Monday, November 24, 2014

More Philosophical SF Recommendations

Regular readers of The Splintered Mind will remember the recent series of posts offering 36 professional philosophers' recommendations of works of science fiction or speculative fiction (SF) -- compiled here. Since then, I've accumulated a few more lists and recommendations.


a list of movies from the Philo-Teach discussion list started in 1996,
which Bruce Janz has kindly reposted -- movies that philosophers have found useful to show students for teaching purposes. Some good SF on there (but also lots of non-SF).

And here's

a list of science fiction about death
compiled for John M. Fischer in 1993 by John's and my late colleague George Slusser, the visionary science fiction scholar whose vast knowledge of the genre was central to developing UC Riverside's Eaton Collection into the largest publicly available collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world.

Below are three new SF lists in the standard format I am using for list contributions (ten recommendations with brief pitches).

Further contributions are welcome. Official list contributors should be "professional philosophers" (by which I mean something like PhD and a teaching or research job in philosophy) or SF writers with graduate training in philosophy and at least one "pro" sale. And as always, all readers' further thoughts and recommendations are welcomed in the comments section!


List from Simon Fokt (Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, University of Leeds), Polish SF from Lem and Dukaj:

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961; trans. 1970) Lem explores issues related to limitations of knowledge and communication, philosophy of mind and the structure of radically different minds.

Stanisław Lem, Fiasco (novel, 1986; trans. 1987) Another novel exploring the linguistic and cognitive limitations on understanding and communicating with truly different, alien life forms.

Stanisław Lem, Golem XIV (novel, 1981; trans. 1985) A story from the point of view of an AI which achieves consciousness, raises issues in philosophy of mind, and questions human ethics.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) On distinguishing reality from hallucination; scepticism and issues in knowledge acquisition and justification.

Stanisław Lem, Return from the Stars (novel, 1961; trans. 1980) Can humans live in a utopian society? What is the value of suffering, danger and risk, and what can happen if they are removed?

Stanisław Lem, Wizja lokalna (Local Vision) (novel, 1982 – Polish, not translated) Raises moral issues related to artificial intelligences and immortality.

Jacek Dukaj, Inne Pieśni (Other Songs) (novel, 2003 – Polish, not translated) An alternative history, starting from Alexander the Great’s times, in which Aristotle's physics is actually true. There are five elements, form and matter, etc., and some people have the power to will form onto matter. Basically, what would the world be like if Aristotle were right?

Jacek Dukaj, Lód (Ice) (novel, 2007 – Polish, not translated) The Tunguska Meteorite creates the Ice which freezes history and laws of logic in a part of the world. Under the Ice logic has only two-values, while outside it's many-valued. Issues in logic, rationality and cognition.

Jacek Dukaj, Czarne oceany (Black Oceans) (novel, 2001 – Polish, not translated) Jacek Dukaj, Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (An Ideal Imperfection) (novel, 2004 – Polish, not translated) Both novels explore post-humanism, the limits of human cognition and self, personal identity and persistence in the context of technology advanced enough to permit multiple physical realizations of a single consciousness, and blurring the lines between several simultaneous streams of thought and communication.

Simon adds: "Sadly, Dukaj’s work isn’t likely to be translated any time soon, which is unfortunate. Not because it’s not worth it, but because of the difficulty – he’s very interested in linguistic manipulations and neologisms, including not only making up new words, but making up entire grammar structures (e.g. some post-human-beings have no gender or location, so he creates an entirely new type of declination which is used when speaking about them). It must be a great challenge to translate that! Hopefully someone will, sooner or later."


List from David John Baker (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan):

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (novel, 1989) The best science fiction novel I've ever read, a treasure of the genre. It isn't philosophical throughout, but the chapter titled "The Scholar's Tale" contains a lot of interesting philosophy of religion.

C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (novel, 1988) Nature/nurture and personal identity questions are central to an absorbing plot.

