memories of a spy-themed adventure to Mars. Quaid emerges to realize he might be a spy who had had his memory erased, and who has mistakenly believed he was an ordinary guy. But is this really happening, or is the whole thing taking place in the virtual vacation? Who is Quaid "really"; a spy/assassin who thought he was an ordinary guy, or an ordinary guy who used to be a spy/assassin, or just an ordinary guy dreaming he is a spy (who used to be an assassin)? What matters more, who we “really” are, or who we choose to be?
List from Brian Keeley (Professor of Philosophy, Pitzer College):
Jocelyn Moorhouse, Proof (movie, 1991). A very early film of both Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving (so, fun for that reason alone), in which Weaving plays a curmudgeonly blind person with real trust issues. Part of his worry about being deceived revolves around his lack of access to the visual world, so he has taken to taking photographs, having sighted people tell him what's in the images, writing that (in braille) on the back, and then checking those descriptions against what other sighted people report. An interesting exploration of epistemology as well as what epistemic standards are appropriate to what situations. DISCLAIMER: Fiction, but not really speculative fiction, but connects in interesting ways with the next piece, which is a bit more speculative.
H.G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind” (short story, 1904). In this short story, Wells describes an explorer, Nuñez, who accidentally discovers a valley in the Andes separated off from the rest of the world containing a population of humans who have all lost their sight several generations earlier. As such, they no longer believe in the phenomenon of vision. The story follows Nuñez's frustrating attempts to first rule them (after all, in the country of the blind…) and then later even to convince them that he has access to a sense that they do not have. How would one go about convincing a group of extremely functional blind people, living in an environment that they have adapted to their needs, of the existence of the visual world? Wells argues that it would be harder than one might initially imagine.
David Cronenberg, eXistenZ (movie, 1999). The story revolves around an virtual reality game in which you play a part in a story about a plot to murder the designer of a virtual reality game (and take a guess what the topic of the game within a game is!). This movie came out the same year as The Matrix and if you ever wondered what might have happened if they had explored the possibility of a Matrix running inside the Matrix, this is your movie. This film pairs well with Descartes’ Meditations by asking how would you know that you were in “reality” as opposed to a well-designed immersive video game? It also explores a number of Sartrean themes (hence, the title) concerning the nature of free will and the roles we adopt in life.
Spike Jonze / Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich (movie, 1999). A fanciful exploration of issues in personal identity. John Cusack's character discovers a portal that lets you experience the world from the perspective of actor John Malkovich. It’s fun to get students to explore what's incoherent in how this process works, according to the film. Also, you can pair this movie with Daniel Shaw's “On Being Philosophical and Being John Malkovich, which explores the questions of whether and how a film can be “philosophical” or “do philosophy”. Be warned that this film depicts violence towards women and animals. Further, one of the main characters (albeit not a sympathetic one) expresses trans-phobic views.
Star Trek: The Next Generation , “The Measure of a Man” (1989, TV episode). Can an AI be a person, in the moral sense or legal sense? In this episode, a scientist wishes to disassemble the android (and Second Lieutenant) Data, a procedure that might kill him. The scientist goes as far as arguing that Data is not a person, but property (and hence, has no right to self-determination). A trial is held to determine Data's status.
Ted Chiang, “Liking What You See: A Documentary” (short story, 2002). “Lookism” is the idea that how somebody looks -- that is, how attractive they are judged to be by society -- has an undue influence on the advantages and disadvantages a person experiences. If we were able to disable the part of the brain that judges the attractiveness of faces -- if we were able to reversibly induce the brain disorder known as prosopagnosia -- should we? This short story explores that possibility.
Daniel Suarez (Leinad Zeraus), Daemon and FreedomTM (novels, 2006 & 2010). Originally written as a single work, but eventually published in two volumes, these two books can be seen as an exploration of the implications of a number of technologies currently on the horizon (with some coming to pass even in the few years since they were written). Written in the form of a cyberpunk thriller, AI, drones, 3D-printing, self-replicating autonomous machine warfare, video games, & virtual reality are all thrown into the mix, as an AI begins to organize a conspiracy to control (or at least significantly change) the world. Many themes in philosophy of technology are at play.
Edwin Abbott Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (novel, 1884). A classic work written from the point of view of 2-dimensional beings in a 2-D world (the "author” of the book is "A Square") upon their interaction with the 3rd dimension. Originally, it was renowned for its satire of hierarchical (Victorian) society, but after Einstein, how it handles the idea of there being more dimensions than those with which one is familiar became an important element of how it is read.
Bruce Sterling, “Swarm” (short story, 1982). What is the function/advantage of intelligence? This story involves an encounter between a group of scientists and a (apparently) non-intelligent, superorganism species that resemble earthly social insects. Sterling's piece looks at other forms that intelligent life might take.