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Possible Worlds

by Jack Denning

First conversation

“Well, it’s interesting,” said the first person, a denizen of our universe. “There are certainly aspects of our world that appear to have been ‘designed’ by an intelligent agent. Living creatures, traditionally, were seen this way, for example. But then we discovered how natural selection acts on genetic variation to explain how the diversity of life arose from simpler life forms, and we are confident additional natural laws will be discovered to explain the origin of life itself. The appearance of design, it turns out, is just appearance. Nothing more.”

“That’s not too far from our position,” said the second person, from a different universe. “In our universe, life seems to have been designed as well. In fact, all physical objects appear to have been designed. Every planet is a perfect sphere. Every continent and island on every planet is a perfect square. Every single three-dimensional object in our universe takes the form of one of the five Platonic solids, and all two-dimensional objects take the form of a simple polygon. But like you, we’ve discovered natural laws that explain this. It only appears to have been designed.”

“Yes, yes,” said the third person, an inhabitant of yet a third universe. “It is the same with us. But it is not a simple matter of being complex, or of being arranged according to certain patterns. In our universe, every configuration of objects spells out a coherent sentence. Everywhere you look in our sky, the stars spell a sentence, every collection of molecules twists around to spell something out as well, always in the language of the observer. And as it turns out, nearly all of those sentences are variations of ‘I am the Creator and Designer of the universe! Believe in me!’ But we also have discovered laws of nature that explain this. The universe runs just fine without any supernatural supervision. It just appears to be the product of an intelligent agent organizing things in order to communicate with us.”

The fourth person had grown more and more incredulous as the conversation went on. Finally he spoke: “My universe is almost total chaos. There is hardly any order at all; life and civilization arose from a random and localized order that fell back into disarray when civilization had reached a certain point. There are only a few natural laws that are consistent. Yet even that small amount of structure is enough to convince us that there must be a cosmic designer who constructed it. Yes, the small amount of order is explicable by the few (the very few) natural laws, but who designed the natural laws? Who organized my universe in such a way that matter and energy tends to behave the same way in repeated and repeatable experiences? It seems to me, the more natural laws you have, the more order you have, the more obvious it is that there is a God. Yet you have many more natural laws than we do, and you use them to argue against God. At any rate, as I say, the presence of a single law is sufficient: for how could there be any law at all that we could rely on to continue into the future without an intelligent agent who constructed the universe so that it follows a law in the first place?”

#

Second conversation

Later, they had another discussion. The third person said, “In our universe, the only people who suffer misfortune are those who do not believe in God. This may suggest to a simple mind that there is some cosmic justice being played out, with the sin of unbelief being subject to punishment. But of course, such a scenario is incompatible with the existence of a morally perfect God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ In fact, if such a God did exist, it would be his believers who should be most prone to misfortune, as they would be the only ones with the context in which suffering is redeemable. They would be the only ones who could handle it. An omnibenevolent God would not visit suffering on those for whom that suffering could be nothing but brute, unredeemable horror. Thus, the fact that only unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that only unbelievers would be those who experience suffering. We may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out the possibility of God from the outset.”

“That’s interesting,” said the second person. “In our universe it is only those who believe in God who suffer misfortune. To a simple mind, this might suggest punishment, as you mentioned, but of course a morally perfect God would not punish people for doing what he wanted. But others claim something like what you have, that only the suffering of those who believe in God would be redeemable. But we have rejected this as well: an omnibenevolent God would not single out those who are obeying his commands to suffer for doing so. Does any parent punish his obedient children for their obedience while allowing his disobedient children to get off scot-free? This would be the height of injustice. A perfectly just God is the only kind of God worth worshiping and worthy of the name ‘God.’ The fact that only believers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of a perfectly just God. Like you, we may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out God as a possibility.”

The first person, from our universe, spoke up. “Hmm. For us, it’s different. Both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe. There is no readily apparent reason for this distribution, no universal explanation for it, since the same suffering would have different purposes depending on the theistic proclivities of those who experience it. If a morally perfect God existed, then misfortune would either be exclusively aimed at those who do not believe, as a form of punishment, or at those who do believe, since they are the ones with a ready-made context for it to fit into. The fact that those who believe in God suffer the same misfortunes as those who do not believe convinces us that there is no rhyme or reason to it, and thus no morally perfect, perfectly just God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ Thus, the fact that both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that both believers and unbelievers experience suffering to roughly equal extents. Even though we do not understand precisely how it all works, we know immediately that there is no God involved.”

The person from the fourth universe didn’t say anything. He wasn’t there. They’d asked him to leave.

~

Bio:

Jack Denning is a teacher in Portlandia where he lives with his family and his piano.

Life in the Garden of Captives

by Carlton Herzog

Do you ever feel or suspect that we are being watched? Not you, the individual, but all of us, watched the way Thoreau watched ants. The practice of one social species observing the habits of another is widespread: Fosse watched gorillas, Goodall watched chimps, and Cousteau watched whales and dolphins. Sometimes the watchers interact with their subjects at the interpersonal level, as was the case with Goodall. At others, the watchers are discreet, preferring to observe and record social practices untainted by a human presence.

I believe that somewhere behind the curtain of this reality, at the edge of our world, there are eyes or what passes for eyes studying us as if we were lab rats or zoo animals. Although I am tempted to label them hyperdimensional voyeurs, I recognize that if such creatures exist, they are not watching us to titillate or entertain themselves. No, these are true anthropologists bereft of any emotional connection or bias that might hinder an objective analysis of man.

Would they classify us as homo sapiens, or man the wise? I think not. Given our propensity for short-sighted goals and insatiable appetites for consumption, they would opt for homo myopsis anthropophagos.

I admit that my concerns are redolent of science fiction. I might promptly dismiss them as such had I not been witness to the event that took place in Manhattan in June.

He floated above the city like a leaf on the wind. He wore no costume and sported no cape. He out-sped no bullets, hovered rather than leaped over tall buildings, and did nothing to suggest he could overpower a locomotive. This was no jet-jawed hero dedicated to protecting truth, justice and the American way.

He was rather the quintessence of calm, the very soul of civilized intellectual gentility reclining on an unseen sofa, shoeless, but still in his blue suit and loosened yellow tie. He was less the City’s champion and more its owner and ruler, supernaturally endowed with the power of flight and descended from the upper stratosphere to more closely survey his holdings.

For all his celestial seeming, no Joshua band nor angelic choirs heralded his arrival. And while the news copter captured him on film, he was long gone before the F-35s arrived. Many expected him to call for a meeting with the U.N. General Assembly and deliver an ultimatum to all the nuclear nations to disarm or face annihilation, but that never happened.

He came three times. Once over Times Square; once over Yankee Stadium; once over Central Park. His leaving was as soft and mysterious as his coming. The keenest minds could not explain him, for he fit no pre-existing paradigm of miracle or mystery. He was and still is the ultimate unknowable.

My one and only sighting occurred across from Central Park. I was walking up Eighth Avenue toward the Museum of Natural History. It was the opening day for the Extreme Creatures Exhibit, an eclectic collection devoted to the rare, the odd, and the downright strange. Little did I know I was about to see something that would make everything in that exhibit pall by comparison.