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) Revolves around a fascinating question at the border between philosophy and psychology. Revealing the question would spoil the plot.

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (and sequels The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence) (novels 2002-2003) A well-thought-out posthuman libertarian utopia. (Also a deeply sexist novel, I'm afraid.)

Stephen Baxter, Manifold Time (novel, 1999) The plot of this book revolves around the doomsday argument! Also features some interesting detail about time and quantum physics, although much of it is distorted for fictional effect.

John Varley, The Ophiuchi Hotline (novel, 1977) Hinges on some wonderful thought experiments about personal identity, free will and the nature of intelligence.

John Kessel, "Stories for Men" (short story, 2002) Fascinating piece about gender. Examines a civilization in which women are privileged in something like the way our civilization privileges men.

Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" (short story, 2013) One of Chiang's most philosophical stories, which is saying a lot. Examines the unreliability of memory. If I had more room for a longer list, at least half of Chiang's stories would be on it.

Ariel Djanikian, The Office of Mercy (novel, 2013) Recent novel by a first-time author. A utilitarian civilization ruthlessly acts out its principles on a grand scale. Hard to say if this is a utopia or a dystopia.

Greg Bear, Queen of Angels (and sequel Slant) (novels, 1990 and 1997) Another morally ambiguous utopia. A civilization which treats violent deviants with therapy rather than punishment.


List from Christy Mag Uidhir (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Houston):

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) A novella composed of three short stories that addresses the issue of personal identity through the Colonialist lens.

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (novels, 1980-1987) Four novels and a coda. Modern masterpiece of literature, science-fiction or otherwise. Difficult and at times seems impenetrably dense but, like much of Wolfe’s work, the rewards for the careful reader are endless.

Walter Miller, Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959) A powerful tale both beautiful and tragic of Humanity and the light of knowledge.

Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad (story collection, 1965; trans. 1974) A collection of philosophically-themed short stories about the adventures of constructor engineers Trurl and Klapaucius trying to out do one another.

Frederick Pohl, Gateway (novel, 1977) How time doesn’t heal all wounds; some it leaves freshly open and raw forever.

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (novel, 1975) Haldeman’s sci-fi Vietnam masterpiece. What war at relativistic speeds means for soldiers going home.

Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (novel, 1950) Set millions of years in the future against the backdrop of a dying sun where mathematics has become magic and Earth a thing of terrible beauty.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) It’s The Matrix on drugs (literally) but better written and utterly hilarious.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (novel, 1998) A thoroughly enjoyable time-travel romp with a surprisingly philosophically sophisticated ending.

Mike Resnick, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge (novel, 1994) Novella that uses stories from a single geographic location across time to weave together a portrait of humanity (and the rise and fall thereof) as an essentially ruthless and thoroughly evil blight upon the universe.


  1. Mark Alfano adds:

    Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- Jekyll and Hyde share many of their autobiographical memories, but Jekyll refers to Hyde in the third person singular ("he"). Jekyll even claims that he is not the same person as Hyde, suggesting that their moral characters make the difference. To the extent that this claim is plausible, it supports recent work by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols arguing that moral character is the kernel of personal identity in folk psychology.

    Jess Row: Your Face in Mine -- In this recent novel, Row explores the metaphysics, sociology, and ethics of race relations through the device of "racial reassignment therapy." Based not inconceivably on the already-existing process of sex reassignment therapy, Row imagines a world in which people could (with sufficient cash and connections) change their race.

    Haruki Murakami: 1Q84 -- Murakami's longest novel, 1Q84 brings together themes from 1984, William Faulkner, and magical realism. The two main characters trade chapters (Faulkner-style) for roughly the first two thirds of the novel, until a third character who's been spying on them gets a few of his own chapters. Eventually, they all start to realize that they're in an alternate reality, but that that makes no difference to their emotional and moral lives.

  2. A big thank-you to whomever recommended Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson, in the previous rounds. And thanks to Eric for the topic.