I Contribute To Schwitzgebel’s Extremely Long (And Growing!) List of SF and Philosophy Recs – Plus Thought-Experiments As Pulp Fiction

by John Holbo on August 9, 2016

My old poker buddy Eric Schwitzgebel has, for some time, been soliciting Top-10 lists from folks who teach SF and philosophy. So I finally got around to contributing. Tell me I’m wrong!

Eric has busted into sf authorship himself since our grad school days. Here’s one of his in Clarkesworld, “Fishdance”. “The two most addictive ideas in history, religion and video-gaming, would finally become one.” It’s good!

One thing I’m going to talk about this semester is the domestication of experience machines. In genre terms, The Matrix is a bit played out. Inception. Been there, done that. Can we agree about that? Also, video games just get normaler and normaler. Yesterday I looked around on the train and I was, literally, the only person NOT playing “Pokemon Go”. True story! It felt a bit weird. They were all off together in an alternate version of the city. I was alone in the real one, with only my headphones and music to keep me warm – like some savage. There are two obvious ways to make virtual life, as an alternative to real life, appealing: make the world really messed up. Make the virtual world nice. Maybe the people behind the scenes don’t need to be Agent Smith-style jerks. The first film to play it this way, in a nice way, is Avalon. But no one saw it. Good film. More recently you get the likes of Ready Player One and Off To Be The Wizard, in which players of games – and games within games, and games within games within games – are increasingly comfortable with the whole biz. Not that there’s no lingering anxiety about the appropriateness of this life strategy! I like to think that one of my all time faves, The Glass Bead Game, is an honored ancestor. Homo Ludens. What’s Latin for ‘man, the player of virtual reality games’?

Of course, I think of myself as more of a cartoonist than an sf author. Since I’m on the subject, here are a couple graphics I whipped up for my module last time, which amused me – although I did it all fast-and-sketchy. I’d really like to remake them carefully, in a Norman Saunders-y style.

The idea is to make fake pulp covers for classic scientific and philosophical thought-experiments.

Galileo's Tower


Newton's Cannon

Philosophically, the point is as follows: it would be silly to repackage Newton’s Cannon and Galileo’s Tower, etc. as pulp fiction. Why? Well, for a lot of reason too obvious to mention. Duh. But, narrowly: thought-experiments work by simplifying, abstracting and purifying, so our thinking is clear of irrelevant factors. It is obviously a bad idea to mix in a lot of lurid adventure and wish-fulfillment and scantily-clad ladies and such. So the question is: do a lot of classic sf short stories, generally felt to be ‘philosophical’, suffer from the silly problem implied by my parody covers? Namely, they are bad thought-experiments because their philosophical logic is bound by an excess of genre constraints, an overdeveloped narrative logic? But, in order to make this valid point, I found myself sketching lots of scantily clad ladies, so when we got to “The Conquest of Gola” I figured – fair is fair! Here is one for the ladies! (Or whomever. Or whatever.) Apparently Zack Galafianakis will be in the film version. It will be a lot like “The Martian”, looks like. Kind of “The Martian” meets “The Hangover”, maybe?

The Conquest of Gola

Ah, my eyes! The goggles, they do nothing!



Rich Puchalsky 08.09.16 at 3:28 am

“It is obviously a bad idea to mix in a lot of lurid adventure and wish-fulfillment and scantily-clad ladies and such.”

Why? I never understood the reason for that. Philosophical thought experiments clearly *are* really about lurid adventure and wish-fulfillment and so on — although they generally don’t include enough scantily clad people — so why not just make them be what they’re about? It would take a lot to convince me that all of those careening trolley cars and brains in vats and zombies that look just like people are really examples of abstract, purified thought.


John Holbo 08.09.16 at 3:33 am

Oh, it’s only bad for thought-experiment purposes. For all other human purposes, one should indulge one’s fetishes. In a more general sense: one should indulge one’s fetishes. Fetish-free thought-experiments are just a special case of this truth. It’s just that some people have a thought-experiment fetish, whereas others like shoes with high heels.


John Holbo 08.09.16 at 3:34 am

And I quite agree that the dramatic incidentals of philosophy thought-experiments are highly suspect.


Rich Puchalsky 08.09.16 at 4:02 am

“the dramatic incidentals of philosophy thought-experiments are highly suspect”

Are they? Take the Lewd and Prude example since I’ve already linked to it. If it was a mathematical proof about Pareto efficiency then all it would really need is math, and the rest would be incidentals. But is it really that, or is it a story about sex and relationships and the ways in which people are drawn together? (Together with, in the original, a comical “social planner” as a kind of inept duenna.) If it’s a matter of suspect subtext undermining text then you have to ask why the subtext is the text.


