Mill As Science Fiction Author

by John Holbo on October 17, 2015

In addition to teaching Nietzsche, I’m teaching Science Fiction and Philosophy. (Yes, I lead a charmed life.)

One of the fun games hereabouts is digging up cases in which old philosophical texts anticipate sf tropes or terms. Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ demon, Leibniz’ thinking mill. You get the idea.

Here are two slightly less well-known examples from Mill. The first, from Chapter 3 of On Liberty:

Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery—by automatons in human form — it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce. Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Here is a more obscure one. Mill coined the term ‘dystopia’ in a speech to Parliament in March, 1868.

I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.

The issue was “The State of Ireland”, long-standing locus of conservative British policies too bad to be practical, I think all reasonable observers agree.

Interesting that Mill coined the term, although I think it may have died and then been rediscovered independently later. Conservatives, of course, think ‘dystopia’ is a possibility that doesn’t cross progressive minds; but of course, for every dreamer who does not consider how her ideal blue-print might have unintended consequences, there is a conservative who doesn’t like to think actual, long-standing policies have unintended consequences. Going wrong isn’t just for plans. It’s for things.

Anyway, what examples have you got for me? Interesting cases in which classic works of philosophy – or classic philosophers – have written sf, or coined sf terms, avant la lettre of genre? You can mention obvious ones, but I’ve probably already thought of them. I’m smart.



js. 10.17.15 at 6:50 am

I can’t think of any good, obscure classic example, but I’ve always loved the Chinese nation. You teach that next to the Chinese Room, and students start thinking philosophers have some bizarre China obsession.


C Trombley 10.17.15 at 6:57 am

A great idea!

Bentham’s Panopticon project had a science fiction angle to it. The idea prison population is a society motivated entirely by the idea that someone might be watching is very Phillip K Dick. Wikipedia says that he even thought about trying to somehow put hamster wheels in the cells, but I don’t remember reading that anywhere…

The response is also sconce fiction. Ijon Tichy’s 11th Voyage by Stanislaw Lem shows how Bentham’s society by paranoia could end up quite wide of the rationality claimed by Bentham.


Chris Brooke 10.17.15 at 7:26 am

From Saint-Simon’s “Letter to an Inhabitant of Geneva” (1803):

*** All the faithful who live at least one day’s walk away from a temple will go down into the mausoleum of Newton once each year through an entrance consecrated for that purpose. Children will be brought there by their parents as soon as possible after their birth. Everyone who fails to obey this commandment will be regarded by the faithful as an enemy of the religion.

Any mortal who enters the mausoleum may be transported to another planet if Newton considers it to be necessary for my purpose. ***


Chris Bertram 10.17.15 at 8:02 am

Well there’s Kant:

“If the idea of the most sublime classes of sensible creatures living on Jupiter or Saturn provokes the jealousy of human beings and discourages them with the knowledge of their own humble position, a glance at the lower stages brings content and calms them again. The beings on the planets Venus and Mercury are reduced far below the perfection of human nature.” Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens,Theory%20of%20the%20Heavens,origin%20structure%20universe.htm


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 8:18 am

Hey, I didn’t know that Kant quote. Or the Saint-Simon. I’m not so smart after all. (I’m jealous of those on Jupiter.) Is Saint-Simon serious about the planet bit? What?


Chris Brooke 10.17.15 at 8:27 am

Kant also has this, from “On the Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”:

*** Man’s role is thus a highly artificial one. We do not know how it is with the inhabitants of other planets and with their nature, but if we ourselves execute this commission of nature well, we may surely flatter ourselves that we occupy no mean status among our neighbours in the cosmos. Perhaps their position is such that each individual can fulfil his destiny completely within his own lifetime. With us it is otherwise; only the species as a whole can hope for this. ***


Neville Morley 10.17.15 at 8:35 am

If SF includes all sorts of speculation on possible futures as means of reflecting on the present, then there’s Thucydides’ (albeit brief) conjuring up of a future world in which both Athens and Sparta lie in ruins, in order to comment on our tendency to over-estimate power of states with spectacular public monuments.


Neville Morley 10.17.15 at 8:45 am

You’ve certainly already thought of Aristotle’s discussion of automation, the creations of Daedalus and the tripods of Hephaestus, which Marx references in Capital Vol.I.


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 8:50 am

I actually don’t know the Marx reference, but I know the Aristotle. I’ll bet there’s lots of stuff in Marx. Not that I’m ruling that out but it’s less surprising to find worries about mechanization there.


