• Science Fiction & Philosophy: A Conversation with Russell Blackford (part 2)

    This is Part 2 of an interview I’ve had with Russell Blackford about his latest book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics. Russell, is an award-winning Australian philosopher, legal scholar, and literary critic who is based in Newcastle, NSW. A prolific author, he’s also a Fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, a regular op-ed columnist with Free Inquiry, and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

    Do yourself a favor and read Part 1 before you continue below. My questions are bolded, with Russell’s answer directly below.

    What are your top five SF recommendations for newcomers?

    This is a surprisingly difficult question. An obvious reason is that it’s incredibly hard to select just five books or stories from such an ocean of material.

    But there’s a deeper reason, too. Much worthwhile science fiction is surprisingly opaque to readers of what is often called literary fiction – readers, that is, of narratives more grounded in contemporary or historical societies, and more focused than most SF on social observation and psychological drama.

    Science fiction can be daunting or alienating to certain kinds of readers because it has developed its own iconography with its own meanings. To read SF with a fluent understanding, you need to understand its traditions. In Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination, I decode much of the traditional iconography in a way that ought to make it more comprehensible to newcomers.

    A newcomer would probably not do well to plunge straight into reading hardcore contemporary SF, such as the work of the brilliant Chinese author Cixin Liu [interview note: Russell is talking about The Three Body Problem trilogy, which I absolutely loved]. Without an extensive background in SF’s traditions, a newcomer probably wouldn’t “get” it.

    Newcomers might do better to go back to the great scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Wells was writing before there was a tradition and an iconography to draw upon – in fact, he was laying the foundations for them. One place to start might be the first great novel involving time travel, realistically depicted, which was Wells’s The Time Machine, published in 1895. This is worth reading carefully and thinking about seriously. It was not the first science fiction novel, but it was so important that it gave the emerging genre almost a fresh start; it had an enormous influence on everything that followed.

    Next it would be worthwhile tackling the same author’s The War of the Worlds, published a few years later, the first great story of invasion from space. Between them, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds show modern literature opening itself to a new, scientifically informed understanding of our space-time reality and humanity’s own relatively small place in it.

    As I elaborate in Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination, the invasion from Mars portrayed in The War of the Worlds “reveals humanity’s puniness and vulnerability within the immensity of the larger cosmos, alerts our species to the unknown dangers or benefits that could arrive unexpectedly from space, opens up imaginative possibilities, and promotes a sense of common humanity.”

    As a taste of what I call genre science fiction – SF aimed at a specialized SF-reading audience – a newcomer might profitably tackle Isaac Asimov’s relatively short novel from the 1950s, The End of Eternity. This is another yarn about time travel, but time travel is depicted here in a very different way, and employed for quite different thematic purposes, from what we read in Wells’s The Time Machine.

    The End of Eternity provides a taste of what I call the ethic of destiny: the idea that, first, humanity has a grand and transcendent destiny that probably involves expansion into the larger universe beyond our solar system, and, second, that there is a moral imperative for us to pursue this destiny, and certainly not stand in its way. For a long time, beginning in the early decades of the twentieth century, this idea was commonplace in genre science fiction, though it is less so today (and there has always been a current within SF that reacts against this “ethic” and repudiates it).

    Getting closer to our own time, I recommend Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This is a complex novel in the utopian tradition, written with style and considerable realism. It is a good example of what genre science fiction became, at its best, in the later decades of last century. It also exemplies some recurring themes. Science fiction often involves moral judgments – perhaps ambiguous ones – about entire societies, not merely individual characters, and it often depicts maverick geniuses, whether as heroes or villains or as something more complex than either. The Dispossessed handles all this in a way that is sophisticated and thematically serious, rather than cartoonish.

    Closer still to our time, I recommend Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’s novels in his Culture series. This an exceptionally violent novel, and for that reason alone it might not be to everyone’s taste. The violence might, in particular, turn off some people who are already skeptical about science fiction or alienated by it. Nonetheless, Consider Phlebas is something of a literary tour de force. It also represents a fairly recent turning point in the development of the genre. It is one of the founding texts of the New Space Opera, in which the gaudy tropes of space opera – vast empires in interstellar space and their various intrigues and wars – are employed with increasing realism and serious purpose.

