Philosophical SFF

In the broadest sense, all literature is probably about “big ideas” in the sense that it’s about things like, say, love. Or grief. Or the difference between knowledge and wisdom, or the search for meaning, or what it means to be a good person, or whatever. Big stuff. SFF is no different from any other genre in that regard. In fact, let me just point out one of the best passages about grief that I’ve run across anywhere:

You think that pain is a vacuum. You think it sucks you dry and leaves you hollow and empty. You think it will take so much more time, so much more effort, to fill up that empty place again. You don’t think you can do it. But I tell you, pain is a vice. It clamps down on you. Everything you once were, everything you once had, is still inside you, small and squeezed and crushed flat. If you can break that vice, if you can move and stretch and open up again, all those things inside you will expand, will come back to life. You will feel everything again, once you give yourself room to feel.Wrapt in Crystal, Sharon Shinn

Here’s another discussion about grief, from an as-yet-unpublished fantasy novel by Sherwood Smith:

You’ve had no family to serve as model, or to answer your questions. Here are some basic truths of which you are probably already aware. Grief is real. Surely you have discovered by now …that to dismiss it as mere inconvenience is to force it into another form, usually rage. The only advantage to rage is that it gives more pain than it gets, and one doesn’t have to notice that the grief is still there. But it is still there. And retains the power to erupt at unexpected times.

Here’s another, from a contemporary YA novel I loved:

My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her. That’s just how it is. Grief and love are conjoined, you don’t get one without the other. All I can do is love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy. — The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Here’s a line from Shines Now:

Grief is a part of life and of living, and better remembered than forgotten, but kinder as the passing years wear down the early sorrow.

And as a side note, I see that’s hovering around 4.8 stars on Amazon, so thank you, everyone who has reviewed or rated it so far.

Anyway … grief and what it is and how you deal with it is a big idea. It’s even a philosophical big idea, depending on how you define the term. It’s worthwhile to see how ideas about what grief is are treated in literature and whether that helps make sense of the experience. I mean, Sherwood is right: for me at least, grief — early grief — is very closely related to anger.

But when I was asked to do a quick presentation on philosophical SFF for the recent workshop, I certainly wanted to come up with something better, more specific, than saying the expression of ideas that help make sense of human experience and giving up.

So, if you were asked to name books that are VERY DEFINITELY examples of philosophical SF, what would you come up with? Here are a few that are very obvious:

The Just City by Jo Walton

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

You cannot get more philosophical than that, I’m pretty sure. This sounds very interesting on an intellectual level. Not sure how engaging I’d find it on an emotional level, which is one reason I haven’t yet tried this book. (I’m also just super busy.)

Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle

In the world of Celestial Matters, Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics are valid scientific models of the surrounding world and cosmos. The Earth lies at the center of the universe, surrounded by crystal spheres which hold each of the planets, the sun and the moon, all enclosed in the sphere of the fixed stars. Earthly matter, composed of the classical four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, naturally moves in straight lines. Heavenly matter naturally rises and moves in circles. This is the universe as understood by the ancient Greeks.

The science of the ancient Chinese also applies, but as the novel is told from the perspective of the Greeks, it is less well understood. Xi, the Chinese notion of spirit and flow, can be manipulated to move objects and energy. The Chinese five elements of earth, metal, water, wood, and fire are transmuted one into the other. Part of the central theme of the book is the two system’s mutual misunderstanding and bafflement of each other.

For me, this one is definitely engaging on an intellectual level rather than an emotional level. but it’s exceedingly interesting for what it’s trying to do. It doesn’t appear to be available in Kindle format.

But once we step back from SFF novels that are explicitly about philosophy, there are zillions of other SFF novels that grapple with “big” ideas, including, in no particular order:

The Dispossessed by LeGuin — How would an anarchist society actually work? Could it work? What would the disadvantages be, and the advantages?

Xenocide by OSC — Is it possible for a religion to capture something deep and true even if that religion is founded on a lie?

The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell — Is it possible to contact an alien species without terrible damage and disaster to both sides? Is it possible for something good to be be built out of that disaster?

Embassytown by China Mieville — What is language, what is communication, does communication have intrinsic limitations, how can we understand people who are extremely different from us? What does it mean to come “home” or be “at home”?

All the above focus on different ideas, of course, but one of the most interesting things to do when reading widely in SFF is to notice and pull together different takes on some specific idea that’s been handled over and over in disparate ways, often by books that are plainly in conversation which each other. This is like pulling out ideas about grief, except with, you know, philosophical ideas instead.

For example, identity. What does it mean to be a person? What if someone else started with all the same memories you have now? What if all your memories were wiped away? What does it mean to be your own person? Do people choose their own goals and desires? If goals and desires have been imposed or constrained, what does that mean for who you are as a person?

There are a zillion SFF novels that hit these ideas from one direction or another.

Cyteen by CJC — what is identity and can you re-create a person and would that really be the same person? How about legally, could they be close enough to count as legally the same person? If so, does that mean they’re really the same or is that purely a legal fiction? And while we’re at it, what if your society includes a lot of created people: are they real people? If you’re imposing or constraining their desires and goals, are those real desires and goals? That’s what Cyteen is about, though of course that’s not all that Cyteen is about.

Kiln People by David Brin — same ideas, approached differently. If you can make disposable duplicates of yourself, what does that mean for identity and which people are real people?

The Saga of Cuckoo by Pohl and Williamson — I read this a zillion years ago, but I thought of it in this context because it’s doing something almost exactly like Kiln People, although of course different in execution. You can teleport by stepping through a frame, but it’s not you who steps out on the other side — it’s a duplicate with all your memories. From then on, the two of you lead separate lives. What does that mean for identity and who you are? Especially when you casually make duplicates to deal with dangerous situations.

