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Not So Strange Bedfellows: Philosophical Sci Fi Roundup
Nick DiChario is thoughtfully prophetic.
One of the things that philosophy and science fiction have in common is a love of ideas. Many of my favorite SF authors actively embrace philosophy in their novels; and many philosophy professors use SF in their classes to engage students and enhance understanding of complex philosophical questions. In fact, there are some colleges now offering Philosophy through Science Fiction courses – including the small private undergraduate school I attended thirty years ago: they’ve come a long way since my days there! In this article I recommend novels that are not only fun to read, but also serve as fine companions in the classroom. I’ve also tried to select a few titles and authors you won’t necessarily find on standard reading lists.
Ethics Never Gets Old
James Blish won the Hugo Award in 1959 for his novel A Case of Conscience. In this short book, his main character is a Jesuit priest, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, who is sent to the planet Lithia with a group of scientists to decide whether the planet should be opened to interplanetary travel, free trade, and visitors from other cultures. Lithia looks suspiciously like paradise, and seems almost too good to be true. Sin and vice, avarice and greed, envy and corruption, are entirely unknown to the Lithians, and Blish uses this backdrop to explore some interesting philosophical questions: Is God (or religion) absolutely necessary to develop a moral society? As well as original sin, did God grant us creativity, and can one exist without the other? Does science corrupt innocence (or is that religion’s job)? Does one culture or society have a right to impose its will upon another, and if so, under what conditions? What happens to those people when it’s done? And, in the greater scheme of things, do any of these questions matter, when the guy who owns the biggest bombs still holds sway? Anyone following current events in the Middle East will find these questions as relevant today as they were when Blish published his novel more than fifty years ago.
The Philip K. Dick Pick
Philip K. Dick is known primarily for his novels of the 1960s and 70s, including The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the big-screen phenomenon Blade Runner), and short stories such as ‘The Minority Report’ (Tom Cruise stars in the Hollywood film version) and ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’ (Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger). Even some of Dick’s lesser known works have made it to movie theaters – among them, Paycheck (Ben Affleck played the leading role in the movie), and A Scanner Darkly (animated using interpolated rotoscope, a mesmerizing visual experience well worth seeing).
The popularity of Dick’s work with modern audiences is astounding – no other SF writer comes close. This is especially striking given how many SF authors have come and gone since his time – fine writers whose work now seems nostalgic and outdated, including some of the most recognizable names in the genre, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. In my opinion, Dick remains popular because he poses philosophical questions that are timeless and continue to resonate with young people: crises of personal identity, persecution and alienation, paranoia (often justified), and distrust of authority and the government. For instance, ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, and Total Recall, examine the essence of individuality, what it means to be you, and whether you are who you think you are, even if you aren’t who you think you are. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and Blade Runner) explore what makes humans human. Is it empathy? And if so, does that somehow make us superior to other sentient beings, even beings we create in our own image? And to what extent can we trust our memories, and do our memories make a difference to who we are today? In ‘The Minority Report’, Dick asks us to ponder the ethics of convicting someone of a crime before a crime is committed (Dick’s term for this is ‘precrime’) – when the future is known and the police can see that the crime will be committed. How reliable is such a system? Can it be tampered with and exploited? Is the future predetermined, or do we have free will?
So much of Dick’s fiction lends itself to philosophical discussion that it doesn’t seem fair to recommend just one or two works. It’s worth reading a bunch and picking the best bananas – ‘the Philip K. Dick Pick’. It’s virtually guaranteed that you will find something just right for you.
China Miéville is one of Britain’s most popular science fiction and fantasy authors and has won multiple Arthur C. Clarke and British Fantasy awards. He is also an avowed socialist and member of the Socialist Workers Party. Much of his fiction is concerned with social and political structures and the effects these have on the people trapped in them, around them or under them. For sci fi fans interested in Marxism, collectivism, nationalism or political philosophy in general, Miéville is your guy. Although his work is sometimes considered more fantasy than SF, there is no question that it’s other-worldly and strange enough to fit in both camps, and is, as such, an alien adventure to read.
Miéville’s books may be a bit more challenging (dense? complicated? difficult?) than the previous novels I’ve mentioned, but they’re well worth the extra effort. I was introduced to his work as a graduate student, when my professor at Empire State College in New York suggested I read the Bas-Lag trilogy for a Politics, Society and Literature course I was taking. (The books in the series include Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, published 2000-2004.) I was immediately captivated by the author’s unique blend of magic, technology, world-building and socio-political philosophies, and I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the bits and pieces of left-wing politics lurking in the pages as I read along. But perhaps the most compelling element of Miéville’s fiction is his obvious passion for ideas. His prose is full of intensity, and it’s almost impossible not to get pulled in and lost in the long, dark descriptions of his worlds and of the desperate plights of his characters.
Did You Say Creationism Vs. Darwinism? Again?
God knows there are plenty of books on this topic, but Marcos Donnelly’s fascinating short novel Letters From the Flesh (2004) is a gem. The story is told in the epistolary tradition [i.e. as letters] through two intriguing characters. The first storyline follows the apostle Paul of Tarsus, and offers a fine bit of heresy about what might have happened to him on the road to Damascus to change him from the persecutor Saul to the super-Christian Paul (look for some genuinely original alien intervention here). The second narrator is Lillian Uberland, a scientist who corresponds with her cousin, Mike, a young teacher intent on challenging the creationists he has encountered in his high school and in the small community in which he lives. The connection between these two stories, centuries apart, becomes evident as the novel draws to its surprising conclusion. Along the way, Donnelly engages the reader with the light touch of a skilled writer who knows how to avoid the pitfalls of proselytizing in a work of fiction. The writing is alive with clever jousting around the creationist debate; but the novel isn’t so much about the debate itself as much as about the people who debate. Why do people believe in God? Why do people believe in science? Why do some of us defend our faiths, whatever they may be, with such extreme fanaticism? And why do others just not care? This novel offers a fresh and original ride over some well-worn tyre tracks.
Scratching the Surface
SF is rife with examples of philosophical themes emerging in the novel form, including Thomas More’s Utopia; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Yevgeny Zamayatin’s We; and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. But these are books that almost everyone has heard of. I hope I’ve introduced you to a few authors you might not have otherwise discovered.
There are also some excellent non-fiction books on the topic of ‘sci fi and philosophy’ that might make great classroom companions, including: Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (2009) by Susan Schneider, and Philosophy Through Science Fiction: A Coursebook with Readings (2008) by Ryan Nichols, Nicholas D. Smith and Fred Miller.
All the books I’ve mentioned in this article are still in print. Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface – which means I should probably get cracking on a sequel: Not So Strange Bedfellows 2!
© Nick DiChario 2011
Nick DiChario was nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. His novels A Small and Remarkable Life (2006) and Valley of Day-Glo (2008) are published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside.