September 22, 2009

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Philosophical Science-Fiction Stories: A Preliminary List

One of the main ways I was turned on to philosophy was via science-fiction, and I continue to be a big science-fiction enthusiast. I am most interested in the classic (c. 1935-1960) short stories, especially those of Theodore Sturgeon.

I have been reading through the new Wiley-Blackwell Science Fiction and Philosophy volume, ed. Susan Schneider. This is a good collection of philosophical writing - both from the professional literature and from more popular writers - on topics that have a direct and obvious relation to popular works of science-fiction, with some great short fiction (including Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" and Asimov's "Robot Dreams") intermingled. In short, this is a 'philosophy for sci-fi buffs' collection. It has had me thinking, though, that I wish there could be reverse volume: science-fiction for philosophers! This would of course have great entertainment value, but if the works were well selected they could be useful for introducing the subject matter to undergraduates. Some of the best 'philosophical' science-fiction even has (in my opinion) the potential to serve as extended thought experiments which could be useful even to professional philosophers.

To that end, I am compiling a list of some of the best philosophical science-fiction. I am sticking to short fiction because I think it works better for the purposes I have in mind. Here is the preliminary list I came up with (mostly of the top of my head/bookshelf), arranged by category. I have included as much information as I have handy about the publication history and availability of the stories.

Solipsism/External World Skepticism

  • Theodore Sturgeon, "The Ultimate Egoist." First published in Unknown, February 1941. Reprinted in Without Sorcery (1948) and Paul Williams, ed., The Ultimate Egoist. Vol. 1 of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon (1994).

Philosophy of Mind

  • John Varley, "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" (1977). Reprinted in Donald A. Wollheim, ed., The 1977 Annual World's Best SF.

Philosophy of Space and Time

  • Robert A. Heinlein, "By His Bootstraps" (1941). Reprinted in Robert A. Heinlein, The Menace From Earth (1959). (Note: this story, along with Heinlein's "-All You Zombies-", with which I am not familiar, is cited at the beginning of David Lewis, "The Paradoxes of Time Travel" American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976).)


  • Theodore Sturgeon, "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967). Reptrinted in Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph Olander, eds. The Future in Question (1980). That volume in its entirety was combined with a volume entitled Space Mail (same editors) to form Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Treasury (2006).

Philosophy of Religion

  • Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star" in Infinity Science Fiction November, 1955. Reprinted in Isaac Asimov, ed., The Hugo Winners, Vol. 1 (1962).
  • Isaac Asimov, "The Last Question" (1956). Reprinted in Asimov, et al., The Future in Question (see above).

Philosophy of Sex and Gender

  • James Triptree, Jr., "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" in James Tiptree, Jr., Aurora: Beyond Equality (1976). Reprinted in Wollheim, The 1977 Annual World's Best SF. (It is perhaps relevant to the reading of this story that 'Tiptree' is actually a pseudonym of Alice Bradley Sheldon, who is in fact a woman.)

Further suggestions?

Posted by Kenny at September 22, 2009 6:15 PM
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Greg Egan's "Permutation City" for philosophy of mind, identity, and computation.

Seriously, you can't not mention that.

Posted by: Eliezer Yudkowsky at September 28, 2009 7:56 PM

Whoops. Didn't notice the "short fiction" specifier and Permutation City is a novel. But it is one hell of a novel, possibly the greatest work of hard philosophical SF ever developed.

Posted by: Eliezer Yudkowsky at September 28, 2009 8:04 PM

Eliezer - Thanks for stopping by. I am not familiar with that novel. It looks like it is more recent than what I normally read, but I might check it out some time. According to the Amazon summary, the plot is somewhat similar to "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank," though in "Overdrawn" the character gets loaded into the computer when his body is accidentally misplaced.

Posted by: Kenny at September 28, 2009 8:11 PM

I always have to put in a plug for the sadly obscure R.A. Lafferty, who didn't write anything but fairly philosophical stories.

The nativism debate is addressed directly in "Condillac's Status (or Wrens in His Head)"

The idea of a third realm from which we get our ideas is treated in "Oh Whatta Do When the Well Runs Dry?"

The common sci-fi play on perception is done in "Through Other Eyes."