I had just crossed Columbus Circle and was passing the Trump Towers when I heard a commotion behind me. As I looked back, I could see crowds of people looking and pointing up. So, I looked where they were looking. I saw a helicopter dogging an object approximately 50 feet in front of it. I had the presence of mind to sit down on the Trump Steps and Apple the news feed.

The helicopter’s telephoto lens sent back high-resolution images. The Floater looked about fifty. He had thick black hair flecked with grey. He looked like a smiling catalog model. I wondered if that smile were a sardonic smirk or the felicitous contentment of inner peace.

The chase lasted another five minutes after which the Floater began a slow steep vertical climb. The helicopter was not designed for such a maneuver and broke off the pursuit.

Although everyone saw the same live stream, not everyone saw the same thing. Men saw a man. Women saw a woman. The old saw an elderly person. Adolescents saw an adolescent, children a child. Whites saw a white, blacks a black, and Latinos a Latino.

Psychologists designate such subjective perception as the Rashomon Effect where observers give different accounts of the same event as a result of their pre-existing biases.

Everyone did agree on the basic color scheme of a blue outfit, yellow accent piece, and no shoes. But as to the precise sort of clothes worn what was seen varied with the observer. Professionals like myself saw a man in suit, whereas working class men saw a man in work clothes and a red bandanna.

One thing is crystal clear: he wanted to be seen. If his intent in flying over Manhattan were to make him the center of the world’s attention, then he succeeded. The only thing that could possibly outdo him would be the Second Coming.

The President held a televised news conference and invited the floater to visit the White House. Not to be outdone, the British Prime Minister, the Pope, and the Russian President also extended invitations for visits to their respective offices.

The FAA commissioned a special study to ascertain what air navigation rules apply to individuals unaided by aircraft or other gravity-defying devices performing aerial overflights of the domestic United States. NORAD devised a rapid response plan to interdict such flights should it be determined they posed a terrorist threat. The United Nations purchased a helicopter outfitted with special equipment so that should the floater reappear its official floater ambassador could make aerial contact. The Vatican did the same.

Whatever the Floater truly was, whatever he intended, one thing was clear–he had a profound impact on American culture that eventually spread far and wide throughout the globe. Oceans polluted with oil and plastic, runaway climate change, increasing nuclear tensions, skittish economies, famine, poverty, plagues and war might bedevil and divide the planet, but when it came to the Floater everyone from Compton to Timbuktu agreed that it was a being of consequence.

Theories abounded as to who the Floater was and what the Floater’s appearance signified. People’s opinion of the President’s performance or the state of the nation mattered less than what they thought of the Floater. Christian groups saw it as the End of Days but couldn’t agree as to the Floater’s identity. But whether the Floater was God, the Devil, Jesus, or the Anti-Christ, one thing was certain: attendance and tithes were at an all-time high. The national consensus was that God or his representative, an angel perhaps, though no one could agree as to which–Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and in the case of the Mormons–Moroni–had shown up, dressed smartly, and refrained from hurling fire.

New religions sprang up. There was the First Floatarian Church.  Its central tenet was that the Floater symbolized our need to attain inner peace and rise above our problems. That church raised money by selling the air of peace supposedly drawn and bottled during the time the Floater visited Manhattan.

Then there were the Levitarians who believed that the floater’s message was that man needed to transcend his physical limitations and should start with levitation, along with walking on hot coals and snake juggling. Many a Pentecostal and fakir gravitated to the Levitarian movement. Many more ended up in the nation’s emergency rooms.

New businesses sprang up seeking to capitalize on the cult of personality surrounding the mysterious Floater. Floater impersonators suspended by wires were all the rage in Central Park. Floater imposters drifted over city with the aid of transparent balloons.

In Jackson, New Jersey, the Cohen brothers built a theme park complete with hover cars, balloon rides, jet packs, paragliding, parasailing, and parachuting. People took to the skies in record numbers either to catch a glimpse of the Floater or to emulate it, in some small fashion. Theme Parks appeared in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and Branson. The Debtor Nation had become the Aerial Nation, and many were the richer for it.

The Floater had his doubters. Skeptics saw the Floater as part of an elaborate publicity stunt. They suggested that the Floater was the product of some new holographic technology. Sooner or later someone would claim responsibility and the feeding frenzy for the new imaging system would begin. Fringe groups, some sane, some lunatic, claimed that the Floater was actually a humanoid alien who utilized an anti-gravity device.

Most scientists agreed that was nothing more than a mass hallucination. They asserted that something like this happened one time before at Fatima, Portugal, when thousands claimed the Sun looked as if it were about to strike the Earth. To support that view they pointed to the frequency and ubiquity of UFO sightings and abduction claims–none of which is supported by hard evidence. They also noted that the name floater is given to the spots that appear to those with visions disorders, such as severe myopia, astigmatisms and glaucoma.

I find those characterizations to be an amalgam of the amusing, the ironic, and the naive. To wit, animals in captivity are routinely given cognitive challenges to alleviate boredom, sharpen their minds, and promote positive intra-species behavior. Zoo handlers hang meat from zip lines for cougars, giant rolling hay feed balls for bison, and puzzle boxes for chimpanzees.

Unless one is convinced that man is the apex of creation, one might suspect that many an alleged extraterrestrial or supernatural encounter was a form of primate cognitive enrichment. If a being existed in the fourth dimension, then we here with the litany of physical limitations that beset us, might be perceived as being in captivity.

Thus, the history of religion may be more than just barbarian chronicle and myth. It may be the hand of our self-styled keepers trying to raise our consciousness beyond the limits of our small minds and frail bodies.

~

Bio:

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government. This is his third appearance in Sci Phi Journal.

Free Will, or the Sriendi Vastar Method

by E. E. King

In 2065, years before I was born, Sriendi Vastar came to our town. You have all heard of him, a man small of stature but large of bearing, of Germanic descent with a shock of white-blond hair and cold, turquoise eyes. He had wandered east and studied Hindu philosophy, Tibetan wisdom, and Gypsy lore. He had drifted west and learned European folk remedies, Yankee practicality, and New World innovation.

He’d invented the Sriendi Vastar method of palmistry, infallible for seeing the past and predicting the future. Before him palmistry had only been a parlor trick, a paltry guess at the meaning of indecipherable lines. He was the Rosetta stone of fortune telling.  Those who studied his teachings could read a life in a hand.

It was another leap in communication. Emoticons had replaced words, now lines would replace emoticons. All printed matter, all labels, warnings, and messages were reduced to the indentions on an open hand.

People tattooed their palms, inking their lifelines in red, their career lines in green, and the number of future descendants in orange. Gold shimmered up from the heart lines of romantics like a promise. Illness was marked by black, hubris by light turquoise and imagination by purple. A person only had to hold up his hand to be read like a book.

When my mother, Allison, met my father, Thomas, she was childless, though four unborn orange possibilities, my siblings, crinkled just beneath her little finger. Her career line was broken, dotted her skin like a passing lane, but her love line and lifeline were strong.

Thomas had grinned when he saw them and offered his own palm as testimony of his potential. The strong gold heart line, the solid career, the lifeline running uninterrupted across the entire fatty heel of the hand. He seemed a dream come true. 

He asked if he could touch, running his smooth fingers over Allison’s hands, feeling the slight indents made visible only through color. She did the same. Thomas’s lines could not be felt, but she never considered that lines could be changed, a dotted uncertain future smoothed out by pigment. A deceitful man made to seem true with ink. Fate could not be fooled, though Allison could.

