Monday, August 08, 2016

Forty New Philosophical SF Recommendations

Since 2014, I've been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF -- where "SF" is meant to include not only science fiction but also "speculative fiction" more broadly construed. Each philosopher recommends ten works, along with a brief "pitch" pointing toward the philosophical interest of those works.

The results as of last summer are here (41 philosophers' recommendations). Last week, I nudged some of my friends and got another seven sets of recommendations. Below are the first four. Next week, I'll post the next three (and any others that arrive in the meantime) and I'll update the overall list.

I welcome further contributions to the list (as well as revisions by earlier contributors). To qualify as a contributor, you must meet one of two criteria: (1) You are a "professional philosopher" in the sense that you either have a PhD in philosophy or have a full-time permanent teaching or research post in philosophy; or (2) you are a professional SF writer who has done substantial graduate work in philosophy even if you haven't completed a PhD (where a "professional SF writer" is someone who either generates a livable income from writing SF or who has a level of critical recognition similar to those who generate livable incomes).


List from Paul Prescott (Part-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University, and Lecturer in Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University):

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). The original mind-bender.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). The original bioethical cautionary tale.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). A critique of contemporary social-political philosophy that still rings true today.

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961). What would it mean to meet a truly alien intelligence?

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Another critique of contemporary social-political philosophy … sure to be relevant for some time to come.

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (novel, 1946). A powerful Christian Platonist vision.

Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959). A challenging vision of one all-too-possible future.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). A contemporary bioethical cautionary tale.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). A challenging vision of another all-too-possible future.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). A brilliant, albeit dark, meditation on the nature of the good.


List from Helen Daly (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College):

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (novel, 2010). Could an AI have moral rights, even if it’s just software? It is hard to imagine drumming up sympathy for the characters in your computer games, but this novel succeeds in pushing us to consider even bodyless software blips as objects of moral concern.

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, but with more philosophical depth than the book. It sparks at least these two great philosophical questions: Could androids be people? and What would you ask or say to your creator, if you were really angry about the human condition?

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (short story, 1995). Some questions raised by this short story are: How would it feel to be a farm animal? What exactly is sexual consent? Is the survival of our species worth any price?

Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Story of Your Life” (short stories, 1998-2001). Each of these is a fully envisioned reality that offers a new way of seeing our own. They are each mind-blowing in a distinctive, inventive way. Ted Chiang is a genius.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (novel, 1953). What would it mean for people living now if we knew the human race were about to “evolve” out of existence?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). The narrative perspective of the novel is one of its chief strengths. We discover the plot along with the narrator, so we spend much of the book wondering what’s going on. A key question raised: Do human clones deserve the same rights as other humans? The novel strongly suggests that they do.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). Like Never Let Me Go, this is a horrifying look at how we might treat someone (again, a clone) whose humanity we question. The pace is extremely slow, so it might not be appropriate for undergraduates.

Greg Egan, “Learning to Be Me” (short story, 1990). This may be the best short, fictional introduction to questions of personal identity and consciousness. There are many great ones, but this is chilling and delightful.

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). If genetic diseases were all readily discoverable, would genetic discrimination be permissible? The movie is heavy-handed in its opposition to genetic discrimination, but it never gives great reasons for that. A devil’s advocate could easily disagree.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this raises skeptical concerns about memories. It is also a fun Schwarzenegger action movie.


List from John Holbo (Associate Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, 1990-2002). Many others have recommended Chiang and this is absolutely, utterly justified. His stories are far more sophisticated than those of most other sf authors. He is a ‘new’ author, relatively. But he is up there with the best of the classic authors, deservedly. I teach eight Chiang stories every semester and, at most, two by any other author.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur B. Evans et al., eds. (anthology, 2010). When I was first planning to teach SF and Philosophy I fretted long and fruitlessly about which anthology to make into the spine of my syllabus. There are an awful lot of choices—new and old, cheap and expensive. Many of them are very good. Still, I had a perfectionist temptation to make my own from scratch. But it’s better to give the kids some one published collection they can have and hold. I decided the Wesleyan was best of the lot. My personal dissents from the editors’ selections could be turned from bugs into teaching features as we went along. (You’re never going to be perfectly happy with someone else’s anthology about a subject close to your heart, when it comes to teaching that subject. It’s like using someone else’s toothbrush. Well, deal with it.) Some of my choices below are how-to-fix the Wesleyan tips (by my lights). One fix too big for any top-10 list: the Wesleyan is Anglophone—i.e. mostly Americans and Brits. That is a defensible editorial focus, and is tolerably clear from the Table of Contents, if not the cover. You can’t be everything to everyone, plus everywhere at once. (If you want something more international, the very new The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by the Vandermeers, looks a solid option.)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). So standard you might fail to try it. Try it! I’m a historicist, so I bounce off Brian Aldiss’ well-known Frankenstein-is-first critical line. A nice teaching trick: ask the kids to tell the story of Frankenstein before they read the novel for the first time. So what’s the philosophical difference between what we know is going to be there, and what actually turns out to be there? Also, this is maybe the single most often adapted work of sf, in a broad sense. (So many artificial beings constructed, so unwisely, since Shelley’s day.)