Neville Morley 10.17.15 at 8:56 am

Chapter 15, I think. And yes, that doesn’t count, as Marx is reflecting on consequences of mechanisation in the present – but by looking back to Aristotle’s speculations about a future of autonomous, self-directed machines, in order to contrast A’s assumption that this would free humans from labour with reality that it’s simply enabled the few to become noted sausage-makers and eminent bootblack-sellers…


oldster 10.17.15 at 11:32 am

I do not understand the first Mill quote. I think it’s because he does a bad job of describing what is being exchanged for what.

“Supposing it were possible to get…automatons… it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women

He seems to say: suppose you had a bunch of automata. Then you* would suffer a loss if you gave up your automata and took in place of them a bunch of humans. You had automata! You let them go and got humans! Bad trade!

But the rest of the paragraph looks as though he must mean the opposite of that, sc. that it would be a loss to start with humans and wind up with automata. I think that must be what he meant, and he simply phrased it badly? Or do we just use the word “exchange” slightly differently now?

(There is something of the same ambiguity in “substitute”–“substitute A for B” means “start with B, replace it with A,” whereas “substitute A with B” means “start with A, replace it with B.”)

*then there’s question of the loss: to whom would it be a considerable loss? Esp. relevant if we replaced all humans with automata, or all automata with humans. But this is not an unclarity of expression so much as a general problem about consequentialism.


Lee A. Arnold 10.17.15 at 12:18 pm

Ariosto. Fontenelle.


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 1:42 pm

“it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women”

It’s ambiguous, but in context the ambiguity is not confusing, I should think. ‘Exchange for x.’ X could = the thing you are giving or the thing you are getting in exchange. In this case, getting, obviously.


Anarcissie 10.17.15 at 1:53 pm

Chris Bertram 10.17.15 at 8:02 am @ 4 —
Kant’s view appears to resemble that Gnostic theology in which the planets and their orbits were seen as spheres in the complex prison constructed by the Demiurge to trap souls. The more enlightened emerged to occupy ever higher spheres.


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 2:03 pm

“Kant’s view appears to resemble that Gnostic theology in which the planets and their orbits were seen as spheres in the complex prison constructed by the Demiurge to trap souls.”

I once had an idea for writing a story about Kant having a secret life as a paranormal investigator in Konigsberg. He would always be galavanting off into Swedenborg Space to solve mysteries.


Jerry Vinokurov 10.17.15 at 2:17 pm

The one that occurs to me most directly is Voltaire’s Micromegas.


Lee A. Arnold 10.17.15 at 2:33 pm

Anarcissie #14: “…in which the planets and their orbits were seen as spheres in the complex prison constructed by the Demiurge to trap souls.”

I seem to remember that Fontenelle locates this idea in an ancient Greek, although he doesn’t name him.

Dante’s schema is an astrophysical mirror image.

In Ariosto’s “Astolfo’s Journey to the Moon”, Astolfo is transported to the moon and back in “the car which had borne Elijah into heaven” (Leigh Hunt’s description) with “four horses redder than fire” (ibid) conveying it. On the Moon, which is inhabited, he finds many rubbish piles of Earth objects of varying emotional and philosophical importance, which had been lost to Earth history.


Bliksem 10.17.15 at 2:54 pm

Here’s John Locke wondering whether we’d be able to understand an alien if we encountered one:

“And supposing God should discover to any one, supernaturally, a species of creatures inhabiting, for example, Jupiter or Saturn, (for that it is possible there may be such, nobody can deny,) which had six senses; and imprint on his mind the ideas conveyed to theirs by that sixth sense: he could no more, by words, produce in the minds of other men those ideas imprinted by that sixth sense, than one of us could convey the idea of any colour, by the sound of words, into a man who, having the other four senses perfect, had always totally wanted the fifth, of seeing.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, iv.iii.23)


philofra 10.17.15 at 4:24 pm

Perhaps Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ might be consider science fiction by some.

However, most of what is talked about here is philosophy fiction not science fiction.


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 4:36 pm

“However, most of what is talked about here is philosophy fiction not science fiction.”

Robots and aliens! I call that science fiction.


phosphorious 10.17.15 at 9:16 pm

Ray guns = science fiction.

Anything less = philosophical fiction.


The Raven 10.17.15 at 9:36 pm

Epicurus, of course, who prefigured a great deal of modern cosmology, describing an unbounded material universe with, most likely, other worlds and presumably life on them. Lucian of Samothrace, who seems to have written the first space opera, True History, though it seems to have been a satirical work.