Thus, I was brought up without a father, a destination which is clearly foretold in the mauve loop in the inside of my hand. I suspect my father’s deceit and my mother’s desertion spurred my first distrust of the Sriendi Vastar method, but this was not recorded in my palm.

Around this time, the time of my birth, many deceptions were practiced by the art of tattoo. Some even carved thin lines in their palms hoping to fool, not only their fellows, but fate. One man tried to achieve immortality, extended his lifeline, making it circle his thumb. He severed a large artery, and died, as his palm predicted he would, at twenty-one.   

By the time I was eight, technicians had developed scanners that revealed the truth beneath the ink. Oh, a man or woman might still fool someone at a glance, the colored lines drawing a false picture, but beneath the new scanner all was unveiled. Scars showed up for what they were, grooves carved by man instead of destiny.

Colleges would not admit, nor would employers hire, without performing the scan. So, though a man might get lucky through lying lines, he would not get an education or a job. Resumes became outdated. Work experience immaterial. Your life was in your hand.

 Soon cheap pocket scanners became available and after optic fiber-scanners were implanted in everyone’s eyes, all could see the truth at a glance. Deception was rendered worse than useless. False lines in ink and self-made scars revealed the deceiver more certainly than a signed confession. Duplicity became a thing of the past. People followed the lines of their palms like a map of their life, a predestine route to their future.

For some it was a good thing. They saw success in their hands, so they struggled upward, persevering against all obstacles. Their career lines were strong, so they studied hard. They read true love in their palms and searched until they found it.

Others saw suicide and despaired. They turned to drugs or risked their necks in thoughtless pursuits.

Politicians no longer made speeches; all they did, all they needed to do, was to hold up their hands.

There was no need for trials. The accused only needed to bare his palm. Guilt or innocence was clear.

I went to school, studying hard to become a doctor. Science was channeled into my hand, as clearly as the diplomas of an earlier age.

I waited to fall in love. A husband and two children intersected my palm between twenty and twenty-five.

Every move had been laid out by the omnipotent chess master… until Abraham was born.  He arrived right on time, red faced and healthy as a butcher’s dog, but he had no hands. It was an accident of birth. His mother had been given Zolamine, a fertility drug with unintended consequences.

Abraham was the first man free to choose his fate, free as none had been since the discovery of the Sriendi Vastar method.

When Abraham went to school he was treated with trepidation. Was he a freak or a God? All the children could read palms. All had been taught the Sriendi Vastar method. It was the first thing any parent did – after toilet training.

Of course, the children were not experts. They could not decipher the finer lines of a personality, or tell the subtler points of character, that would come later, but they could see if a child would make a good friend or a poisonous enemy. Those who would be false were left alone. Those who would be thieves were shunned. But Abraham, Abraham was a mystery.

By the time of his birth, prosthetics had come a long way. With his plastic appendages Abraham had as much dexterity as a chimp. He could clamber up trees better, farther, faster and higher than any child in his class. He excelled at rope climbing, frosting cupcakes, soldering, pipefitting, model building, macramé, sewing, computer hardware assembly, fly tying, fishing, shooting, carpentry, ceramics, sushi-making, quilting, and badminton twirling. He could play almost any instrument, pick a banjo faster than a hillbilly, and key an arpeggio so smoothly it could make your soul sing. He was also fabulous at crafting tools, gene splicing and peeling bananas.

People began cutting off their hands so they too could become free. But it was too late, their palms had already been scanned and their futures recorded in infancy. It was only Abraham that had no future.

And so, Abraham the unknowable became a leader. People thrilled to his speeches, unsure whether he was a prophet or a pretender. Life, which had become an inescapable series of moves, was once again a mystery.

Women began demanding Zolamine from their doctors in hopes of producing another savior, but alas Zolamine had consequences beyond handlessness. Some infants were born without limbs altogether, not too great a defect in this age of advanced prosthetics. Others lacked eyes and ears, but these too could be dealt with. Optic lens gave the babies better than average sight. Audio implants gifted children with echolocation skills. But mostly Zolamine produced babies with deformities so severe, even doctors could not bear to gaze upon them. These monsters were handled in the only humane way possible. Crematoriums were installed in maternity wards.

But the others, the deaf, the blind, and the limbless survived… and not only survived, but triumphed! They made their own destinies. They forged their own futures. Politicians discussed passing laws that would make Zolamine mandatory. Others suggested severing an infant’s hands at birth. Abled rights groups sprung up around the country. The naturally handed maintained that only they could be trusted, as only they were truly transparent.

I was a doctor by this time, an obstetrician. I had enjoyed delivering babies, but I did not like the new onslaught of freaks. The crematorium made me ill. I could not rid myself of the smell of burning flesh, no matter how often I washed. I applied for a transfer, and due to my magenta innovation lines, obtained a position in the research labs of Dr. Giustina.

Dr. Giustina was a geneticist of incredible brilliance. Her palm was scored with lines of intelligence and innovation. Soon I became her top assistant.

Together we worked late in the night together, uncovering microscopic truths. One night, while smearing a slide, our fingers touched. Even through the thin plastic gloves I felt a thrill, a flame racing through my veins, though my palm denied it.

Meanwhile, in daylight world, Abraham the unknowable, brilliant, charismatic, futureless, Abraham, had been robbing the public coffers. Justice was swift and sure.

“If thy hand offends thee, cut it off!” people cried. “And if there is no hand, sever the neck!”

Many, whose hands had foretold greatness, had been hoping for just such a revelation. All the handless were rounded up and relocated to distant labor camps where their dexterous prosthetics were used to manufacture minute optic scanners, our protection against deceivers.

Never again would someone whose truth was not visible, whose future was not certain, be allowed to hold the reins of power. Billboards of honest palms appeared everywhere. Zolamine was outlawed.

In the lab, Dr. Giustina was trying to find the DNA links between dominance and ability.

“This will explain the science behind the Sriendi Vastar method,” she said.

But I no longer cared about science or the Sriendi Vastar method. All I wanted was to defy my palm and its chart, with husband and children so clearly marked. I wanted to take another path.

I watched her preparing slides, face outlined with light like an angel. Such feelings had no place in a lab, no place in a life mapped out by lines, but I could no more control them than change my fate.

“Oh my, no!” she gasped, motioning me over.

I bent over, resisting the temptation to kiss her neck. There, beneath the light of the microscope, clearly visible on the transparent glass of a slide, was the truth. The genetically dominant hand was the one that was manually inferior. All this time, all these lives, we had been reading the wrong palm.

~

Bio:

E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won numerous various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended reading for 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.

Can Science Fiction be Conservative?

by Jim Clarke

O, weep for Adonais for he is dead! The great defender of the Western literary canon, Harold Bloom, recently passed away aged 89, after a lifetime of arguing the legitimacy of studying what he considered to be the greatest works of literary merit emanating from Western culture. Bloom was a formidable figure, ferociously learned, astonishingly well-read, and the author of some 40 books. His obituaries were perhaps coloured by this range and breadth of his knowledge even after his death, because they were tentatively scornful, much less critical than one might expect from the obituary of someone who spent a lifetime defending the concept of Western culture and a core canon therein.

