Monday, October 27, 2014

Philosophical SF: Ninth Batch of Lists (Nichols, Wittkower, Brophy, and Yap)

A couple of months ago, I started asking professional philosophers for their recommendations of some personal favorites among philosophically interesting science fiction or "speculative fiction" (SF) more broadly construed. Every contributor was to list ten works along with brief "pitches" pointing toward the works' interest. Thirty-six philosophers have sent in their lists, which I've been spinning out four at a time. This is the ninth and final list. (Or rather I should say, final for now. If more contributions come in, I will post them in small batches.)

Soon, I'll merge everything into a "mega-list", adding a bit of quantitative analysis.

The number of contributors, the range of works recommended, and the recommenders' enthusiasm and knowledge, all substantially exceeded my expectations. A hearty thanks to all of them! I'm looking forward to years of awesome reading and viewing.

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

Sixth set: Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs.

Seventh set: Roy-Faderman, Clark, Schwitzgebel, Killoren & Brophy.

Eighth set: Sullivan, Clarke, Oppenheimer, Bernstein.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute their own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Ryan Nichols (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Cal State Fullerton):

Mike Resnick, "Kirinyaga" (short story, 1988). The best and most fĂȘted story — one dealing a deft touch to issues of race and gender, justice and moral relativism — from an author who needs to hire someone to carry around his treasure trove of awards.

Ted Chiang, "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (short story, 2002). In the same vein as Vonnegut's 1961 "Harrison Bergeron," here Chiang offers us a brilliant semi-story in which a campus community takes seriously a pervasive but undiscussed bias — lookism.

Daniel Suarez, Influx (novel, 2014). Justly compared to Crichton, Suarez's page-turning plotting does not come at the expense of intelligent protagonists and antagonists, thank God; but make no mistake, this exciting but thoughtful book is much more than aisle-seat fodder.

Timons Esaias, "Norbert and the System" (short story, 1993). Imagine an app, dropped into the head of a Homer Simpson-like character, that uses an algorithm to instruct him — with microsecond speed — that if he wants her to like him, for example, he ought to tilt his head a bit more to the left and use the words "I feel" in the next sentence he utters. Written with wit and humor, this meditation on free will and compatibilism is more than the sum of its parts and foreshadows the increasing lack of empathy of facebooking millenials.

Greg Egan, "Reasons to be Cheerful" (short story, 1997). Egan, in my pantheon of hard sf writers, plays with the psychology and philosophy of happiness with a protagonist, narrated in the first person, who of necessity gains the ability to adjust his mental well-being moment by moment.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy &c (various media, 1978-2005). This book and the series still delivers Mona Lisa-like smiles (and laughs) to thinking readers from the moment Arthur's first grabs a towel — and a pint — to the moment when Zaphod asks to "meet the meat" at the Restaurant.

Johann Kepler, "Somnium" (novel, 1608). An incredible story by one of the most important scientists in world history, Kepler (1571-1630) represents a trip to the moon according to extrapolation from his then-current, accurate, and highly non-standard scientific knowledge. (The real-life story behind "Somnium" and what it cost Kepler personally is more gripping.)

Michael Moorcock, "Pale Roses" (short story, 1974). While we think that post-humanity will override most of our base evolutionary motivations, this literary story raises profound questions about the meaning of a human life through a setting in which human-like characters are virtually immortal and have nearly limitless powers... but still desperately want to be invited to parties.

Kij Johnson, "Spar" (short story, 2009). I fucking dare you.

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (novel, 2010). If we plot ideas-per-page on the x-axis and quality of writing on the y, Banks' novels exist in an upper-right-corner world of their own, and this probing novel about punishment, religion and the state is no exception.


List from Dylan Wittkower (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Old Dominion University):

Philip K. Dick, “Autofac” (short story, 1955). A short story about the grey goo problem in nanotech, which is, um, a pretty interesting thing to find someone writing about in the '50s. Relevant to the difficulty of acting responsibly with regard to complex systems whose effects are hard to predict, and about the questionable value of autonomy when you don’t have any particular rational determination of values that would guide what you would do with that autonomy.

Philip K. Dick, “The Defenders” (short story, 1953). It forms a great counterpoint to “Autofac.” In “Autofac,” the machines mindlessly consume the planet to create consumer goods. In “The Defenders,” -- spoiler alert -- the machines realize that the humans’ mindless destruction of the planet (through war, this time, rather than production) is irrational, and instead they just fake massive destruction to placate the humans.

Nancy Kress, “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (short story, 2006). Nano destroys scarcity, work is no longer necessary, society falls apart.

Pamela Zoline, “The Heat Death of the Universe” (short story, 1967). Avant-garde writing, and genre-challenging, since it does not have most (any?) of the usual marks of science fiction. Concerns the uselessness of scientific knowledge in the face of existential despair and the experience of meaninglessness.

J.G. Ballard, “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (short story, 1962). A man drives his wife to kill him, also inadvertently (but foreseeably) programming his “psychotropic” house to later attempt to kill its new owners. Each chapter of the Vermillion Sands collection (which this is from) uses science fiction to explore a different art form — this is the chapter on architecture.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (novel, 1968). There’s the moral isolation from others through an “experience-machine”-like self-programming of emotional states, contrasted with Mercer as a kind of Levinasian Other; animal ethics, especially as connected to consumerism and environmentalism; AI stuff; etc. Wonderfully complicated, deep, and wacky — all of which will be surprising if you’ve only heard of it by way of Blade Runner. I’ll also go ahead and plug one of my edited volumes, Philip K. Dick and Philosophy (2011), which has chapters on philosophical issues in a good number of Dick novels and films.