Piranasi by Susannah Clarke — now that’s a different way to approach identity! But it’s the same Big Idea, just approached from the other direction. If all your memories change, who are you?

Diaspora by Greg Egan — when real people exist inside simulated environments, how real are they? What is real? When you’ve engineered humans into completely different forms (fully marine, say), then are they still human? Still people? What if there’s a human-derived population with no capacity for language? That’s way, way more different than being marine.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro — Klara’s a sentient robot, programmed to care about someone else and put that person’s needs and desires first. Are Klara’s desires authentic and real even though they’re imposed? When she experiences her life as fulfilling, IS it fulfilling because that’s the way she experiences it?

Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill — exactly the same situation, but totally, one hundred percent different. For one thing, Brittle was in the caregiving role a long time ago, before humans became extinct. For another, Brittle made, uh, different choices. Does that mean she is a real person in a way that Klara is not a real person? Or are they both equallly real people even though Klara is more constrained than Brittle?

Murderbot by Martha Wells — surely we have all read these excellent stories. Surely we have also all noticed that some of the desires and priorities of bots and SecUnits and so on are set by their designers. I doubt very much that SecUnit just happens to want to protect people. It may also want to watch 30,000 hours of media, but the moment you give it clients it cares about, its priority is very much in line with what its job is supposed to be. Does that matter? How? Does that make Murderbot less of a person? How does Murderbot compare to Klara and Brittle and for that matter the azi, who are purely biological, but no less created and who also have priorities and desires that are set way down deep by designers.

The same thing can be done with any other “Big Idea.” Interested in gender and what society would be like with radically different genders? SFF is ideally suited to explore all sorts of related questions — worlds where everyone can easily switch sex and lots of people do, quite casually; or perhaps less casually, depending. Or worlds where everyone is female, or (much, much less common) male. And of course you can invent societies where people view gender roles very differently, though personally I’m most interested in doing that in the course of designing really great, thoroughly believable alien species. But you can do anything you want, and lots of people have:

The Left Hand of Darkness by LeGuin — obviously; a classic for a reason

All kinds of stories by John Varley — it’s astounding to me that Varley is so forgotten today, when he continually hits themes that modern readers want to explore. This is a collection of short stories, a good intro to Varley, although the Gaia trilogy is surely the work to read if you like him at all. He has some near-future SF that I haven’t read, but it’s got excellent reviews. I’m just not all that interested in near-future SF. If any of you have read those, what did you think?

If you haven’t read anything by Varley, the link goes to a big compilation of his shorter work. It’s on sale today for $2.99. I’m picking it up just because I prefer ebooks and also apparently this collection has comments about each story by the author.

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith — and here I must admit that I personally find Griffith’s books a lot more engaging than LeGuin’s.

A Door into Ocean by Slonczewski — another all-female society

Ethan of Athos by LMB — talk about engaging. Also, OMG that cover is so bad. SO. BAD. What IS it with LMB and utterly horrific covers?

But moving on: how about societies of aliens where gender expectations are radically different?

Up the Walls of the World by Tiptree — blew me away, lo these many years ago, when I was just getting into SFF. I was completely uninterested in the human characters for a long time and even now barely remember anything about them or about the frame story (I didn’t much care for it, that’s almost all I remember). But the aliens! Wow! Plus Tiptree could really write. Anyway, at the time, the things she was doing with gender of the alien species and how that was perceived by the human characters was all pretty new, I think.

The Chanur series by CJC — a whole bunch of alien species, all believable, but the hani are by far one of the best-drawn alien species out there and everybody should totally try this series if they haven’t already done so.

And so on. I’ve even personally got an (unpublished, unpublishable) SF novel that really gets into the question of instinct and what it is and what happens if a all the individuals in a population have an enormous change to their instinctive drives. I would need to re-write heavily to make that one publishable, but obviously I really love some things about it, so that could perfectly well happen one of these days. Not next year. Maybe the year after that.

Regardless, exploring an idea like this is the kind of thing you absolutely can’t do in any genre but science fiction. I mean, there’s no way. That’s why SFF offers such a dramatically different and superior vehicle for authors who want to explore certain big ideas in novel and interesting ways. And that was the idea behind the recent workshop on writing SFF for philosophers.

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6 thoughts on “Philosophical SFF”

  1. At what point does it become philosophical? When the characters discuss philosophical issues?

    By that standard, Through A Mirror, Darkly is clearly my most philosophical novel. Do superheroes fall under SFF?

  2. When I first read Wave Without A Shore by CJC it struck me as deliberately philosophical, and not just because I’d been buried in philosophy recently anyway. The story posited a planet Freedom, capital Kierkegaard, founded by people who wanted to live out their particular philosophy of the person with the strongest mind defines reality. So, since the existence of the alien inhabitants doesn’t fit the founding principles of the place, the aliens are ignored as if they don’t exist – they are called ‘invisibles’. Acknowledging their existence causes ‘normal’ humans to consider the other person mad and that one is cast out. Those cast out have a better life than you’d think because they also become ‘invisibles’.

    So throw a couple brilliant men brought up in and not questioning this environment, one an artist, one a politician with ambitions towards statesmanship, struggling to define reality for their planet. And reaching out towards the stars.

    Let’s just summarize: reality finally hits back.

    it also looks at the issue that comes up much later in CJC’s CYTEEN, of the brilliant person who has no one to bounce ideas off of. They are constantly thinking, but never get anyone pushing back, making a shore for the wave of their ideas.

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