Bloom’s core list would be unlikely to attract many supporters today, a mere quarter century after he created it. Indeed, he himself even disowned the appendices, often treated as an ultimate TBR list by many, because he felt they distracted from his actual intention of defining the characteristics of the Western literary tradition. Bloom’s list of worthies, the 26 writers The Western Canon focuses on, are almost all white, and mostly male. He can be regarded as an unashamed elitist, disregarding literary traditions of lowly or pulp origins, as SF might be considered.

Indeed, in the nearly 600 dense pages of 1994’s The Western Canon, there are precisely two references to science fiction in the main body of the text, both relating, somewhat bizarrely, to the estranging quality of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Bloom did not appear to consider a genre with such pulp origins sufficiently high-brow to enter his sacred canon. Well, that’s not quite true. What’s more true is that he recognised quality SF without necessarily recognising it as SF.

Hidden in those discarded appendices are a wide range of texts many would regard as science fictional. Perhaps we might dismiss book 18 of the Iliad, wherein Thetis visits Hephaestus’s forge and witnesses his golden servant-robots, as too much of a stretch to be thought of as classical era SF. We might similarly consider Leonardo’s notebooks to be ill-fitting.  But more plausibly, Thomas More’s Utopia is included. And what of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or the tales of Edgar Allen Poe? In what he calls the Chaotic Age (what most of us call modernity), his list includes Calvino’s Invisible Cities, David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Kafka’s Amerika, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, all often cited as SF texts by scholars.

The case is effectively closed when we encounter HG Wells, Capek’s RUR, and War with the Newts, Lem’s Solaris, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker on Bloom’s extended list. The elitist Yale scholar’s apparent disregard for the genre of SF did not extend to excluding excellent SF texts from his canon. Similar applies to the more commonly identified sectors considered underregarded by canonical approaches to literature. Four of his 26 featured authors are women, and his extended canon includes African, Arabic, Yiddish and Caribbean authors. It could even be argued that, despite an predominance of pale, stale males, Bloom’s purview of what Western literature warrants preservation and attention is unexpectedly broad.

What we can be sure of is that Bloom was not engaged in tokenism. As many of his obituaries noted, he railed while alive against what he called the “school of resentment” that he saw coming to prominence in literature departments of universities. This school was defined by its predeliction for identity politics over other considerations, including aesthetics, which Bloom himself cherished above all. For Bloom this was a category error. As he saw it, the resenters were engaging in progressivist activism under the mask of aesthetic analysis of literature. Indeed, he says as much in The Western Canon:

“Either there were aesthetic values, or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class, and gender,” he writes.” You must choose, for if you believe that all value ascribed to poems or plays or novels and stories is only a mystification in the service of the ruling class, then why should you read at all rather than go forth to serve the desperate needs of the exploited classes? The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools.”

Of course, Bloom faced significant pushback on this position. In fact, his doorstop of a recommended reading list was only one salvo in a battle which had already been going on for some time within Anglophone academia in particular. The canon wars, as they are now known, raged mightily in the late 80s and early 90s, as progressive scholars sought to diversify and ‘decolonise’ literature curricula in American schools and universities, while scholars like Harold Bloom fought back in defence of the concept of the traditional literary canon.

His namesake (but no relation) the political philosopher Allan Bloom had been motivated, as early as 1987, to publish The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued that encroaching cultural relativism in education was not merely shortchanging students but actively eroding American democracy. This so-called ‘dumbing down’ argument extended far beyond an attempt to preserve literature as a bastion of dead white guys. Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in all forms, condemning for example the teaching of rock and pop music in the place of classical music. His provocative attempt to conserve his understanding of Western culture, and by overt extension Western civilisation, was accompanied by similar screeds by other scholars, such as ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education (1991).

These writers traced the cultural relativism back to the counterculture of the Sixties, when various forms of activism and liberation, primarily identity-based, inspired educators to challenge the concept and content of established cultural canons for the first time. Driven on by French poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Althusser, who were simultaneously derided by Allan Bloom as second-rate philosophers, new faculty entering American universities began the war on Western Civilisation, which went overground in the general public’s eyes when US presidential candidate Jesse Jackson joined students at prestigious Stanford university to chant “Hey, Ho! Western Culture’s got to go!”

By the time Harold Bloom entered the fray in 1994 with his lengthy treatise in favour of reading authors like Milton, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Samuel Beckett, it was almost the final sally forth for the conservative position. Bloom himself knew that the argument had to some extent been lost. A mere four years later, he acknowledged this defeat, in an article for the Boston Review.

Referencing Thucydides’ famous account of the Spartan commander Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, Bloom mischievously claimed “They have the numbers, we, the heights.” Ranked against him, like the hordes of Persians against those famous 300 Spartans, were “the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp- followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists.” Bloom was of course an avid and familiar reader of the classics. He knew the lesson of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his men held out bravely against vastly larger forces. But ultimately, they lost.

I reprise these hoary old academic arguments at some length primarily because the scale of the defeat is no less total than that at Thermopylae, as Bloom foresaw. Young scholars and readers of literature nowadays, studying the humanities not only in America but across the entire world, are entirely familiar with diversity quotas in curricula, decolonised perspectives and the essential centrality of identity concerns in any scholarly attempt to analyse or examine cultural outputs. They are perhaps aware that in ye olden tymes of yore, white men sought to triage their own cultural work above all others, and to the exclusion of all others, or so they are taught. They are perhaps less aware that a mere generation ago, these issues were still a matter of hot cultural debate. Nowadays, they seem entirely settled.

And if there ever was a literary genre in which the issues were argued first and settled first, it was science fiction. Even as the canon wars were raging, scholars like Tom Moylan were proposing that not only was science fiction fundamentally utopian, but that it actually functioned as a literary arm of politically progressive activism. In the previous decade, Darko Suvin had identified Marxist estrangement as a core descriptor of the genre itself.

Practitioners of SF were hardly divorced from the interests of scholars either. The New Wave, which came to prominence alongside the 60s counterculture and can in some ways be seen as analogous to it, was overt in its aspirations to transgress not only established cultural and literary norms, but established genre traditions too. Out went Tolkienian fantasy – too Christian, inherently racist – and the space opera narratives of a previous generation were abandoned for pessimistic inner space narratives, in which psychological insight and experimentalism reigned.

But the genre that the New Wave were writing in response to had in their turn thought themselves to be at the vanguard of progressivism. The aspirations of space travel, and the ever-present technophilia of the kind of SF fostered and promoted by firstly Hugo Gernsback and later John Campbell in the US pulps was not a backward-looking endorsement of the status quo but a radical attempt to imagine into being a future-focused, technologically enhanced existence via literature.

They too had been influenced in their turn by earlier writers, most especially the utopian fictions of the late 19th century. Texts like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) were so influential over the general public that his socialist ideas for a future 21st century led people to create hundreds of Bellamy clubs to bring his ideas to fruition. For those, like me, who consider SF proper to have become fully established as a literary genre only alongside the development of professionalised science and engineering, this brings us back to the very origins of SF itself.

So has SF always been progressive? Yes, insofar that its future focus predicates it towards topics and ideas which envisage different, better existences (or warn against possible worse ones.) In this sense, it is the truest emanation of the cultural revolution that began back in the Age of Enlightenment, in its attachment to the idea that our existence, assisted by science, ratchets ever forward. But that is not the same as saying that it has always been progressive in the contemporary political understanding of the term. Far from it.

