Monday, October 06, 2014

Philosophical SF: Third Batch of Lists

Four more lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers. For a general description of the project and the first four lists, see here. For the second four lists see here. And more soon, too!


List from Johan De Smedt (post-doc in philosophy, Ghent University):

Battlestar Galactica: Home, part 2 (TV series, 2005-2006): What is the identity of beings (cylons) that always reincarnate upon death, and that have several clones living concurrently (some friendly to humans, others hostile to them)?

Jack Vance, The Languages of Pao (novel, 1957): sketches a universe in which a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true.

Richard Cowper, The Twilight of Briareus (novel, 1974): universal infertility and the fate of humanity/human cultures if there is no next generation, a trope that has been taken on by several other books (also P.D. James's Children of Men, Brian Aldiss's Greybeard).

Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A comedy of justice (novel, 1984): C.S. Lewis meets David Lewis. A literalist interpretation of the Book of Job playing out across multiple actualized possible worlds.

Stephenie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (novel, 2008): sketches the perfect postmortem human body as outlined in the hereafter of e.g., Aquinas.

Richard Adams, Watership Down (novel, 1972): alien society at the bottom of the food chain (rabbits!), experiments in diverse political systems, and the role of religion (prophecy, adherence to culture hero) in political decision making.

Joss Whedon, Serenity (movie, 2005): How far can a government go to enforce its ideals upon its citizens (follow up of the space Western television series Firefly)?

Joe Haldeman The Forever War (novel, 1974): two species are sucked into an interstellar war against unknowable enemies with an incomprehensible psyche. Human veterans have to adapt to cultures with norms that are ever more remote from the society they originate from.

Daniel F. Galouye, Dark Universe (novel, 1961): about perception in a post-apocalyptic underground world without light (some cultures use echolocation, others have adapted to infrared seeing).

Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (novel, 1964): the ultimate brains-in-a-vat/evil demon story, superior to and predating The Matrix.


List from Scott Bakker (SF writer and blogger who did graduate work in philosophy at Vanderbilt):

Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin (movie, 2013).Terrifying meditation on different kinds of meat, alien and human, inhabiting different kinds of skin.

Spike Jonze, Her (movie, 2013). The single most believable cinematic portrayal of the quotidian consequences of AGI.

George F. Slavin and Stanley Adams, “The Mark of Gideon,” Star Trek original series (TV episode, 1969). Wonderful example of the way manipulating frames of epistemological reference can drive human behaviour.

Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Famed meditation on individual exceptionality, politics, and religion.

Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, The Jesus Incident (novel, 1979). The real story of the real Pandora (as opposed to James Cameron’s imperialistic pastiche), pitting organic and technological intelligences at multiple levels.

Paul Verhoeven (and Edward Neumeier), Starship Troopers (movie, 1997). The fascistic tropes of American military narratives spoofed too well to be appreciated by American critics or audiences.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God’s Eye (movie, 1974). First contact, not so much between species, as between technical intelligences (corresponding to the angels and devils of our own scientific natures).

William Gibson, Neuromancer (novel, 1984). Watershed novel credited with euthanizing the Myth of Progess in science fiction.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). The culinary fate of intentionality apr├Ęs le Deluge.

Scott Bakker, Neuropath (novel, 2008). Because everybody’s gotta eat, Semantic Apocalypse or no!


List from Jonathan Kaplan (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University):

Michael Coney, The Celestial Steam Locomotive and Gods of the Greataway (novels, 1983, 1984). An adventure story in which various kinds of (post-)humans work together to achieve various ends, only some of which they understand. What is it to be human? to be a person? How should we think about choice and alternative possibilities?

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (novel, 1977). (The 2006 movie adaptation is quite faithful to the book.) An undercover drug enforcement agent loses touch with reality. Who are we, when we pretend to be who we are not? To whom do we owe loyalty?

Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (novel, 1974). In a police state, a TV star wakes up to find he is now a nobody. What is "reality," and whose reality matters?

Harlan Ellison, "Shatterday" (short story, 1980). A man discovers that he has split in two. What if there was another you? What if the other you was a better person? What is it to be decent human being, and why does it matter?

William Gibson, "The Winter Market" (short story, 1985). A producer works directly with artists' emotions. Does this imply anything about consciousness? About the nature of our experiences? What is art? Some reflection on the potential for immortality.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (novel, 2013). An embodied fragment of an AI seeks revenge. How should we think about personal identity and responsibility in the case of distributed entities? Does this have any implications for thinking about ourselves?

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Follows a physicist from an “anarchist” society. Reflections on political systems, morality, political organizing. Do all great dreams fail? Is it the nature of all political systems to decay into bureaucracies, or worse?

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Word for World is Forrest" (novella, 1972, later expanded to a novel, 1976). A logging camp on another world uses the native species as slave labor. Reflections on colonialism and responsibility, as well as on social change. What is it to be a person? How do (and how should) societies change?