SusanC 08.09.16 at 9:47 am

The subtext works particular well in the Lewd and Prude thought-experiment. Game theory and traditional economics assume the existence of utility functions that we rationally maximize; that we are consciously aware of our own utility function. But then cough Freudian psychoanalysis meets game theory.

On another notes, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World deserves a shout-out for philosophy meets genre fiction. (Undoubtedly on everyone’s lists already; but if you’re going to do a pulp fiction cover…)


Adam Roberts 08.09.16 at 10:11 am

Proper philosophical science fiction! One day I hope to write some of that myself.


ZM 08.09.16 at 11:11 am


Oh, I love the blazing world. Such an interesting work, I’ve mentioned it here so many times.


SamChevre 08.09.16 at 12:22 pm

New, but I’d put Jo Walton’s Thessaly books on my list.

Weird, but I don’t know if it’s sf or fantasy or what–but definitely philosophical and not-normal–James Morrow: Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter especially.


Rich Puchalsky 08.09.16 at 12:27 pm

James Morrow sort of wrote one book over and over.

Here’s what I’ve written about Adam Roberts’ books if anyone wants to read that.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.09.16 at 1:09 pm


SusanC 08.09.16 at 1:43 pm

By the way, if you’re drawing parodies, Eric Schwitzgebel works well as Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Something along the lines of: Buffy and Willow are grad students in philosopht at some unnamed US university. Giles, their thesis adviser, is researching lucid dreaming but is unable to become lucid himself. Willow is surprised, as this is a beginners task in meditation she can do easily. They eventually discover that Giles is a member of a centuries-old international conspiracy of philosophers who are trying to defeat the doctrine of Realism. The interest in lucid dreaming is only a proxy war: the eventual goal is to try to convince the world that there waking experiences aren’t real either, Willow: “But didn’t the Buddha discover that years ago…” Giles hopes that his new grad students will be able to convince the world, a task he has been unable to complete himself. Meanwhile. Giles is working every evening on his latest paper. One morning, for a minute after waking. he is unable to move and sees a demonic figure standing at the foot of his bed. Being a good skeptic, Giles puts it down to sleep paralysis and carries on working, despite the repeated appearance of the demon each morning, At the end of the week, he decides he needs a retreat away from the pressures of teaching classes and goes to spend the weekend at his cabin in the woods. Buffy and Willow have become concerned about Giles’ tiredness, overwork, and now, disappearance. Meanwhile, at the cabin in the woods, the demon has become more concrete and long lasting. Giles attempts to fight it with a chainsaw that has conveniently been left in a outbuilding, but looses and the demon drags him down into a network of tunnels leading from the cellar, Buffy and Willow arrive at the cabin and start to search for Giles. Down below in the tunnels, the demon has stabbed Giles with a ceremonial dagger, There is blood all over his clothes. As he bleeds out, Giles has a revelation. While his current experience may or may not be real, it is certain that he will eventually die. All previous metaphysical speculation about realism vs antirealism seems to him to be mere denial and obfuscation of the real issue, that we are all mortal and will eventually die. Buff and Willow find Giles and the demon, and defeat the demon with excessive use of computer generated imagery. They carry the wounded Giles out of the tunnels out to the surface,. (End movie)

See also: “1$ scepticism”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cabin in the Woods, The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf in Paris, J.J Abram’s Super 8, etc. etc.


oldster 08.09.16 at 3:44 pm

In a different thread, I was asking for help with a German idiom.

Now I need help with (what I presume to be?) an English idiom:

“Eric has busted in sf authorship himself since our grad school days.”

This use of “to bust in” is entirely opaque to me. Normally I would think “has made a failure of,” but context makes that unlikely. I assume that this is some new expression, popular with the youth of today.

Translation, please?


SusanC 08.09.16 at 3:55 pm

In case anyone should accuse me of not citing source :-) the above also nods towards Dracula (the philosopher as Lucy Westenra), the Werner Herzog remake of Nosferatu, Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (the philosopher as Sparrowhawk, attempting to summon a spirit from the land of the dead and unleashing the Nameless Ones), and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Everyone is recycling the same plot elements.


NickS 08.09.16 at 4:10 pm

I’ve really enjoyed the couple of books that I’ve read by Linda Nagata and Vast, in particular, is fantastic and deals with a number of interesting philosophical issues around identity, but is probably too long and complicated to be a good classroom read.


Jake 08.09.16 at 4:38 pm

oldster: are you sure that’s not autocorrect gone wrong?


