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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

And the Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

About three quarters of the way through one of my notebooks is a reminder that "science fiction and philosophy would be a good blog post". I remembered to write this without it.

I am completely and unrepentantly partisan in favor or genre fiction. A friend asked me the other day why genre fiction gets such a bad rap in literary circles and as I launched into an answering diatribe it occurred to me that I am not precisely balanced on the subject. And I am alright with that. There are enough people out there fighting for the sanctity of "realist prose", and enough of them still occupy positions of power in various prestigious universities that I am able to feel as though I am still supporting the underdog in my defense of genre. Granted we are seeing more and more "sci-fi and fantasy" courses in English departments and I even know - oh frabjous day -  an instructor at the Naval Academy who was teaching a course on modern graphic novels (these are really long comic books like Watchmen and Persepolis for those of you who are not quite as immersed in geek culture).

Nevertheless, the wizened guardians of the literary canon are still debating The Lord of the Rings and Asimov's Foundation series. Let them bicker, history is on our side (well, mine anyway). But just in case it isn't; or in case I haven't made enough grumpy retorts to a nebulous literati, let me explain why and how I think that science fiction is the most philosophical of all genres (including realistic fiction).

Philosophers are huge fans of hypotheticals. Generally there is some attempt to make a hypothetical sound more impressive or intellectually worthy by calling it a "thought experiment" - this might also help with funding humanities departments - but ultimately the game is to imagine an unreal situation with it's own sets of rules for the purpose of playing out a theory to see how it might work in the absence of real world complications. And I think that this is a wonderful thing; hypotheticals give us all the opportunity to test something without having to worry about irrelevant details. A while ago I mentioned an ethical dilemma involving a train and several groups of people. The point is to imagine a situation in which someone's morality comes to the fore in a clear way. It does not matter that the situation is incredibly improbable, what matters is that it is a test case for at least two different ethical systems.

In science fiction, the author gets to do the same thing. What better way to explore philosophical anthropology than to imagine a world in which artificial intelligence is on a par with or even surpasses our own (Aasimov's Robot books)? If you want to expound a pre-modern cosmology in a way that modern thinkers will be able to understand how could you improve on a contemporary professor being shanghaied into a trip to mars (C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet)? Is there a more effective laboratory for investigation into the implications of a  perfect signifier-signified relationship than a novel wherein the enemy alien's doomsday device is an entirely accurate language (Samuel R. Delaney's Babel 17)? And how could there be a more thorough thought experiment into the cosmological implications if Plato's theory of the forms and their impact on multi-verse theory than a book about intellectual monks under attack from a world more distantly emanated the good (Neal  Stephenson's Anathem)? I could go on; and on and on and on.

Science fiction gives a writer the ability to imagine the specific set of circumstances which would most clearly demonstrate their own innate philosophies and world views. Of course when that is all they use the novel for (in fact when anyone uses a novel for much of anything other than as a medium for good story), they tend not to write very good books. But what if the author is a philosopher? What if they are writing not in order to preach a philosophy but to tell the excellent stories their philosophies inevitably produce? Some authors certainly are mere preachers - though sometimes they preach well - and some are tremendous story tellers and not very good philosophers (I would but Heinlein into this category). But some authors are genuinely both. Philosophers with a knack for recognizing a good story and the skill and craft to tell it well. It is probably going too far to call them philosopher poets but that would point in the right direction. That is why I find science fiction so intriguing, beguiling, thrilling and ecstatic.

Also laser guns, robots, space ships and aliens.


  1. As my senior honors project at Trinity International University, I'm writing a 50-page paper on the power of setting and culture in science fiction and fantasy, and use The Lord of the Rings and Dune as case studies. It's a fascinating field to me as both an academic and an author. -Dave Eisinger

  2. I was with you until you put a picture of STAR WARS on the page. Every hard sci-fi fan knows that STAR WARS is just fantasy in space. = P

  3. Two things: I promise to write about the intrinsic virtue of fantasy at a later date and soft scifi is still scifi; you don't always need rivets and manuals, sometimes aliens and unexplained mind powers are plenty. :)