Friday, October 17, 2014

Philosophical SF: Sixth Batch of Lists (Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs)

Here’s still another set of four lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers. One striking thing to me is that although there are definitely some overlapping works among the lists, there’s quite a bit that doesn’t overlap, and some works that seem to me eminently worthy of inclusion but have not yet appeared among any of the 240 listings, nor in the comments section. There's really an amazing amount out there, when you think about it!

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.

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


List from Joe Campbell (Professor of Philosophy, Washington State University):

Robert A. Heinlein, “—All You Zombies—” (short story, 1959). Classic sci-fi story that involves an especially interesting paradox of time travel.

Futurama, “Roswell That Ends Well” (TV episode, 2001). An explicit example of the grandfather paradox of time travel, with shades of Robert A. Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—.”

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko (movie, 2001). An example of the many-worlds interpretation of time travel, where time travel to the past requires travel to a different possible world that branches from the actual world. (See David Deutsch; J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al., A Time Travel Dialogue, 2014.)

Terry Gilliam, Twelve Monkeys (movie, 1995). An example of the no-change view of time travel, where people travel to the past but there are no alterations of past events. (See David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” (1976); J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al.)

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). Issues in bioethics, especially genetic determinism, free will, and moral responsibility.

Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange (movie, 1971). Great for discussions about free will, moral responsibility, and punishment. One of the few films that asks the question: Can you be praiseworthy if you could not have done otherwise?

Stephen Spielberg, Minority Report (movie, 2002). Covers the topic of pre-punishment: Can we punish people, or hold them morally responsible, for acts that they (arguably) will commit yet have not yet committed? (Based on the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, 1956. See Saul Smilansky, “Determinism and Prepunishment: the Radical Nature of Compatibilism”, 2007.)

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Covers issues in philosophy of mind: consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence. Also, an illustration of film as philosophy (Mulhall, 2008). (Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. In On Film (2008, 2nd edition), Stephen Mulhall contends that there is a philosophical debate about the nature of mortality between Leon (a replicant) and Deckard (a blade runner hired to “retire” Leon), Ch. 20, Director’s Cut DVD. This is also discussed in the Philosophy Bites episode, “Stephen Mulhall on Film as Philosophy.”)

Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix; The Matrix Reloaded; The Matrix Revolutions (movies, 1999 & 2003). Deal with a spectrum of philosophical issues, especially knowledge vs. skepticism, realism vs. antirealism, free will and determinism, and subjectivity vs. objectivity about meaning and value. (Compare Cypher’s choice from The Matrix DVD, Ch. 19, with Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974).

Honorable mentions (knowledge vs. skepticism): Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990); The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998); Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001).


List from Ross Cameron (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia):

Philip K Dick, Ubik (novel, 1969). As with many of Dick’s novels, his characters inhabit a disturbing world where appearances and reality seem to come apart, and out of multiple potential versions of reality, it’s not clear what is real, if anything.

Alan Moore, Watchmen (comic, 1986-87). An otherwise realistic world contains an almost omnipotent superhero. His perception of time raises questions about free will and evitability, and his presence raises difficult moral and political questions.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (novel, 1990). A sorcerous dictator keeps his political enemies subordinated by making it literally impossible for them to express their shared sense of cultural identity.

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). An alien society that cannot speak falsely first learns from humans how to make similes, and ultimately learns how to lie, changing them irrevocably.

Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies” (short story, 1958). In a world where time travellers are responsible for going back to ensure that history happens as it did, a potential recruit is forced to grapple with the problem of other minds.

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: A Game of You (comic collection, 1993). A young woman encounters an imaginary character from her childhood, leading her and her female friends on a journey that causes them to examine their identity as friends and as women.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). In a near future - and a very close possible world - a theocratic dictatorship has emerged in which women are severely repressed and must struggle to gain agency and community.

Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 (TV series, 2000-01). Buffy goes from being an only child to having a teenage sister overnight. Various characters grapple with their own identity, and what to do when duty seems to pull you in one direction and acting according to your nature another.

Melinda Snodgrass (writer), Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man” (TV episode, 1989). The artificial intelligence, Data, is forced to go on trial to prove that he has the right to self-determination and is not the property of Starfleet.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). In a world where memories can be implanted and erased, a man struggles to know who he is and what is real.


List from Kenny Easwaran (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M):

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005) - how much computer enhancement and dissociation of the self is compatible with remaining human? what are the differences between a software algorithm, a legal system, an organism, and a religion, and can all of them potentially be conscious?

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008) - academics cut themselves off from causal contact with the world in order to develop theoretical knowledge independent of social and political fads. Trans-world communication plays an important role.

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (series of novels, 1991-present) - the main plot content is not especially philosophical, but this series raises questions of the extent to which families rather than individuals are the units of action, in a world that is more economically and historically developed than most fantasy.

David Gerrold, The Man Who Folded Himself (novel, 1973) - how many roles can one person play in a time travel love story?

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002) - there is technology for creating clones that can live for a day, and which have most or all of the capacities of the individual. The novel investigates consequences for economics, privacy, politics, and health, in the midst of a noir set in future Los Angeles.

Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995) - each story in this collection develops a strikingly original idea. In "The Hundred Light-Year Diary", a method for sending messages to the past is invented, and everyone learns future history as well as past history, and is issued their life-long diary as soon as they can read. Rather than investigating free will and fatalism, the story investigates the political role of information. Several stories investigate computational alteration or replacement of biological brains and their consequences for moral responsibility and personal survival and identity. Some are more comedic.

P.D. James / Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (novel 1992, movie 2006) - centers on themes that have recently been explored by Sam Scheffler about the role of the ongoing existence of humanity in giving meaning to the life of an individual.

Christopher Nolan, Batman: The Dark Knight (movie, 2008) - classic puzzles from decision theory and ethics are given the twist of unreliability.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009) - explores issues of personal identity and the ethical issues of technology related to space travel for the purposes of dangerous work.

Christopher Priest / Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige (novel 1995, movie 2006) - two different ways of performing the same magic trick raise very different worries about personal identity and one's moral obligations to oneself.


List from Rachael Briggs (Research Fellow in Philosophy, Australian National University and Griffith University):

James Tiptree Jr., “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (short story, 1973). A sentient arthropod contemplates free will, but everything he wills happens to match the typical life cycle of his species.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). Brilliant genetic engineer Glenn ("Crake") is disgusted with human beings, their violence, and their environmental destructiveness. So he destroys the human race, and replaces it with a new species, the "Crakers", which he has designed as a superior replacement. The story is told by the last surviving human, who was Crake's best friend before the apocalypse.

Ryo Hanmura, “Tansu” (short story, 1997). A magical tansu, or chest of drawers, motivates people to sit on top of it all night, chanting mechanically. When asked, people transformed by the tansu unanimously describe the the activity as deeply fulfilling, yet the narrator finds something frightening in the idea of being transformed.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (novel, 1975). A woman is introduced to her counterparts from three different possible worlds, in which feminism has taken three different historical courses.

Rattle issue #38, Tribute to Speculative Poetry (poetry journal, 2012). Poems that explore a wide variety of science fictional and philosophical themes, including the inner life of an android created to be a pleasing companion (“Elise as Android at the Japan! Culture + Hyperculture Festival” by Rebecca Hazelton), various kinds of transformative experience (“The Creature” by Aimee Parkison; “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” by John Philip Johnson), the relationship between humans and their pets (“BLACKDOOG™” by Charles Harper Webb), and even the possibility of divine intervention in sports games (“One Possibility” by Marilee Richards).

Doctor Who, “The Aztecs” (TV serial, 4 episodes, 1964). The Doctor, a time-traveler, takes his companions Barbara, Ian, and Susan to the Aztec Empire in the 15th Century. Barbara is mistaken for the goddess Yetaxa, and immediately put in charge of the empire. She tries to use her power to stop the Aztecs' human sacrifice, despite the suspicion that this policy creates among her subjects, and the Doctor's warnings that her inconsistent approach to time travel could endanger the universe.

Dark Matter: A Century of Science Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas and Samuel R. Delany (short story collection, 2000). This varied collection of writing by black science fiction authors addresses the nature and ethics of race, but also explores a range of other philosophical questions, including: "How can a vampire live ethically, given her dietary needs?" ("Chicago 1967", by Jewelle Gomez); "What would it be to borrow someone's eyes and see from their perspective?" ("Can You Wear My Eyes", by Kalamu y Salam); "How can human beings construct dignified lives in the face of an incurable terminal illness?" ("The Evening and the Morning and the Night", by Octavia Butler) and "Who owns the rights to Santa Claus?" ("Future Christmas", by Ishmael Reed).

Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (short story collection, 1968). Old man Qfwfq recounts the reader with stories of his youth, when he and his relatives witnessed the Big Bang, the formation of the galaxies, the time when the moon was so close to the earth you could jump from one to the other, the evolution of land animals, and other historic events.

Jose Saramago, “The Centaur” (short story, 1978, English translation by Nadine Gordimer, 2004). An old centaur, oppressed by the human population, and frustrated by the struggle between his horse part and his human part, returns home to the sea.

Alex Temple, Switch: A Science Fiction Micro-Opera (work of music, 2013, recorded in performance by the Cadillac Moon Ensemble). In a society that draws deep class distinctions between the left-handed and the right-handed, a group of “hand offenders” rebels against the social categories on offer.


Seventh batch of lists here!


Ina said...

Oooh, the Calvino is a particularly excellent choice!

Jean said...

Not sure if these have appeared:

Michel Faber, Under the Skin (the book is much more philosophically rich than the movie). Great for thinking about animal ethics, species membership, and the right to self-preservation.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. So good, and good for thinking about cloning, organ transplantation, Kantian ethics, etc.

Plus I second the recommendation of Moon--terrific movie and great for thinking about personal identity.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting science-fiction novel of French micro-sociologist Gabriel Tarde, which puts forward thinking on future society, its structure of power, etc.

Gabriel Tarde, Underground Man (Fragments d'histoire future)

Thank you very much by the way for this amazing listing.

Allen said...

"The Iron Dragon's Daughter", Michael Swanwick - what causes causality? Does free will exist? Is sanity purely relative? Interesting to compare this version of Faerie to that of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell".

"Finch", Jeff Vandermeer - intelligent fungus, alternate realities, parallel dimensions. Very weird.

"Exhalation", Ted Chiang. Entropy, order, computationalism, the thermodynamic arrow of time.