Philosophy of time is adeptly treated in "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" and taken in a more standard way in "The Six Fingers of Time" (and more humorously treated in "Days of Grass, Days of Straw")

Philosophy of science (specifically why we adopt theories) is considered in "All Hollow Though You Be."

Determinism and freedom is handled in "Or Little Ducks Each Day"

The idea of shared unconscious is discussed in "Dream" and "Entire and Perfect Chrysolite"

Lafferty was Catholic, and he treats pretty much every possibility for non-human sentient beings and religion at some point. A couple specifics are "Name of the Snake" and "In the Garden" ("Past Master," starring Thomas More, is good too but is a novel).

Also, although these are not directly philosophical short stories, I'd be remiss in not mentioning that he has a story called "The World as Will and Wallpaper" and a chapter of a novel ("Space Chantey," his retelling of Greek mythology) retells the Atlas story in Berkelean terms.

Everything I mentioned is bound to be at least two of these three things: dark, hilarious, and thought-provoking.

Posted by: Jay Brantner at October 21, 2009 10:16 AM

Jay - Thanks for pointing this out to me. The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can't come up with anything of his I've read, right off. I will have to look him up.

Posted by: Kenny at October 21, 2009 10:47 AM

This is an absolutely fascinating exercise.

To the Sex and Gender category, I would add "The Man Who Folded Himself."

Posted by: John at November 8, 2009 6:22 PM

I just read "The Last Question," which I read many years ago but did not remember. It was really good!

Posted by: John at November 8, 2009 6:33 PM

John - Glad you are enjoying it!

I hadn't heard of "The Man Who Folded Himself" before. I looked it up on Wikipedia. For the information of other readers, this is evidently a 1973 novel by David Gerrold. Looks like it could also go under philosophy of space and time.

Posted by: Kenny at November 8, 2009 6:44 PM

Every single book by Philip K. Dick deals with the question of reality per se. What is real and what is not? Is reality and our conception of reality two entirely different things? Are there "authentical fakes" and "fake authenticity"? Dick said it best himself: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
Some paradox, right...?

Posted by: LBJ at November 11, 2009 2:29 PM

Dan Simmons in the Hyperion and Endymion series of books.

Posted by: Ian at November 11, 2009 4:20 PM

Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune has quite a bit of religious philosophy in it, I think. So does his trilogy including "The Jesus Incident", "The Lazarus Effect," and "The Ascention Factor" all dealing with the fallout from an AI created by man, who decides that it is god.

Posted by: Jenny at November 11, 2009 4:55 PM

Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies all by Richard Morgan. Hardcore cyberpunk, they offer a shocking new way in which human life is lived and the value placed on that life. Highly recommended!

Posted by: Charley at November 11, 2009 8:24 PM

I don't grok why _Stranger in a Strange land_ is not on the list. Religion, spirituality, institutionalism, sexuality...

Posted by: Eric at November 11, 2009 10:02 PM

Ah, short fiction.

Posted by: Eric at November 11, 2009 10:09 PM

Yes. Stranger in a Strange Land is a favorite of mine, actually, and it raises a lot of interesting issues.

Posted by: Kenny at November 11, 2009 10:34 PM

You certainly have to include "The Disposessed" by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's certainly on of the best explorations on the concept of utopian society. Her Earth Sea Trilogy, though written for young adults obviously tackles some thorny philosophical issues.

Not quite in the same literary league, but certainly thoughtful, would be the works of L.E. Modesitt Jr., which include explorations of the balance of ecological morality and personal responsibility.

Posted by: michael mckee at November 11, 2009 10:39 PM

ursula le guin & octavia butler *need* to be on here...

Posted by: james Ratti at November 11, 2009 10:57 PM

The Unincorporated man by the Kollin brothers is compared to Heinlein and talks of ethics and cryogenics.

Posted by: bob at November 12, 2009 1:43 AM

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

Posted by: Chad at November 12, 2009 5:05 AM

The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card for philosophy of Religion.

Posted by: Taylor at November 12, 2009 6:10 AM

Chad - I did think about that one, but I thought "The Star" was a lot better. Are there some specific issues raised by "The Nine Billion Names" that you had in mind?

Posted by: Kenny at November 12, 2009 9:14 AM

Starship Troopers and the Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein. The libertarian model - How should government work; what is a citizen’s responsibility? (The movie sucked)

Posted by: Dan at November 12, 2009 10:41 AM

The short story, "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan, since expanded into the novel Diaspora, explores concepts of solipsism and centers around two cultures of earth in the far future one of which is exploring space to search for intelligent life and the other that stays home and says, why bother we can simulate evolution on a computer and evolve intelligent life there. The space explorers discover life that may or may not fit within either philosophy.

Instead of all of Permutation City, you could read the short story "Dust" that it elaborated upon.

You asked for short stories, but I might recommend the novel "Blindsight" by Peter Watts which explores the nature and asks the question of whether intelligence necessarily requires consciousness as a team of astronauts are sent to meet a very aloof alien spacecraft before it enters the solar system.

Sticking with your old stories implies that nothing new has been said about philosophy in science fiction since the 70's or that there has been no new philosophy to be explored since then. Perhaps that is true, I doubt it. Thus your list doesn't necessarily contain the best example of a science fiction short story illustrating a given philosophical concept or even the most important philosophical concepts that you might want to illustrate using a science fiction short story.

That being said, I am only a critic, I don't create. Good luck with your task, and get out and read some newer stuff that might help you accomplish it. I suggest the Year's Best Science Fiction Volumes 1 through 26 edited by Gardner Dozois for a good summary of the best science fiction short stories of the past 26 years. It is only about 13 million words of fiction.

Posted by: Richard at November 12, 2009 11:41 AM

I don't know about The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but Starship Troopers was strongly statist. It virtually deified the state as it called upon people to serve it unconditionally. Great novel, but not libertarian at all.

Posted by: John at November 13, 2009 5:54 AM

John - That was also my initial impression of Starship Troopers. However, the book is often interpreted as ironic. On this reading, the whole point is that the humans in their statist society are not really much different from the bugs after all.

Posted by: Kenny at November 13, 2009 10:03 AM

I don't know if Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress could be classified as libertarian. They are definitely political Starship advocates freedom through service restricting the vote to those who served. Moon on the other hand is advocating the overthrow of colonial oppression. As they write a constitution in preparation for their success it is based on the U.S. constitution and personal freedoms. The constitution is really secondary to the rebellion though.

Posted by: bob at November 13, 2009 3:53 PM

I guess this is a short fiction list, but i have to say, Terry Pratchett (would not be sci-fi, but fantasy I guess) explores lots and lots of philosophical questions and is well known for exploring human nature and the nature of evil.

In the sci-fi section, the book "The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse" explores the nature of religious identity and religious conflict in America. In particular, it explores religious tolerance and what precursors are necessary for religious tolerance in a democratic society.

The short story compilation "The Folk of the Fringe" (1989) explores the nature of American and Mormon identity, and several stories explore what is required for a democratic society to exist (I would recommend this book to any class addressing religion and sci-fi, get the book with the forward addressing the themes if you use it).

Furthermore, the Nancy Kress short story/novella "Beggars in Spain" (and the resulting novel[s]) explores the very philosophical question about what productive members of society owe those who do not contribute anything (the beggars in spain philosophical question) and gives a very anti-libertarian answer. She also has a short story published a couple years ago which explores what would happen to society if the need to produce was taken away (can't remember what it was, but this question is also addressed in the Beggars in Spain series).

As others have said, this list is pretty short and seems to go for older fiction. There aren't a lot of women on the list (seriously, a lot of older women sci-fi writers wrote under male pseudonyms and even those pseudonyms aren't here) and it seems to ignore the fact that you could go through many sci-fi collections, magazines, and anthologies and find stories that address philosophical questions.

Posted by: evilbunnytoo at November 14, 2009 12:18 PM

Ben Wood has recently started his own fiction story site called Army of Puppets.

Its an interesting way of showing a story.

Posted by: Paul at April 3, 2011 4:20 PM

For sci-fi and philosophy of religion:

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)
Mary Doria Russell, The Children of God (1998)
Robert J. Sawer, Calculating God (2000)

Posted by: Sloan at February 10, 2013 7:56 AM

Primordial Labyrinth by John A. Ayala explores morality, nihilism, and the post-human.

Posted by: Philos_Scifi at September 20, 2013 10:09 AM

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