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 Joshua 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 “Darmak”, 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”.
More lists later this week!