George R. R. Martin, "With Morning Comes Mistfall" (short story, 1973). A scientific expedition comes to debunk to a local myth. Is there a value in leaving things unexplored? Should we want science to answer even the all the questions it can answer? Is there any value in remaining willfully ignorant of what we could easily learn?

Dan Simmons, Phases of Gravity (novel, 1989). The story follows an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon, as he moves through a world that no longer seems to be moving forward. Where do we find meaning in our lives? How do we reconcile ourselves to the world we find ourselves in?


List from Jonathan Weinberg (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Arizona):

Millennium-end movies about skepticism: The Matrix / 13th Floor / Dark City / Existenz (movies, 1998-1999). Existenz may be the best film of that list, but the middle two, though less well-known, each contain interesting sections dramatizing what it really would feel like to slowly come to think that a skeptical hypothesis may actually be true. Some exploration (though not particularly well worked out) of the relationship between memory and personal identity in Dark City as well.

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). AI , the problem of other minds... does anyone really need Blade Runner glossed at this point?

Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (short story, 1973). The problem of evil; one aspect of it I particularly like is that it puts the problem in more human-sized terms, where the readers must ask themselves whether they would be the sort of person described by the title, or not.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). What if you could temporarily put your consciousness into a disposable copy of yourself, which could then run various errands for you, and whose consciousness would be re-absorbed by yours after 24 hours? The copies are self-destructing: if they don't re-absorb by 24 hours, then they disintegrate, so in general, the copies strongly identify as the person they are copies of, expecting to live on via the re-absorption. But then again... what if you were such a copy, and you realized that you are now in a circumstance where you won't ever get to rejoin the original? Really interesting exploration of fusion/fission and personal identity; it's written in what one might call the first-person-singular-plural.

The Leftovers (TV series, 2014-present). (I confess I haven't read the book of that title by Tom Perrotta, who is also one of the makers of the show.) The premise is that all of a sudden, at a point about three years before the story starts, about 2% of the world's population just… vanished. Poof. It's kind of like the rapture, except it's clear that the departed people weren't any better than everyone else, and indeed, there doesn't seem to be any pattern to who did or did not vanish. It's maybe a borderline case of the SF/Fantasy genre. What I find compellingly philosophical about it, inter alia, is that it is an exploration of what it would be like to like in a world in which you had evidence that Humean worries about induction really were true. What if the universe did just throw us a massive, inexplicable, unprojectable curve ball? How would we conduct our lives? (For a much, much darker, weirder, and horrifying exploration of the unknowable in sci-fi form, I can recommend Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. But I'm not sure I even know how to begin glossing it, frankly. So I'm cheating and helping myself to a parenthetical here.)

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). A member of a very small set of sci-fi books where the relevant science is linguistics. It centrally concerns the challenge of communicating with an alien race whose language, among other challenging properties, seems to be one in which one cannot knowingly express a falsehood. (Having learned about lying from the humans, the aliens have a kind of Olympic competition to see who can come as close to lying as possible.)

Neil Gaiman, Murder Mysteries (short story, 1998; graphic novel, 2002). As Heaven enters into late stages of planning for the Creation, an angel is wakened to serve his purpose as Heaven's detective, to investigate the very first murder ever. It plays with both fantasy and noir genres, and is an examination of the problem of evil.

Neil Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). A sci-fi adventure book starring a philosopher-monk-hero, where major plot twists involve the manyworlds interpretation of QM, and debates over Platonism in metaphysics. No, really.

L. Sprague DeCamp, "Aristotle & The Gun" (short story, 1958) - A man travels back to ancient Greece, to try to jump-start the scientific revolution by a millenium or so, with rather unintended consequences.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (novel, 2004). Set in a version of early 19th century England and Europe in which the English have (re?)discovered magic. Both an interesting exploration of genre (fantasy? alt-history? pastiche of 19th century novels), and an exploration of the philosophical conflict between Englightenment and Romantic takes on modernity, made manifest in the different styles of sorcery of the two title characters.


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

Fourth batch of lists here.


Martin Wisse said...

Interesting lists, a mixture of the sublime and the godawful, but that can't be helped. Some additions:

Joanna Russ, We Who Are About to Die... is a direct attack on the restart civilisation on an alien planet (or after the apocalypse) subgenre and the right of refusal of the individual to take part in it: civilisation is doing fine, it's just not where we are.

Russ' The Female Man is of course a key feminist work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the lists! Lem is great, and appears on several people's lists, but it's nice to see a list just of his work. Russ I don't know, but it sounds interesting!

Bill Wringe said...

A good place to start with Russ is her short story 'When It Changed', which explores some of the same themes as 'The Female Man' - and some of the same characters. There's a version online somewhere (or was last time I looked)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bill, let me know if you want to contribute a full list to the next update of the project!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You too, Simon -- great list! I'm sending an email.

Anonymous said...