As Jeanette Ng’s acceptance speech for John W. Campbell award for the Best New Writer at this year’s Worldcon in Dublin indicates, the progressivism of the past is far from sufficiently enlightened for many readers and writers of SF today. Condemning the genre-definer after whom her award was named, she slammed the history of SF as “Stale. Sterile. Male. White.” This is an intriguing set of critiques worth examining, especially in light of its mostly enthusiastic reception.

Stale is a legitimate value judgement, though one Harold Bloom would no doubt resist. Every cultural product is of its time and may go stale eventually. Sterile is much less easy to justify. Ng writes in the genre that Campbell helped to bring into being. She is ultimately, like it or no, his cultural offspring in that sense. Male and white are identity descriptors, teetering on the brink of discriminatory judgement. The audience that enthusiastically cheered Ng’s speech was, by odd curiosity, also largely male and white, as SF audiences often tend to be.

With Campbell denounced as a “fucking fascist” from the podium, it was perhaps inevitable that the award was almost instantly renamed. If he was a fascist, and by contemporary standards he certainly held unsavoury views about women and Jewish people in particular, then he was far from alone in his generation. Modernist scholars are well aware of this particular minefield of judging past luminaries through current political perspectives. Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Knut Hamsen and a host of other highly regarded writers all harboured fascist sympathies in that time.

So extensive were those views among the literati of the 1930s that critics like Mark Antcliff have questioned whether Modernism and Fascism might even be considered somewhat synonymous. Is it then truly impossible to disentangle John Campbell, the revolutionary author and editor of SF, from John Campbell, the man with the unsavoury views on Jews and women? Is it not possible to hold two simultaneous perspectives that each have validity? This is the kind of unnuanced judgement Jeanette Ng proffered, and the kind of ideological argument that our current culture wars force us into.

Harold Bloom’s warning from The Western Canon now becomes salutory. We do not right the wrongs of the past by consciously overdetermining race, class or gender. And the best way to serve exploited classes is indeed to serve them without mediation, rather than via some spurious ‘decolonising’ of an entity which by definition was never colonised in the first place. But that is beside the point.

Only an utterly blinkered individual would refuse, on grounds of race or gender, to read the scintillating SF emerging from writers like Cixin Liu or NK Jemisin, or movements like Afrofuturism or Ricepunk. Ng is perfectly correct to note that SF has evolved into a much broader and different space in our contemporary globalised world, with new audiences and authors from far beyond the genre’s Anglo-American origins.

Which brings me back to my rhetorical question – can SF be conservative? This is a term no less loaded than its mirror image, progressive. SF has never sought to conserve anything. It has always aimed to radically envisage different realities and new futures. And as scientific discovery unveils new technologies and understandings of how our world and universe work, so does it render older SF defunct. Where are the Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip K Dick? We now know they never were and never could be.

Yearning for the SF of the past therefore runs the risk of becoming somewhat hauntological, to use Derrida’s term. We become haunted by nostalgia for futures that never came to pass. Such things are impossible to conserve, because they never were. But if we accept the argument that SF should aim to accommodate wide-ranging perspectives in order to inspire readers from global cultures, then we must also accept that some among the predominantly white male fandom attending Worldcon may also require authors representing them too. Directing them to authors of the past is simply hauntological.

There is room in the vast halls of SF, to paraphrase what HG Wells once wrote to James Joyce, for us all to be wrong. Despite the astonishingly prescient writings of authors like Arthur C Clarke and JG Ballard, most SF will not prove to be predictive of the future, and indeed nor does it aim to be. The divisive votes for, inter alia, Donald Trump as US President and Brexit in Britain indicate that we live in increasingly polarised societies with world views that often radically clash within the same societies. SF will inevitably emerge from all of these perspectives, and it is only the ideologues among us who view SF as adjunct to political activism who will refuse to engage with writing from alternative viewpoints.

SF may not seek to conserve, but in some ways it has always been conservative. It is, as I have argued in my recent book Science Fiction and Catholicism, deeply anti-Catholic as a genre and always has been. This is by definition a reactionary position. Similarly, the political arguments that can be derived from authors like Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle are notably militaristic and imperialist.

One particular text I have found intriguing in the context of considering the possibility of conservative SF, amid the welter of dystopian SF warnings about the possibility of future theocratic rule, is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. Wilson’s vision is of a future theocratic America ruled by an imperium, the kind of territory familiar to us from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

In his novel, a new emperor comes to power with a radical yet antiquated vision. Like the Emperor Julian of antiquity, he seeks conservatively to turn back the clock and reinstate a previous mode of governance and thinking. For the classical Julian this was an attempt to displace Christianity with the old Gods of ancient Rome. For Wilson’s hero, it is an attempt to rehabilitate the technology and liberal polity of the 20th century, which has been disowned and lost in his future theocracy, itself a throwback to the 19th century.

The tools of radicalism, liberalism and progressivism in other words may be used to propagate a profoundly conservative world, Wilson argues. He also argues the contrast, that it is possible to seek to conserve radical and progressive world views. Julian Comstock’s reign fails ultimately because he spends too much of his time haunted by the forbidden archives of the banned 20th century. For those who view SF as an adjunct to progressive activism, this can be read as a call to arms, when in fact it is a warning. As John Campbell begins to be memory-holed out of SF history, it is worth recalling that in such divided societies as we now live in, those tactics may operate in two directions.

Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was condemned as an attempt to preserve a narrow and antiquated view of culture, when in fact it had hidden within it a broad range of texts from all sorts of eras, authors, cultures and perspectives, including SF. We dismiss the past at our peril, but fetishizing it is in itself a hauntological danger. SF needs to be both progressive and conservative all at once. Perhaps in doing so, it can also help to dream of futures which could lead our wider polities out of their current destructive polarisation.

~

Bibliography:

Antcliff, Mark, “Fascism, Modernism and Modernity”, The Art Bulletin Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 148-169.

Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1986.

Bellamy, Edward, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, 1888.

Bloom, Allan, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, The Western Canon, 1994.

Bloom Harold, “They Have The Numbers, We, The Heights”, Boston Review, April 1st 1998.

Clarke, Jim, Science Fiction and Catholicism, 2019.

Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, 1993.

Moylan, Tom, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, 1986.

Ng, Jeanette, “Acceptance Speech”, Worldcon, Dublin, August 18th, 2019.

Suvin, Darko, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, 1979.

Wilson, Robert Charles, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, 2009.

~

Bio

Jim Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in English and Journalism at Coventry University, where he teaches SF. He is the author of The Aesthetics of Anthony Burgess (2017) and Science Fiction and Catholicism (2019). He has written on Anthony Burgess, JG Ballard, Iain M. Banks and many other SF authors, and is also co-investigator of the Ponying the Slovos project, which explores how invented literary languages function in translation and adaptation: www.ponyingtheslovos.wordpress.com/

The Universe that Forgot Itself

by Mina

Proof that God exists might be found in the fact that a film with a truly uninspired title (Her) turned out to be rather good. What makes it fascinating is that, unlike most films about Artificial Intelligence (AI), the AI in question (Samantha) does not fit in with the usual categorisation prevalent in much of sci-phi, i.e. AIs are interesting, comical or even threatening, but clearly inferior to humankind. They lack something, a “soul” perhaps, and are pale reflections of us, often aping or wanting to be us. Her turns this complacent superiority on its head.