Greg Bear, The Wind From A Burning Woman (short stories, 1978-1983). Bear is first and foremost a novelist, and many of his novels are philosophically fantastic and would be eminently teachable. But in the classroom there is a limit on the number of novels you can assign. Short stories are the way to go. I pick Wind, rather than, say, Tangents, because it contains “Petra”, about the day the laws of nature change. Very grue. But medieval, if that’s your cup of after time-t and/or you want to get Goodman and the Good God of Augustine out of the way at the same time. I list Bear to compensate for his unjust omission from the Wesleyan. I think their picks from the 1980’s are non-representative. (I have not actually assigned Bear in my own class but am planning to do “Petra” this coming semester.) Bear deserves to be higher on the list of recommended authors than he currently stands.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). Another hard-sf ‘Killer B’ (like Bear—see also: Benford) from the 80’s who didn’t make the Wesleyan cut. Brin is not so strong in the short story department (so his exclusion from a short story collection is pardonable.) Kiln People is a novel from 2002, but I rate it philosophically higher than his better-known Uplift books. Kiln came in second for, like, every prize. It coulda’ been a contender for classic novel status! If you are teaching personal identity stuff and you want Derek Parfit’s Reason and Persons, but a murder mystery, this is for you. Brin is on my list twice, not because he’s so great as all that, just because if I assign essays or criticism from fiction writers, I like to sample their actual fiction as well. And I assign Brin’s criticism. See the next entry. This semester I’m planning to recommend (not require) Kiln.

Star Wars On Trial, David Brin et al. (non-fiction anthology, 2006) Resolved: Stars Wars is crap and the cause of the ever-increasing crapification of sf. That’s pretty much it. Then the various authors line up and go at it, hammer and tongs, pro and con. This book is fun, available in a cheap Kindle edition (as of this writing) and extremely helpful for teaching-by-example a particular style of writing: informal, opinionated, argumentative (in all senses) personal essays. This is also a good book for bridging the literary-vs-film gap, if you need something to help you over that hump; and to help address the historically huge phenomenon of Stars Wars—something curiously invisible if you are just using, say, the Wesleyan anthology. At a certain point sf became mostly not on paper. So is that good, bad or indifferent?

Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music (novel, 1994). Lethem takes up the Philip K. Dick mantle in about as stylish and sophisticated a way as anyone ever has. PKD is a giant, of course, and I assume you are teaching some. (What are you? A fool?) So maybe you want to talk about the literary legacy of that line? Gun, With Occasional Music. It’s got an Ubik-y, VALIS-y, Scanner Darkly-y paranoid noir-vibe. In a weird way it would go great with Brin’s Kiln People (see #5). Or his Uplift novels, come to think of it. (That kangaroo!) A murder mystery that is really an exploration of personal identity, only in this case the technical novum is not qualitative duplication of selves but deliberate (often pharmaceutical) self-design. Yet Lethem is stylistically the antipodes of Brin. So hereby you get at that no-nonsense hard-sf thing that goes back to Campbell and Gernsback, vs. the literary New Wave that starts in the 60’s. You can’t teach the history of sf without touching on that, I say.

James Tiptree, Jr., anything from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (besides “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”) (short stories, 1969-1980). Alice Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr. is the best female sf author who isn’t named Ursula. Or maybe she’s just the best. But the Wesleyan editors, in their wisdom, include what I regard as one of her most ‘meh’ stories. No accounting for taste, but I would recommend her other stories, and every sf and philosophy class should include one from Tiptree. (Also, I suppose Her Smoke Rose Up Forever goes well, in a titular sense, with Bear’s The Wind From A Burning Woman. Not that I recommend being pyromaniacal about it. But maybe you have a St. Joan thing?)

