Friday, October 03, 2014

Philosophical SF: The Second Batch of Lists

On Tuesday, I posted four lists of philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction recommended by professional philosophers. Here are four more lists of ten "personal favorites" from four more professional philosophers. (Three are philosophy professors, one is a professional SF writer who incorporates philosophical themes in his work.)

For more background on this project, see Tuesday's post.


List from Pete Mandik (Professor of Philosophy, William Paterson University, and co-host of SpaceTimeMind):

Peter Watts, Blindsight (novel, 2006). Cogsci savvy tale in which assorted transhumans and extraterrestrials get by just fine without phenomenal consciousness...or do they?

Ted Chiang, “Understand” (short story, 1991) Thorough and convincing first-person phenomenology of human super intelligence--you’ll feel like you know what it’s like to get your IQ quadrupled overnight.

Greg Egan, Diaspora (novel, 1997) Living indefinitely long as a godlike digital posthuman is all well and good, and when you run out of physical universe(s) to explore, there’s solace to be had in math.

Black Mirror, “Be Right Back” (TV show, 2013) Digital simulacra of the recently departed may be exactly what the grief-stricken don’t want but can’t help but seek.

Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix Plus (novel, 1995) Deeply weird political and economic turmoil in a solar system infested by post human factions (genetically engineered vs cyborgs) and, eventually, extraterrestrial investors.

David Gerrold, The Man Who Folded Himself (novel, 1973) Exhaustive exploration of time-travel enabled narcissistic self-indulgence: meet, greet and *expletive deleted* your temporal counterparts.

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005) Nothing else that I’ve read comes as close to this in depicting what living through the technological singularity would be like; "mind-bending future shock” is an insufficiently hyperbolic superlative.

Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan, “Another Cold Morning” (comic book, 1998) Harsh and grim fistful of future shock depicting waking up from cryo stasis into an overwhelming future that has zero use for you.

Tom Scott, “Welcome to Life: The Singularity, Ruined by Lawyers” (YouTube video, 2012) Everyone can have digital immortality, but not everyone can afford a version unsullied by direct brain advertising.

Roger Williams, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect (novel, 1994) A virtual god, subservient to Asimov’s laws of robotics, emerges from the technological singularity, and the ensuing cosmic paternalism puts every human into a heaven they desperately want out of, despite (or because of) all the sex and ultraviolence.


List from Eric Kaplan (TV writer and blogger who did philosophy grad work at U.C. Berkeley):

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (novel, 1937) -- What is the purpose of life and history?

Gene Wolfe, The Hero as Werewolf (novel, 1991) -- What is evil? What is the role of universalizability in ethics?

Futurama, “Why Must I be a Crustacean in Love?” (TV episode, 2000) -- What's the relationship between ethics and sociobiology?

Futurama, “Hell is Other Robots” (TV episode, 1999) -- Feuerbach thesis of the origin of religion -- is religion a human creation and if so what purpose does it serve?

Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon (novel, 1960) -- What is personal identity?

Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (novel, 1972) -- What is personal identity?

Theodore Sturgeon, Maturity (short stories, 1947-1958) -- What is the purpose of life? What is a well-lived life?

Lewis Padgett, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (short story, 1943) -- Are other conceptual schemes possible?

Eric Rücker Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros (novel, 1922) -- Nietzsche and the myth of the eternal return -- the heaviest thought.

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (novel, 1908) -- Theodicy -- why would a good God allow evil?

Alice Bradley Sheldon / James Tiptree, Jr., “A Momentary Taste of Being” (short story, 1975) -- biology and the purpose of life.


List from Simon Evnine (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Miami):

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (novel, 1993). Gender roles, and the significance of empathy in discharging our responsibilities for each other.

Michael Flynn, Eifelheim (novel, 2006). Aliens appear in a medieval German village; a deep reflection on love and sacrifice.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (novel, 1980). Hermeneutics: In the far future, a story about people trying to make sense of their distant past (us), told in an invented dialect that makes it equally a problem for us to make sense of them.

Liz Jensen, The Uninvited (novel, 2012). The nature of the adult world, and its relation to children and the future.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (novel, 2013). Having a divided mind, and the existence of social divisions, take on a whole new meaning when agents are composed of multiple people.

Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969). The meaning of gender is explored when a male protagonist comes to a planet inhabited by humans who change their gender naturally.

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child (novel, 1988). How do we deal with the intolerable when we have an obligation to care for it?

Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep (novel, 1992). A story involving a variety of kinds of minds, including transcendent minds, human minds infused by transcendent minds, and group minds.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (novel, 2009). How well do we know ourselves?

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (4 novels, 1983). A haunting work about the experience of finitude.


List from Helen De Cruz (Postdoc in Philosophy, University of Oxford, and blogger):

Ursula Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969). Explores a society where its inhabitants do not have a gender.