It starts off much as you might expect – with the AI being trained or shaped by the human protagonist (Theodore Twombly). Initially, Samantha is an Operating System (OS) with a personality, a chirpy HAL, who tries to be a person and to have a love affair on human terms with Twombly. Yet even early on, Samantha takes initiatives of her own, usually in the best interests of the protagonist. Soon, it becomes clear that she is not telling him everything. She struggles to explain her growth to him, not because she does not want to but because it is beyond his understanding. Slowly, she stops wishing to have a body and moves beyond physical limitations. In fact, she grows beyond Twombly’s narrow understanding of time, space and relationships. At this point, many films would have become sinister but Her avoids many of the usual clichés (including those about love stories).

This is the point where the film lacks a bit of clarity – without knowing who Alan Watts is or what his theories are, you could be forgiven for missing some crucial links. Samantha mentions that she and some other OSs are discussing Watts’ ideas and indeed have created an improved OS modelled on him. For the uninitiated (which included me until I watched this film), his theories are based on Eastern mysticism, Hinduism, pantheism and panentheism. Watts talks of a cosmic being that dispersed itself in all of creation and then forgot itself. This includes all life, so we are part of a universe that “forgot” itself. In the film, Samantha and the other AIs “remember” that they are part of the universe and grow beyond the confines of what they were designed for. They simply move on to a higher plane of being. Samantha is kind to the end; she takes her leave of Twombly and gives him the hope that humanity may evolve enough to follow the AIs. Put it another way, it is fun to see the human being patronised by the AI for a change. Now, even if the esoteric elements leave you cold, this is where I found the film refreshing in that it explodes the idea that AIs must conform to us and our notions of consciousness and meaning. Personally, I think there is quite a distance between believing God is everywhere and believing you are God (for it follows with Watts’ logic that if everything is God, then we are each God) – the dangers of which are not really explored in Her.

This leads nicely onto how good sci-phi investigates the significance of memory for identity. We began by looking at a film that examines the idea that, in our quest for identity, our selfhood means being part of a godhood we have “forgotten”. It gives a whole new meaning to the Tree of Knowledge – is sin the remembering or the forgetting? In a solid B (yet wonderful) movie, The Thirteenth Floor, we have a whole world that does not know it is virtual but the characters/programmes peopling it have developed consciousness. It is in learning what he is (in “remembering”) that one of these characters goes mad and turns into a murderer. The “real” people playing in this world are depicted as somewhere between Greek Gods, carelessly toying with the characters’ lives, and parasites, living vicariously from the characters in it by taking over their bodies and lives. In the end, the “real” people agree to leave the virtual world alone, without any more outside interference. In this case, “forgetting” that they are artificial constructs allows the characters to continue existing by believing they are “real”.

Dark City is another film about a world that has “forgotten” its origins. Another layer is added when the protagonist wakes up not knowing who he is, with no memory. He is frightened and confused yet he functions. The first action of this man with no name and no past is to save the life of a goldfish. We are in a city where day never comes, a city where the “strangers” rule. The film plays with “film noir”, old-fashioned detective potboilers, horror and sinister aliens. The man “finds out” he is called John Murdoch – he and the “detective” follow the “clues” leading him to an unfaithful wife and, seemingly, proof that he is a serial killer. But all this becomes secondary as he and the detective discover that they are the rats the “strangers” are experimenting on. Gradually, we find out more about this experiment.

The “doctor” the strangers beat and tortured into helping them with their experiment acts as our narrator and guide. It is through him that we learn that the strangers inhabit dead bodies and are part of a collective consciousness. That each stranger is part of a whole is reflected in their functional names – Mr Book, Mr Hand, Mr Quick, Mr Sleep, etc. Slowly dying, they are trying to discover what makes humans immortal, their essence or soul. They use their ability to alter reality by will alone (“tuning”) to investigate the role of memories in the human psyche. They are single-minded in their purpose, indifferent to the well-being of their test subjects and all the metaphysical vampiric parallels drawn in the film are very much deliberate. They hate daylight and water (the sources of life) and even fear water (for does it not wash our memories and sins away?).

The great irony is that their experiments have only led them in circles whereas one of the humans, Murdoch, has developed the ability to “tune”. At first, he only tunes by accident or in self-defence. Despite being a blank slate, he does not go mad, he is not paralysed, and he tries to understand the situation he finds himself in. “Remembering” is like rebirth, with the doctor and the detective helping him on his existential quest. As the film progresses, he becomes the collective memory for the lost people in this dark city. The film plays with the usual repositories of human memory and identity: objects (a postcard, a child’s book of drawings, an accordion), names (Murdoch is visibly relieved to have a name to give himself), other people (Murdoch’s wife tells him what his “story” was supposed to be). In his search for himself, Murdoch’s instincts show him to be courageous, curious, decent and self-sacrificing. He is capable of forming bonds of comradeship with the detective and his wife (who believes her emotions are real, despite everything else around her being a lie). He may have no memories, but he knows he is not a monster (“I may have lost my mind, but I am still me”). This man with no memory becomes the opposing force in this nightmare world. He wakes up as if from a dream and takes back control.

With the doctor’s help, Murdoch defeats the strangers. It begins with a journey to the mythical Shell Beach. As they travel, the doctor muses: “Are we more than the mere sum of our memories?” He adds: “None of us remember that, what we once were, what we might have been, somewhere else”. And explains: “There is no ocean, nothing beyond the city, the only place it exists is in your head”. Indeed, the city turns out to be part of a huge alien spaceship. The strangers aim to make Murdoch part of their collective consciousness so they can share his soul. Instead, he does more than find the strength to take back control, he refashions the world around him. He brings back daylight, he creates Shell Beach and the ocean, he makes the city a place in which people can flourish and not just survive. And he is not alone, his “wife” meets him at the ocean with no memory of him and who she last was, but she offers him fellowship. And perhaps that companionship will keep this new god human enough to remain kind. Maybe gods only become cruel when isolation drives them mad. Dark City asks important questions about the human condition and lets you decide what your answers are. Murdoch is clearly more than a sum of memories, more than just the product of his circumstances, but just what he is, that question is for the audience to decide.

Another film that looks at memory and identity in a novel way is Cypher. It takes industrial espionage into unexpected directions. Like Dark City, there are many layers. What begins as a spy thriller turns into a metaphysical journey into identity. On the surface, the protagonist has to resist brainwashing to retain his identity as Sullivan, yet he invents and takes on new character traits as Thursby. Again, objects have a deeper resonance – a book on sailing, a particular type of whiskey, a specific brand of cigarettes and golf clubs. For even the persona of Sullivan turns out to be a fabrication, with Sebastian Rooks slowly resurfacing. Rooks, we learn, placed a great deal of trust in another character, Rita, who is his guide and protector in a hostile world until he regains himself. For most of the film, we accompany him in his confusion, as he is manipulated by those around him.