JakeB 10.17.15 at 9:44 pm

phosphorious, I believe the actual test is ‘>= talking squids in outer space’.


zawy 10.17.15 at 10:42 pm

It’s surprising no one has mentioned Kepler. He gave the first real science fiction. It was published, for the most part, after he died due to fear of the church, but it originates from his most youthful ideas. It’s fair to mention he was influenced by Bruno, open to the idea that planets orbited stars which might be like suns. But more than being clearly the first in real science fiction, Kepler also appear to be aware of what is normally credited to Newton, namely gravity and F=ma. He did not explicitly say F=ma, nor that gravity diminishes as 1/R^2, but he explicitly stated everything else and you could logically derive Newton’s work from it. In particular, his 8th gravity axiom applied to two stones of differing mass in space can’t be derived without F=ma. See my previous article on this:


John Holbo 10.17.15 at 11:07 pm

Ray guns = science fiction.

I got your ray gun! From Nozick, “Anarchy, State and Utopia”.

“If someone picks up a third party and throws him at you down at the bottom of a deep well, the third party is innocent and a threat; had he chosen to launch himself at you in that trajectory he would be an aggressor. Even though the falling person would survive his fall onto you, may you use your ray gun to disintegrate the falling body before it crushes and kills you?” (p. 33-4)

I wrote about it here under the heading ‘Occam’s Phaser’


ZM 10.18.15 at 2:25 am

Margaret Cavendish helpfully put her sci-fi book The Blazing World with her philosophy book Observations on Experimental Philosophy. Francis Bacon wrote a sci-fi book too, but I’ve forgotten the name. In The Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham is taken on a tour of Heaven and Earth, which is sort of like time travel — when he tours around Earth he keeps requesting that fire consume people he sees sinning and the angel Michael has been told to do as he requests so this is done, but after this has happened a few times God says Abraham has to return home so as to stop him sending fire to consume people.


WabacMachinist 10.18.15 at 3:21 am

ZM, are you thinking of Bacon’s New Atlantis?


MD 10.18.15 at 4:24 am

Perhaps Strawson’s Sound World from Ch. 2 of Individuals could be considered something like sci-fi.


UserGoogol 10.18.15 at 6:35 am

I don’t think it’s narrative enough to be science fiction, but the very first paragraph of Hobbes’s Leviathan sets the book up by comparing government to an android.

“Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man.”


Mike Schilling 10.18.15 at 8:55 am

And he went on to make quite a name for himself as a science fiction author.

I didn’t know that, Mr. Peabody.

Why, Sherman, surely you’ve heard of MillSF.


Belle Waring 10.18.15 at 11:30 am

JakeB, what about talking squids from outside of time? Lovecraft?
Also, hi John this is a legit form of communication obvi.


zawy 10.18.15 at 11:55 am

Here’s a link to the first real science fiction (so says I, Sagan, and Asimov), Kepler’s “Somnium” (dream).

It describes travelling to the moon with the help of aliens enabling escape velocity (“like a blast from a cannon”) with full awareness of the emptiness and cold of space, and he got his acceleration and time of flight numbers correct.

But even more surprising is his gravity axioms:
” Gravity is a mutual affection between cognate bodies towards union or conjunction (similar in kind to the magnetic virtue), so that the earth attracts a stone much rather than the stone seeks the earth. …If two stones were placed in any part of the world near each other, and beyond the sphere of influence of a third cognate body, these stones, like two magnetic needles, would come together in the intermediate point, each approaching the other by a space proportional to the comparative mass of the other. If the moon and earth were not retained in their orbits by their animal force or some other equivalent, the earth would mount to the moon by a fifty-fourth part of their distance, and the moon fall towards the earth through the other fifty-three parts, and they would there meet, assuming, however, that the substance of both is of the same density. If the earth should cease to attract its waters to itself all the waters of the sea would he raised and would flow to the body of the moon.”

The above is probably the most widely distributed text of Kepler in the English world, being contained in the introduction to his 3 laws of planetary motion “Astronomia Nova”. He discusses it only because he needed to explain what physics must be applied to astronomy and why the Earth could not be the center of the Universe. The most interesting part is that the ratio of how far the Earth and moon would travel to collide with each other is correct, and I do not know how to get that conclusion without using F=ma or Einstein’s principle of equivalency. Kepler knew from Galileo that distance dropped = 1/2 * a *t^2. The ratios he states are the relative volumes, and he knew there would be a correction for the moon having a different density, so he knew mass well. Using F=ma once for the moon and once for the Earth, and plugging “a” into 1/2*a*t^2 for each object, and noting t=same for both at collision and solving for distance dropped, you get his axiom. So how did he know this without supposedly knowing F=ma?


oldster 10.18.15 at 1:23 pm

Lots of folks give the nod to Lucian’s “True History”, written in the 100s CE:


chris y 10.18.15 at 1:50 pm

Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE): Vera Historia, in which our hero becomes involved in a war between the Sun and the Moon, before returning to Earth and undertaking further adventures… (Probably unfinished).