P.D. 08.09.16 at 5:09 pm

oldster: I think “Eric has busted into sf authorship…” would be more idiomatic, but even as written it means that he has taken it up or moved into doing it. “Eric’s sf authorship has been a bust” would mean that it’s a failure.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.09.16 at 8:00 pm

Stuck in moderation at number 10.


John Holbo 08.09.16 at 9:37 pm

Busted into. Should be.


John Holbo 08.09.16 at 9:50 pm

“You should have gone full Margaret Brundage.”

I’ve got my Margaret Brundage book right then on the shelf – next to the admittedly larger Norman Saunders. Somehow the current project really just seems more of a Saunders-y joke, waiting to happen. But my hero is Allen Gustav Anderson


His stuff is the best. I mean: before we get to Frazetta.


AnthonyB 08.10.16 at 1:47 am

“Eric has busted in sf authorship himself since our grad school days” sounds a bit odd, but with “into” for “in” we could have something along the lines of

“I told her that I had finally broken into show business.”


Matt 08.10.16 at 7:32 am

Nick Bostrom is a philosopher whose so-so Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies has been mis-shelved as popular science when it’s actually didactic science fiction in the mode of Looking Backward. But Bellamy’s characterization is slightly less wooden.

If you’re interested in scary encounters with AI, but written better, Peter Watts is a biologist and SF author whose superlative Blindsight is about the collision of humanity and alien intelligence. In this collision humanity is the bicycle and the aliens are the truck. The mismatch is not obvious until it’s too late, because the humans mistakenly think that the qualities that make them unique also make them superior. Like possessing conscious experiences as opposed to “mere” intelligence. It’s a book colder than the microwave background, but as stimulating as it is icy.

Rule 34 by Charles Stross also paints a great picture of human and alien intelligence colliding. But the alien intelligence here is artificial intelligence created on Earth rather than something from deep space. It’s a truly alien, artificial intelligence — still an unfortunately rare thing in SF, despite the proliferation of real world AI applications in recent years. The future of AI — well represented in this novel — is AlphaGo plus Siri plus search plus the Internet of Things plus… It’s not R. Daneel Olivaw or anything else comfortably anthropomorphic. It’s not something that you can just pattern match against old stories about Greek gods or slave revolts.


dave heasman 08.11.16 at 11:44 am

Gaming and religion – have you read/heard of Chris Brookmyre’s “Pandaemonium”?


Dave Maier 08.11.16 at 1:53 pm

I’ve always been a big Stanislaw Lem fan: Imaginary Magnitude, A Perfect Vacuum, and The Chain of Chance are all excellent; the first two (partly) about AI and the last about, well, chance. Very visionary for the time. Although I do remember a technological misfire in a book of his from the 60s (forget the name; Eden maybe?) where he has the astronauts go back to the ship to … develop the film they just shot.


Icastico 08.11.16 at 7:23 pm

An bit tangentially, this thread motivates me to recommend Samuel Delany’s work for anyone looking for philosophical depth in artful SF narratives. The Neveryon series is the most blatant in this respect, but Triton and others have a fascinating subtext.


lathrop 08.12.16 at 3:27 am

I have always been fascinated by Lem, also; for his pessimistic attitude about the fundamental incommensurability of alien intelligence, as in his thought experiments Fiasco, His Master’s Voice, Solaris, and elsewhere; so very antithetical to sf as meeting versions of ourselves in space, and playing with these near variations.


Dave Maier 08.12.16 at 2:16 pm

lathrop: Right, His Master’s Voice! And the other two also, for the reason you say. I love the long opening of Fiasco, so different from the rest of the book.


Rich Puchalsky 08.12.16 at 2:41 pm

I think that I’ve read almost everything by Lem published in English, and he’s an interesting case for this thread: his strengths as a writer are exactly related to his dislike of pulp themes. It’s more than that: as a writer, he writes as someone who is pretty flatly disgusted with sex. This means that he can’t really write about human relationships in any convincing way, and his female characters are ciphers (as they are going to be for those male writers for whom women = sex and sex = disgusting), but he doesn’t have to represent his aliens or artificial intelligences as humans either.


lathrop 08.13.16 at 3:17 am

A delightful aspect of each of the three Lem books I mentioned is that each has extended parodies of scientific, scholarly, and academic disputes about the content and implications of supposed communications from, or actions of, the Other. One might consider them an elegant example of the genre of academic send-ups, but they aspire to demonstrate the inadequacy of the most advanced human mathematical, scientific, and strategic thought to anticipate or comprehend Otherness, even where it has achieved the significant mastery of physics required to engage in the Contact hypothesized.

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