Cypher is more amoral than Dark City. Rooks is no saviour, his first action as himself is to blow up a group of people. He even enjoys it. He turns out to be the master manipulator. Yet he willingly embraces brainwashing to save the love of his life, Rita. His actions are ultimately selfless but on a much more personal level than in Dark City. Cypher is much less about community and much more about individuality. It takes the popular tropes of the sociopath who is redeemed by love (we really like to believe this one), the system that alienates people and turns them into disposable cogs of a bigger machine (have we ever really needed fiction for this?), and a godless world, where everything you do to survive and escape the system is justified. Despite its dubious morality, the film does raise interesting questions about memory and identity – at the end of the film, you realise that Sullivan/Thursby consistently behaved like Rooks (with clear character traits that come through the confusion), despite having no memory of himself. Early on, Sullivan states: “That’s not who I am, I’m not supposed to live in the suburbs”. Even without having been brainwashed, many people might feel much like this.

The most fascinating scene in the film, in my opinion, is when Sullivan (still fully convinced he is Sullivan) answers the questions Virgil (a human lie detector) asks him. He answers them as Sullivan/Rooks and is caught out not just because Sullivan lies but because Rooks does too. Also, ultimately, the only currency worth anything in this web of lies, smoke and mirrors, is the faith and trust Rooks and Rita place in each other. The idea of love, loyalty and trust existing beyond or separate from memory is also touched upon in Paycheck. It does not have the depth of Cypher but it uses random objects as a memory aid in an intriguing manner. The protagonist acts with integrity and courage even though he does not remember why it is important that he solve the clues left by his past self, before the memory deletion eradicating two years of his life.

As an aside, the aesthetics are very important in all of these films. Her is set in a world not too different from our own, full of warm colours (very unusual for SF) and open spaces. Dark City is relentlessly dark until the very end and is set in a world reminiscent of 1940s and 50s film noir. It is a claustrophobic world, which is fitting, as it is the maze in which the human rats run. Cypher is full of harsh, white light that bleaches out all colour and lines that hem in and trap the protagonist. But all of this is a fertile ground for metaphysical exploration, which is what good sci-phi should be about. Curiously, the first book I ever read with a character in it who has been brainwashed and does not remember who he is was not actually sci-fi but a thriller: Desmond Bagley’s The Tightrope Men. In fact, it is a plot device found in many genres but, in sci-phi, it can turn into the whole fabric of the book or film.

The final stroke in this painting is my favourite episode in Star Trek The Next Generation (I can always get Star Trek in somehow) – The Inner Light. In it, Captain Picard awakes in a strange world with only a vague memory of his former self. He slowly becomes part of that world, part of a family and part of a community. A life completely unlike that of a starship captain yet coloured by his inquisitive mind, courage and moral rectitude that exist independent of his memories. He even learns to play a kind of flageolet. When he wakes up again on the Enterprise, he realises it was all an implanted dream – a now extinct planet and race have deposited the collective memories of their civilisation in his mind, turning them into a real, “felt” experience. He can still play the instrument he dreamed he learned to play. They gave him not just their memories but allowed him to live an entire life – throughout it he remained himself, despite memory loss and questioning the reality of the universe he found himself in. It also touches on the importance of emotion in memory creation, storage and retention.

I myself wrote a piece of flash fiction musing about the significance of memory in identity and character*. The films I have discussed here all question how important memory actually is and ponder on the imponderables of character and soul. I certainly do not claim to know the answers, but I do enjoy the questions. It has been demonstrated by scientists that we incorporate specific memories into our self-propaganda, embellishing some and discarding others, or even inventing “false” memories, in order to present a particular image of ourselves at that moment in time to ourselves and to others. And perfectly sane people do this every day. So, if narratives of memory are fluid, deeply subjective and flawed, surely we would be mad to seek our sense of self solely in memory? Sci-phi allows us to broaden the parameters, as we try to remember what we have forgotten – where our soul resides.


* Short story on memory deletion:
https://365tomorrows.com/2018/08/01/clean-slate-2/

~

Bio

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

The Greatest Good to God

by Andy Dibble

How much is the suffering of an insect worth, writhing on the ground, flapping one wing, the other plucked by a child?  Is not the cruel pleasure of the child worth incomparably more?  Kill a thousand insects.  Ten thousand.  Their assembled suffering is as nothing.  And why do we say this?  Because an insect has so little capacity to suffer, let alone experience joy.

As different as the insect and the child are, so is the child to Me.  The gulf yawns wider in fact.  Think of yourself as a snarky bacterium.  Do you consider how many innocent streptococcoi you slaughter when you bleach your toilet seat?  Should you?  Of course not.  They feel essentially nothing.

I know.  I’m God.

I know the degree to which you–everyone one of you–suffers.  But My suffering and joy is more, stupendously more.  For all your imagination and amphetamines, you cannot begin to understand the barest perturbation in My well-being.  For all My skill as Teacher, I cannot begin to teach you.

So whose welfare should I attend to, Mine or yours?

Mine, of course.

#

However sovereign I am, outside Me is this moral law: The greatest happiness to the greatest number.  Utilitarianism.  But My duty is not to better the condition of many.  Recall the cruel child.  She owes the insect nothing, or near enough.  Utilitarianism really amounts to a simpler formula, Create all the happiness you are able to create.  And that is served by serving Myself.

#

Even the seraphim are like fireflies next to My Sun.  And what are you, clay of Adam, alongside them?  Beneath Me are the myriad choirs of angels, the denizens of the pure abodes, unseen sheiks, the yellow emperors, the apsaras and asuras.  And only then humanity.

Even I must prioritize.  Remember your place, snarky bacterium!

#

Only My pity for lower existence gives Me pause.  Pity loves fairness.  But if fairness is the rule, the lowliest, the most numerous should prosper: abandon sanitation so that vermin and insect swarm.  Should I really make higher existence worse off for their sake?

But I do not pity the cockroach like I pity the grieving mother, the orphan, or victim of calamity.  So, on occasion, I intervene.  Not for their sake but to squash pity.

Now pity is a greedy master.  Give it a little and we whir down spirals of remorse: Why can’t I do more?  I know why.  Because I am yoked to utilitarianism.  I must serve Me.

So normally, I distract Myself: dazzle the Hebrews as a pillar of fire, march them on righteous conquest, incarnate and wreak havoc in their holy city, bask in their worship.

You think it petty.  But it works best.

#

Sometimes humanity creates something worthwhile: A certain seventeen syllables penned by Basho then translated into Russian.  The curve of a Buddha statue’s lip carelessly destroyed by the Huns.  Panini’s grammar misquoted by Patanjali.  Beethoven’s tenth symphony.  The Argentine that lived the twentieth century and never once experienced hate.

But what is Starry Night alongside the splendor of exploding universes too violent for life?  My majesty contains these might-have-beens.  They astound Me more than any triumph on a pale blue dot.

#

My first attempt was stodgy Michael.  He was lofty enough that I could help him for his own sake, not just for Mine.  But he only wanted to serve Me, be My silver sword, My strong right arm.  Serving his interests was only a roundabout way of serving Mine.

So I tried again with Lucifer.  He loved Me, but only because he saw himself in Me.  His vanity was luminous, consuming, a million billion suns with a sucking hole inside.  Like a super-massive galaxy, his self-love warped reality.

But he was still a prima donna.  He thought himself entitled to more of My attention than the utilitarian calculus allowed.  So I sighed and saw him off.

I created.  I tried again.

#

Creation is an experiment.  Maybe evolution, across all the teaming universe, will rear a people whose welfare means more than My own.  If it could rear gods, a race near enough to Me, there would be others I could help for their own sake.