Daniel F Galouye, Dark Universe (novel, 1961). What's it like to be blind, not just to be blind but to live in a world where everyone is blind and relies on echolocation?

Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (novel, 1964). There are several books and movies on the brains in a vat/deceiving demon theme (e.g., most famously, The Matrix), but if I had to pick a favorite, this would be it.

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). Features naturalistic versions of Hindu gods and reincarnation. Can the status quo be challenged by introducing Buddhism?

Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (novel, 1966). Heinlein's lunar society exhibits his libertarian ideas, as well as the view that there's no such thing as a free lunch (expressed in the awkward acronym TANSTAAFL)

Robert Heinlein, “Jerry Was a Man” (short story, 1947). Ponders the issue of human rights for nonhuman animals and what it means for someone to be human, with the protagonist, a genetically-modified chimpanzee.

Richard Garfinkle, Celestial Matters (novel, 1996). Assumes that ancient science describes accurately how the world works - so we have things like Aristotelian physics, spontaneous generation, taoist Chinese alchemy, and geocentrism with real spheres in space.

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (novel, 1966). On personal identity and mental disability.

P.D. James, Children of Men (novel, 1992). Social criticism and theological reflection focusing on the results of mass infertility.

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (novel, 1954). If you're the last surviving human in a vampire-apocalypse, does it make sense to want to survive? And who is the monster, to be feared, in a new world populated by vampires?


Wow, now I want to read (and watch) all this stuff!
Guess I'll start here.

As before, readers are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments section.

October 6: The third batch of lists.


David Shope said...

A couple more stories from Lewis Padgett/C.L. Moore/Henry Kuttner

Vintage Season: Is it wrong to take aesthetic pleasure in events that involve the suffering of others? How far do our responsibilities to prevent harm extend?

Two-Handed Engine: What is the relationship between conscience and the threat of punishment?

Also fascinating is Larry Niven's "All the Myriad Ways", which could prompt great discussions about free-will and personal identity.

peachfront said...

Wow. Such a great list. I've read many of these, and it makes me want to read some of them again + look up the rest. Lessing's sequel to "The Fifth Child" called "Ben in the World" is great too, and the books are short enough that you could read both. Heart-breaking stuff. No easy answers in these.

Anonymous said...

Another recommendation - How about William S Burroughs' Nova Express?

Cat Vincent said...

There are two adaptations of Simulacron-3: Welt am Dracht (World On A Wire), by Fassbinder for 1970's German TV and the film The Thirteenth Floor (1999). Both are worth watching.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those comments and suggestions, folks!

marc a. moffett said...

I didn't see it listed, so thought I'd put a word in for ETA Hoffman's "The Sandman" (short story).

MentalEngineer said...

As a grad student who got into and remains in philosophy largely due to the formative influence of speculative fiction, I just want to say how awesome it is to see kickass people whose work I respect drawing from the same works and authors. Gives me warm fuzzies and hope.

praymont said...

I second Hoffmann's 'Sandman'. There's also his story, 'Automata', but 'Sandman' is better. I'd add some of Margaret Atwood's novels, esp. Handmaid's Tale and the Oryx & Crake trilogy.

Matt L said...

I'll throw in the suggestion of Charles Stross's Singularity Sky. It's a post-singularity story about left-libertarianism, time travel, and the fine-tuning argument. One of my favorite novels.

praymont said...

Perhaps of more historical interest, there's Ambrose Bierce's story, "Moxon's Master" (1894), which includes mentions of Mill and Herbert Spencer. It involves an automaton and poses questions re. whether machines can think and be alive. The inventor of the automaton seems to embrace panpsychism. The story's available on several internet sites. It features an automaton similar to Hoffmann's in "Automata".

Callan S. said...

“Welcome to Life: The Singularity, Ruined by Lawyers”
Everyone can have digital immortality, but not everyone can afford a version unsullied by direct brain advertising.

Is it a dualist position to think that at that point you would still need to advertise, rather than just program?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the suggestions, folks -- more lists coming!

Callan, interesting thought. I think there is reference to adjustment of your preferences in the video -- but then, indeed, why bother with the advertising? -- probably to get around some silly law!

Callan S. said...


-- probably to get around some silly law!

Probably indeed! And chilling! :(

Anonymous said...

I'd throw in a suggestion for Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder, which explores how our values are often influenced, or even determined, by the technologies we allow into our lives, as well as whether it's better to be free of outside restrictions or lead a meaningful life, if those things turn out to be incompatible.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that suggestion, Anon! I've enjoyed reading some Schroeder in the past, but I haven't seen that one. So far, he doesn't seem to be on any of the published or draft lists I've seen, which seems a shame -- so I appreciate the suggestion.