By the Same Author: Icaromenippus, in which our hero makes wings and eventually flies to the moon, whence he has a clear view of humans engaged in all their follies. He then takes a message from the Moon goddess to Zeus, complaining about philosophers, on receipt of which Zeus calls a council of the Olympians which votes to eliminate all philosophers with a thunderbolt. Our hero is taken home by Hermes.


William Burns 10.18.15 at 3:18 pm

Campanella, City of the Sun
Lot of stuff in Plato– Atlantis, the Myth of the Hermaphrodites in the Symposium and Myth of Er. The planned state in the Laws arguably fits in here as well.
Nietzsche, Eternal Recurrence
Diderot’s D’Alembert’s Dream would be another place to look.


PJW 10.18.15 at 4:19 pm

Judith Jarvis Thompson’s argument for abortion — the violinist with a shared circulatory system.


KJ Hargan 10.18.15 at 5:22 pm

Lots of sf type ideas in ancient Hindu lore. Missiles that destroy like a nuclear warhead. Tank-like unstoppable land vehicles, the juggernaut.
But the best is Krishna reincarnated as a dwarf. The whole story is worth reading for it’s astrophysical notions:


MD 10.18.15 at 5:34 pm

PJW, even better from that Thomson paper (though it’s probably obvious enough for John to have thought of already): people seeds.
“Again, suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not–despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors.”


neunder 10.18.15 at 6:26 pm

Cicero, Dream of Scipio


jkay 10.19.15 at 3:59 am

Xenophon the classical Athenian wrote what might’ve been the firs t alternate history, ever. But I can’t remember its title, sorry.
Ray guns turn out absurdly hard, I'm afraid. Lasers only take reasonable nonblack clothes. Everything else is similar.


Adam Roberts 10.19.15 at 12:08 pm

‘Dystopia’ was in use before Mill’s speech (a speech which, I quite agree, has the feel of somebody pulling a neologism out of his sleeve: ‘hey! look at this new term I just invented!’), though in a different idiom. It was the old medical term for a part of the body that was out of place, what nowadays is called ectopia (as in ‘ectopic pregnancy’). Here’s an 1846 example: ‘The study of the transpositions of the digestive canal (angibromic dystopia) still is of the greatest importance to the practical physician’ [Medical Times 9 (1846), 385]. I’ve no idea if Mill was aware of this medical usage. Probably not.


Anderson 10.19.15 at 4:28 pm

Descartes, besides the demon, has that passage where he imagines looking down into the street and seeing hooded passersby who are actually automatons under their cloaks and hoods. Creepier than the demon, to me.


John Holbo 10.19.15 at 4:50 pm

Thanks, Adam! Anderson, you are quite right. That’s a good one.


mclaren 10.19.15 at 11:51 pm

“However, most of what is talked about here is philosophy fiction not science fiction.”

It’s fiction about natural philosophy — i.e., science.


David Hobby 10.20.15 at 4:46 pm

You may be exaggerating the degree to which Kepler needed to prove this. I suspect that all he needed to make the prediction was to be sure he was right.

I’d derive the Earth and Moon meeting at their center of mass from the fact that a system behaves as if all of its mass was at the system’s center of mass. Given that the Earth and Moon are going to meet somewhere, they must meet at their center of mass. Otherwise, their center of mass has moved. Which it won’t do without some external force, so I guess I’m using Newton’s First Law.


zawy 10.20.15 at 10:58 pm

And how could he be sure he was right without F=ma?

That’s a good observation about center of mass. It could be electrical charges instead of a mass attraction and any arrangement of charges for 2 masses would give the same center-of-mass result. So, yeah, I am also left with F=ma or a center of mass rule, in addition to Kepler having a full understanding of gravity with the exception of 1/R^2. I didn’t post his other gravity axioms which are correct, knowing gravity is proportional to mass and decreases with distance in some unknown (apparently to him) manner.

He learned from Galileo is that difference masses get the same acceleration, which is the equivalence principle in some form. So it remains remarkable that he knew gravity well enough that he knew the point of collision would be different if the moon weighed more or less, despite having the same acceleration towards Earth without regard to its mass. He trusted this knowledge of inertia as much as Galileo’s experiments. It seems to indicate full knowledge of F=ma.

His primary objective in Astronomia Nova was to determine how and why the planets moved. He mentioned gravity to emphasize to his readers that physics observations on Earth should be applied to the heavenly bodies, and as an argument for why the Earth was not the center. This was discussed in the paragraph leading up to his 8 gravity axioms. It’s amazing his Astronomia Nova is not freely available in any language except latin. He was German. It makes me wonder if Newton being English and the rise of England and the U.S. as technological powers the last 3 centuries and without popular access to Kepler is the reason Kepler’s knowledge is not acknowledged … anywhere it seems … except in two 18th century biographers.

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