Fritz Lang, Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells, Things To Come (movies, 1927 and 1936). They go together. If you are teaching SF film you have to teach Lang’s Metropolis. It’s the first special effects blockbuster, which failed (it lost money). It’s the first glossy triumph of sexy style over philosophical substance (that is trying to be philosophical, despite succumbing to its own sexy siren song of style.) It’s the first blockbuster dystopia. It’s dumb (which might trick you into thinking you can skip it, but you would be an idiot to do that, at least if you seek any kind of history angle on the subject.) Less well-known: you have to Teach Menzies’ (H.G. Wells scripted) Things To Come, which was a deliberate, blockbuster response to Lang’s failed blockbuster—which also failed and lost money. Things is highly utopian and rationalistic in spirit, which plays very weird onscreen. It’s a study in how not to make Star Wars (for example). The students will dislike it. Then you ask them: list everything this film does wrong, by contemporary Hollywood standards. Might it be that Wells was trying to write a philosophy of technology? (Alas, an sf screenplay cannot be a philosophy of technology.) This is an excellent via negativa exercise.

The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute et al., eds. (non-fiction encyclopedia, 1979-present). Weirdly, students often seem not to find this when they are looking for stuff. You really ought to point them to it. It’s not itself fiction, nor (primarily) philosophical, but it’s scholarly enough. And it’s huge. Why don’t more people know of it? Why isn’t it higher in the Google ranks? I don’t know. I really don’t.


List from Ethan Mills (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga):

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). In the far future humans use technology to become gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, until a Buddhist challenger arrives. Not entirely accurate, nor easy to understand, but always fun.

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune (novel, 1981). The most philosophical of a philosophical series. Aside from Herbert’s usual ruminations on politics, ecology, and what it means to be human when some are more human than human, it asks: What would you do with the whole human race?

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (novels, 1993 and 1998). During a chillingly realistic slide into dystopia paired with meditations on race, gender, empathy, and nationalism, a quasi-religion, Earthseed, is founded by the main character and later questioned by her daughter. Should we make space travel a long term organizing goal rather than war, economic gain, or political domination?

C. S. Friedman, This Alien Shore (novel, 1999). A bit of Dune, a bit of cyberbunk, and deep science fictional meditations on the value of diversity in which physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.

Amy Thomson, The Color of Distance (novel, 1995). A scientist is marooned on a planet with amphibian aliens. Exploration of issues in feminist ethics and philosophy of science: Should we abide by abstract rules and sanitized observation or should we also rely on lived experience, particular judgments, and direct interaction?

Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem (novel, Chinese original 2008, English translation by Ken Liu 2014). Begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and follows a First Contact story and a video game that features Mozi and Leibniz and introduces a world where the laws of nature aren’t uniform.

Jo Walton, The Just City (novel, 2015). Time traveling goddess Athena tries to set up Plato’s Republic in the pre-Homeric Mediterranean world. Socrates shows up. Hijinks and philosophical ruminations ensue.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (novel, 2015). A beautiful, melancholic work of hard scientific speculation and philosophical inquiries on artificial intelligence, narrative theories of personal identity, and whether it’s ecologically plausible or ethically desirable to colonize other solar systems. The ship is one of my all time favorite characters.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (novel, 2014). Aliens first contact a giant swordfish and then encounter various humans of Lagos, Nigeria. Science fiction doesn’t have to be Eurocentric or even anthropocentric.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, Dark Orbit (novel, 2015). An expedition to a planet where the inhabitants are mostly blind. Interrogates whether the senses, especially in the modality of vision, and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.

ETA: Ethan welcomes further discussion on his blog here.


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Ethan said...

I've said a little bit more about my list over at my blog if anyone's interested:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes -- thanks for the contribution and for the link, Ethan! In fact, I'll just go ahead and post it directly below your contribution.

Cairo Silver said...

Interesting take on star wars mentioned there. But is star wars even SF? I mean, you could reskin it to sail boats and cutlass weilding adventurers and it doesn't make much difference. It just would be between ports instead of worlds. Death star is just a massive cannon barrage. Star wars is really just an adventure movie in a particular setting.