    From here, it would make sense to explore Banks’s Culture series a bit further, up to his death in 2013. This trail might lead to current novelists who are doing something comparable, such as Alastair Reynolds or Ann Leckie.

    All of the above leaves out much that’s important. I have not mentioned Mary Shelley’s surprisingly modern-seeming Frankenstein, first published in 1818, which many people tout as the first true science fiction novel. I’ve passed over landmark individual novels such as Frank Herbert’s Dune (with its numerous sequels). I have not discussed the space opera of the 1920s and 1930s, the important work of Heinlein and Clarke, the historical role in shaping the genre of major editors such as John W. Campbell, the 1960s New Wave (epitomized by J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World), the feminist themes of the 1970s and 1980s (seen, for example, in the novels of Joanna Russ and, very differently, in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale), or the turn to cyberpunk in the 1980s (epitomized by the 1982 movie Blade Runner and by William Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer).

    Still, a newcomer who read my five recommendations above, and who seriously thought about what it is that seasoned SF readers find valuable in them, would advance a long way toward “getting” the genre. (Reading Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination will also help, of course.)

    To summarize, my five recommendations are the following:

    • H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
    • H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
    • Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity (1955)
    • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
    • Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987)


    What are your top five works of philosophers for newcomers?

    This also turns out to be a more difficult question than it initially appears.

    Many philosophers are writing books aimed at a wide audience. Even a newcomer should find these accessible and (let’s hope) interesting. The problem, however, is that a total newcomer to philosophy will find the most important works in the philosophical canon difficult to understand for one reason or another. Those composed in classical antiquity, by Plato and Aristotle for example, come to us from cultures with a wide range of assumptions that we no longer make. Plato’s famous dialogues are still of value, they continue to provoke thought and discussion, but they need to be approached with guidance from teachers or mentors who are well versed in ancient culture and ideas.

    Books written in earlier phases of European modernity than our own – in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or even nineteenth century – also make cultural assumptions that raise barriers to understanding. Those written in English employ language, and even punctuation, that can cause difficulty for readers broaching them for the first time. Reading John Locke, who wrote in the later decades of the seventeenth century, can be difficult simply because formal written English has changed so much in the past three centuries. Even John Stuart Mill, writing in a straightforward prose style “only” about 150 years ago, demands a certain level of concentration from contemporary readers who want to follow his arguments.

    Mill is, however, easier to understand than most contemporary philosophers when they are writing strictly for each other. This does not mean that they are deliberately obscure or trying to impress. By and large, contemporary philosophers write fairly plainly, given the difficulty of their subject matter and the long history of philosophical topics, viewpoints, arguments, and terminologies. When writing for each other, philosophers take much of this for granted, rather than explaining from the beginning each time. Thus, academic philosophy puts up its own barriers to the uninitiated, just like technical writing in any academic discipline.

    Rather than turning immediately to the classics or to specialized work in academic philosophy, interested newcomers should look for books that provide good introductions and overviews. There are many of these to choose from, and what follows are just a few suggestions. Look out for other possibilities. For example, the British philosopher Simon Blackburn has written a couple of excellent primers.

    With that noted, the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press is usually of high quality. The volume on philosophy by Edward Craig, Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, is not an exception, so I’d start there. Craig has put a lot of thought into how to explain philosophy to newcomers. He also makes some smart choices of which classic texts a newcomer might read, side by side with his book; in that respect, he acts like a teacher providing much-needed explanation and context. Other books in the same series on particular areas of philosophy are also worth tracking down: although the quality varies, it is, as I’ve stated, generally high.

    Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is somewhat out of date, since it was first published in the 1940s, but it is fairly comprehensive in its coverage up to that time. It is also beautifully written, with admirable clarity and a certain amount of humor. Every newcomer should read it, but with a warning that Russell is often idiosyncratic, and that he can be downright unfair to his intellectual opponents. So, read it and enjoy it while taking it with a small grain of salt. (Be prepared to read more recent or more specialized histories of philosophy as your knowledge deepens.)