R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath and the Prince of Nothing trilogy (novels, 2004-2008). Very philosophically informed. Neuropath is grounded in serious research in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Prince of Nothing is high fantasy in the spirit, but not the style, of Tolkien, indebted to both Thucydides and Camus.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (novel, 1985). Issues include embodiment and phenomenology, philosophy of education, lying and consequentialism, just war theory, and virtue ethics. See my 2013 anthology, Ender's Game and Philosophy.

M.T. Anderson, Feed (novel, 2002). Issues include extended cognition, transhumanism, and the internet of things.


List from Matthew Brophy (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, High Point University):

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon (novel, 2002): A deceased mercenary is “uploaded” into a technologically augmented body to solve a mystery, 500 years in the future.

Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen (novel, 2007): A genetically enhanced soldier is tasked with hunting down renegade “thirteens” like himself.

Christopher Nolan, The Prestige (movie, 2006): Dueling magicians each make the ultimate sacrifice to perfect an astounding trick.

Robert Venditti, Surrogates (comic book, 2005-2006): When android avatars, remotely controlled by human users, start to be mysteriously murdered, one detective must unplug in order to stop a societal genocide of surrogates and humans alike.

James Cameron, Avatar (movie, 2009): A wheelchair-bound marine finds new freedom and identity as a bio-engineered alien.

Christopher Nolan, Inception (movie, 2010): A con-man transverses through layers of shared dreams in this mind-bending “heist” movie.

Rian Johnson, Looper (movie, 2012): A hit-man for the mob “terminates” other contract-killers, who are sent back in time when their contract is up.

Duncan Jones, Source Code (movie, 2012): A soldier repeatedly awakens on a train, as another man who has mere minutes to find and defuse a time-bomb that will kill them all.

Mike Cahill, Another Earth (movie, 2011): The appearance of a duplicate earth brings hope to a promising young student that a tragic accident she’s caused may have been averted on the twin earth.


List from Audrey Yap (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Victoria):

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (novel, 1998). This book has everything you didn’t know you wanted in a book: three generations of kickass women, post-apocalyptic Toronto, and some Afro-Caribbean magic. That’s all I need to tell you, now go read it immediately. I think it’s one of the best and most underrated works of feminist speculative fiction out there.

Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (short stories, collected 1950). Classic short stories in this book, having to do with the relationship between humans and non-human intelligences. It’s not as utopian about technology as a lot of Asimov’s other work, but despite several incidents of robots behaving badly, it’s not all Skynet and doom either.

Red Dwarf, "Justice" (TV show, 1991). The Justice Field makes it physically impossible for injustice to be committed!

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, collected 2002). Short stories following through on the consequences of various ideas. What if arithmetic actually was inconsistent? What if we did live in a system of celestial spheres?

Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids (novel, 2002; also Humans and Hybrids, 2003). Hominids is the first book in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, in which a doorway to a parallel universe opens up in Sudbury, Ontario. Yes, Sudbury. In the parallel universe, Neanderthals became dominant rather than us. It’s interesting thinking through the differences in the family culture of each group, since Neanderthals in the other universe have two partners, one male and one female.

Christopher Nolan, The Prestige (movie, 2010). It’s hard to describe what makes this movie philosophically interesting without giving away the big plot twist at the end. But there are two very distinct explorations of personal identity. My personal favourite is the one that has to do with social identity.

Jorge Luis Borges, "On Rigor in Science" (short story, 1946). I want to use this one-paragraph short story in a paper on idealization. It brings up an empire in which map-making has “advanced” such that the only acceptable map of the empire is one of the exact same scale as the empire itself.

Futurama, "Mars University" (TV show, 1999). Gunther is a monkey who becomes super-intelligent but can then no longer fit in with his monkey community. Could we be better off ignorant if it means we can then enjoy the company of others?

Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark (novel, 2002). The protagonist is a scientist with autism in a near-future world in which there may be a “cure” for his condition. The quotation marks are there because one of the central issues has to do with whether autism is a condition that in fact needs curing. I don’t think I’d heard of the idea of neurodiversity when I read this, but it strikes me as exactly the idea under consideration.


Soon I will present a compilation of all of the approximately 360 SF recommendations included these nine posts, sorted in a few different ways.


Callan S. said...

Greg Egan, "Reasons to be Cheerful" (short story, 1997). Egan, in my pantheon of hard sf writers, plays with the psychology and philosophy of happiness with a protagonist, narrated in the first person, who of necessity gains the ability to adjust his mental well-being moment by moment.

Sounds freaky - where you might take it your idea of happyness is kind of darwinistically modeled around what keeps you alive - but with direct access to modify it, it ceases to be there for the body (essentially) and now the body is there for the compelling of that happyness, what it was modded to.

Even more chilling would be what that 'necessity' is, as it demands the body becomes a means to an end.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sounds like you need to read the story, Callan!