We might think of fictions as extended thought experiments: What might it be like if...? Ordinary fiction confines itself to hypotheticals in the ordinary run of human affairs (though sometimes momentous, exotic, or exaggerated). In contrast, speculative fiction considers remoter hypotheticals. Although much speculative fiction considers hypotheticals of future technology (and thus is science fiction), speculative fiction also includes fantasy, horror, alternative history, and utopia/dystopia. (The abbreviation "SF" can be read either as meaning science fiction specifically or speculative fiction more broadly.)
Speculative fiction is often of philosophical interest: SF writers think through some of the same hypotheticals that philosophers do -- for example about personal identity, artificial intelligence, and possible future societies. Good SF writers think through these hypotheticals with considerable insight. I would like to see more interaction between philosophers and SF writers.
Since 2014, I have been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of "personal favorite" works of philosophically-interesting science fiction or speculative fiction. Each contributor has given me a list of 10 works, each with brief "pitch" pointing toward the work's philosophical interest. So far, I have 48 sets of recommendations -- almost five hundred recommendations total!
Since the master list is huge, I have organized it in two ways: by contributor and by author recommended. The by-contributor list consists of each list of ten works, in alphabetical order by contributor. The by-author list lists the authors (or movie directors) in order of how frequently their work was recommended. For example, the single most recommended author was Ursula K. Le Guin. The list begins with her, gathering together the Le Guin recommendations from all of the contributors. Next come Ted Chiang and Philip K. Dick, so that you can see what work of theirs has been recommended and why; then Greg Egan, then... well, I don't want to spoil your surprise!
* Stable URL for both Master Lists and other "Philosophical SF" project links.
Below are the three most recent sets of recommendations.
List from Lucy Allais (Professor of Philosophy, University of Witwatersrand and University of California at San Diego):
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Surely the reasons for this are well known enough; amazing exploration of political and social possibilities.
Alastair Reynolds, trilogy starting with Blue Remembered Earth (novels, 2012-2015). Fun trilogy in which Africa leads the space race, with different forms of consciousness and intelligence including elephants and machines.
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity (novels, 1972 and 1955). By far his most interesting and imaginative work I think. Though my favourite is The Gods Themselves, for philosophical interest The End of Eternity is great as it’s about time travel.
David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). I also found Brin’s uplift trilogy a lot of fun but this one is more philosophical in ideas about personal identity.
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Bangkok in dystopian post climate apocalypse future, interesting ideas about modifying humans.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake trilogy (novels, 2003-2013). Also post climate collapse, many ideas about current social and technological trends taken to extremes.
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (novel, 1968; short story 1966). So many Philip K. Dick works to choose from!
Vernor Vinge, trilogy starting with A Fire Upon the Deep (novels, 1992-2011). Amazingly fun different forms of consciousness, including collective consciousness.
Octavia Butler, Earthseed/Parable series (novels 1993-1998). Interesting ideas about post climate collapse, societal collapse and about religion.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary trilogy (novels, 2013-2015). Awesome story and cool ideas about AI and collective consciousness.
List from Melanie Rosen (Lecturer in Philosophy, Macquarie University):
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). **spoiler warning** Although the lives of the protagonists are at the forefront, the story raises ethical issues regarding cloning for organ donation and the status of clones. What is a person?
Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). Questions the meaning of life- or lack thereof and free will. A character who is swept up by fate suffers, loves, finds happiness, dies. Social critique and the pointlessness of war.
Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). Discusses many philosophical topics including parallel worlds, discussion of metaphysics. Describes a world in which modern philosophy is highly valued.
Phillip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (short story, 1966). Philosophy of memory, what does it mean for something to be my experience?
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). Ethical issues of a world where fertility is declining, feminist critique of the value of women in society.
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife (novel, 2003). Time travel! Can you change the past? When our timelines are determined, what differences do our choices make?
Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Questions the meaning of life, ethics, utilitarianism, and the treatment of indigenous populations. Discusses issues of fate and being able to see the future, suggests at the perils of AI.
Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). Description of life in a 2 dimensional world, social critique of the arbitrariness of social standing and the class system, references Plato’s cave allegory.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (novel, 1979). Discussion of the meaning of life (or lack thereof), critique of how indigenous or rural populations are treated, discussion of determinism regarding the end of the universe and time travel.
Grant Naylor, Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (novel, 1989). Last human in existence scenario, discusses the meaning of life, AI, consciousness downloading, time travel, and how to be your own father among other themes. Hilarious.
List from Craig Callender (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego):
Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (novel, 2010). Only 93 percent of the laws of physics were installed in this universe. People time travel, but mostly in sad desperate attempts to change the past. Yu, the narrator and character in the book, is a low level technician whose job is to stop them. Cool send-up of time travel books, but very human story.
Philip K. Dick, Counter-clock World (novel, 1967). OMG this one is stupid! It’s the opposite of Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow in terms of depth, meaning, writing, sophistication and coherence – but fun and philosophical and right up my alley. In 1986 time arrow flips: people start calling from their graves to be let out, un-smoking stubs to clean their lungs…and don’t think about eating and excreting.
Fred Hoyle, Black Cloud (novel, 1957). I’m excited to see others suggest this and also that it got a new release in 2015. Great for epistemology and philosophy of mind. One of the best sci fi books I’ve read.
Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995). This collection contains many of my favorite stories ever, including “Hundred Light Year Diary” (bouncing signals off a time-reversed galaxy gets you answers before you sent questions…fate, fatalism, free will, time) “Learning to Be Me” (functionalism, personal identity). I’ve used three of the stories in philosophy courses.
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Capitalism, genetic engineering and global warming all run amok…the world portrayed is massively original. For more stress on the American West, water and environmental ethics (or lack thereof), read Bacigaluipi’s The Water Knife.
Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest (novel 2008, trans. 2015). This is the second installment after The Three Body Problem. Good for game theory? After learning what the title refers to (a theory), you’ll never be in favor of the SETI program.
Battlestar Galactica 2 (television series, 2005-present). My favorite scifi TV series. Hard to think of topics in philosophy not thoughtfully done here. Just fantastic.
Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (novel 1961, trans. 1970). Seems wrong not to mention this classic. Great for epistemology and philosophy of science.
Hugh Howey, Wool (short story series, 2011-2013). Not great writing, but fun, fast and original. Plato in the Cave themes, trolley problem dilemmas.
M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (novel, 2014). The book jacket says, “Kazuo Ishiguro meets The Walking Dead.” That seems right. Good moral tensions.
Further contributions welcome!
To qualify as a contributor, you must either be a professional philosopher (PhD or full-time permanent research/teaching post in philosophy) or a professional SF writer (generating a livable income or comparable degree of critical acclaim) who has done graduate work in philosophy.