    As a way into contemporary philosophy, try What Philosophers Think, edited by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom. This contains journalistic interviews with a wide range of philosophers (and some philosophically ambitious scientists). They use non-technical language to explain their motivations and concerns. The result is entertaining and illuminating.

    Peter Singer is one contemporary philosopher who writes especially clearly and persuasively. Try the latest edition of his Practical Ethics. This book is aimed at a fairly wide audience, and it contains much content that resonates with me. However, I’m not ultimately convinced by Singer’s brand of utilitarianism (which he explains well). I recommend the book partly for its ideas, but especially because the author’s writing style seems to me an excellent model for philosophy students to encounter early in their studies.

    Another book that I recommend more for its style and approach than for the actual views it espouses is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. A newcomer should tackle this only after some other reading. Once you’re prepared for it, though, it’s a remarkable book. I am not persuaded by Nozick that we should adopt the political libertarianism that he explains and defends. Nonetheless, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in the mid-1970s, is a relatively contemporary example of philosophy written with honesty and flair. It employs pyrotechnic and ingenious arguments and thought experiments in an effort to solve seemingly intractable problems.

    Since Nozick’s view of the world was very different from Singer’s, Practical Ethics and Anarchy, State, and Utopia might also provide something of a corrective for each other (and yet, you’ll probably find some points of convergence or agreement).


    You have published both science fiction novels and non-fiction. Do you have a different approach to writing in fiction vs philosophy? Or does it just depend more on the book itself?

    Some skills and habits are common to all effective writing. However, lucid philosophical analysis and the vivid portrayal of characters and events in fiction require very different additional skill sets. There are sometimes opportunities to cross them over – perhaps if a piece of philosophical writing requires a bit of storytelling to make a point, or if a character in a novel is writing a philosophical manifesto – but these opportunities are rare, and even then they don’t call upon the full skill sets from the other kind of writing.

    In the upshot, then, it doesn’t really depend on the book itself. Writing philosophy and writing fiction are, rather, very different things. For example, writing philosophy requires a confident sense of the history of philosophical debates and arguments, and it requires skills not only in logic but also in analysis of concepts and language. This might not all show on the surface – though some of it always will – but it has to be there in the work that is done.

    Writing fiction demands skills with issues such as pacing, suspense, scene selection, viewpoint control, character development, and so on, that require an author to shift into a different mental zone from that needed for expository, analytical prose. Again, those literary skills might not be apparent on the surface – the reader need not be consciously aware of how effects are achieved – but writers need to work hard to hone them. Writing fiction is therefore a specialized craft. I don’t claim to be its greatest exponent, but I do know how to use some of its tools, and I’m always fascinated when I hear fine authors talk about aspects of the craft of writing fiction.

    For me, at least, it is very difficult keeping both sets of tools sharp. Or to put it another way, it is very difficult switching from one mental zone to another.

    I find that philosophical writing requires a certain coolness and distance from the subject matter (though all these metaphors – “tools,” “zones,” “coolness,” “distance,” etc., are unsatisfactory and only gesture, or perhaps “gesture,” at what I am trying to convey). When writing fiction, I am almost always in the mind of whoever I’ve chosen as the viewpoint character in a particular scene; I’m seeing what the character sees, experiencing what the character experiences, and caught up in the character’s motivations, almost in the manner of a method actor. That’s completely different from how I’m thinking while involved in any kind of expository or analytical writing.

    The upshot is that I’m unlikely to return to writing fiction any time soon, while I’m working on various philosophical projects. Never say “never,” though. I don’t know what the future will bring.

    Here’s hoping we get some new fiction at some point, in addition to your fine contributions to the realm of philosophy. Thank you for your answers!

    I’d highly recommend checking out Russell’s Amazon Author page for more info on his books. And if you’re interested in science-fiction and philosophy, pick up his book (and also check out a SF novel by a philosopher here).

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    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com