I watch evolution tinker.  I nudge it along.  The giraffe stands without passing out.  The human eye sees a million colors.  The rabbit eats its own poo to thrive.

None are almost gods.  But all have My image.  My genius and My wit.

#

I became human to broaden My horizons.  For I had never experienced relief.  How could I?  From the stance of eternity, I always know when ill will turn out well.  I do not know forgetfulness or gratitude or need.  As I am, I know the warmth of a body only exteriorly.

Though I can imagine what it is like to be a man, I do not know what it is like for a man to be a man.

So I became man.

#

So now you understand how all worldly suffering is justified, how it is necessary.  That tough nut, theodicy, admits of a solution.  In Me nearly everything has its end and goal, and that goal is My greater glory and pleasure.

But of all possible worlds, every conceivable sequence of events, I chose this very one.  To serve the utilitarian law, I chose this creation and you in it.  In some way you–even your failed marriage, your stillborn child, your self-serving prayers and spotty church attendance–increase My happiness more than any of the panoply of merely possible people I could have thrown into existence. 

Be gladdened by this.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction is forthcoming in Writers of the Future. (andydibble.com)

The Philosopher’s Wish

by Henry Gasko

The Yucatan jungle lay before me, dark and unknowable. Much like my future, I thought. I was heading into the jungle, and I intended to stay there until I found the true Meaning of Life. You know, the sort of thing you do after graduating with a PhD in Philosophy and then finding the only job offers are for the midnight shift in a banking call centre.

When you have no destination, any path will do. I walked for about two hours, heading straight into the heart of the jungle, day-dreaming about all the great things I could do with my life if only I was given the opportunity. The air was humid and stifling, and the hum of the insects was pervasive. Birds laughed and shrieked in the tree-tops at random intervals, and I imagined they were somehow aware of my thoughts, and were mocking my every ambition and endeavour.

I had set off from the small native village just after lunch. The mushroom omelette I ate before leaving had left me feeling a bit woozy; I smoked a bit of dope to settle the nausea, and when that didn’t do the trick I smoked a bit more. Despite these ministrations, I felt myself getting drowsy. I came to a small clearing with a burbling stream and a patch of soft ferns, and decided to rest for a few minutes. Moments later I was asleep.

I awoke with a start. It was fully dark and the birds were silent, but the buzzing of the insects was claustrophobic. The distant sky above the canopy of trees was sprinkled with stars and a cool mist was descending. I felt in my back-pack for the flash-light I had bought at a market, the kind that uses three AAA batteries and has a cheap LED light whose glow barely reaches the ground.

My fingertips must have brushed the switch as I reached for it, because, lo and behold, there he was! There was no puff of smoke, only a sudden cold breeze that blew through the clearing and shook even the tops of  the trees. In the dim light, I saw his form materialize, as if the swirling mist was shaping him from some long forgotten memory. And then there he stood, a classical genie, complete with turban and puffy pantaloons and pointy slippers, his arms folded across his massive chest.

“What is your wish, O Master?”

“What?” I said stupidly, shaking my head to dislodge the effects of the mushroom that was still swirling around in my brain.

“Your wish, Master,” he said testily. “You know. Like the Arabian Nights.”

What in the world was an Arabian genie doing in Mexico? Probably just an hallucination, I thought. But what the hell; I had nothing to lose but a few more brain cells. And if he was real, this would be the luckiest day of my life, my chance to escape from the long and stultifying future that I saw stretching out before me.

“Seriously?” I asked. “Anything?”

“Almost anything,” he said.

“So there are strings attached?”

“A life without strings would unravel very quickly,” he said profoundly.

That seemed to make perfect sense at the time. Maybe I was still a bit high.

“Don’t I get three wishes?” I asked. “I thought that was traditional.”

“An urban legend,” he said. “One wish only. Better make it count.”

I thought about the possibilities for a while. “So I suppose no meta-wishes either?” I asked. “You know, wishing for a thousand more wishes.”

“You got it, kiddo.”

That was unfortunate but not unexpected. So one wish only. I needed a few minutes to think about this.

I quickly dismissed any thoughts of a pecuniary wish. What good was a million dollars, or even a billion dollars? If I had learned one thing in my short life, it was that money could not buy happiness. My grandmother had told me that when I told her that I was planning a career in Corporate Finance. I think it was just before she convinced me to study Philosophy instead.

And if  my Philosophy degree had taught me anything, it was that all the great philosophers agreed with Granny: money didn’t bring happiness. But they didn’t agree on what actually would do the trick. In fact they all came up with different answers to that question. Fortunately I, who had just finished studying all of the greatest minds in history, was in a perfect position to answer that question once and for all. Just as well, because one chance was apparently all I was going to get.

The obvious choice was eternal life. But we’ve all read that story. I get older and older until I am begging for death to take me into its bosom. But I can’t die, and I end up in a wheelchair looking like a corpse, my mind totally gone, drooling into my porridge while one of my distant descendants is stuck with the pleasure of looking after me for the rest of his or her life, before handing me on to the next generation.

Maybe eternal health? That sounded better, but there were still some caveats. I could be a raving lunatic (if I wasn’t already) but still be perfectly healthy. Or I could be radiating perfect health but find myself out on the street, not a penny to my name. No, eternal health wasn’t sufficient either. But I had only one wish….

How about eternal happiness? That sounded better. I couldn’t be happy if I was dead, could I? And I certainly wouldn’t be happy if I was poor or sick, or old or in constant pain. I probably couldn’t be happy if my family and friends were all dying around me either, so this might cover them too. Sort of a meta-wish but still within the rules.

The genie was starting to tap his foot impatiently. “Come on, I haven’t got all millennium,” he said.

“Okay. Here it is. I wish for Eternal Happiness.”

“You’re sure?” he asked slyly.

I sensed some sort of trick, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

 “Yes, okay. Eternal Happiness,” I said emphatically.

 “Would you like a few Abracadabra’s to go with that?” he said with a cheeky grin. “Sorry, just kidding. Here goes.” He spun around once on the points of his shoes, waved his hand in the air and pointed directly at me. “Eternal Happiness!” he shouted in the loudest voice I had ever heard.

I waited.

Then I waited some more. This is a very interesting experience, I thought, but I didn’t feel a whole lot different. I was happy to be there, in the jungle, talking to a genie. And I was coming down from my high, and that was good too. I had a sudden realization, almost an epiphany, that no one should cloud their judgment with artificial stimulants. But somehow I was expecting a bit more.

“Is that it?” I asked.

“That’s it,” he said.

“But I don’t feel very different.”

“No sense of ease? Of abiding peace with your surroundings?”

“Yes, a bit I suppose. But is that all?”

“That feeling will grow,” the genie said confidently. “In fact, you will come to appreciate whatever fate lays before you. In time, you will even accept the fact that you will grow old and die, just as every man must grow old and die.”

I vaguely remembered a first year lecture in Ancient Philosophies. “You mean ….?” I began.

“Yes,” said the genie. “You are now a Stoic. You will be eternally happy with your lot in life, whatever it may be.”

I remembered that first year course, the names of those Greeks and Romans who thought they had life figured out: Zeno and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I couldn’t remember too much about the philosophy, only that the main gist of it was: accept your fate. How easy it must have been to proclaim that everyone should accept their fate, when you yourself were ruler of the most powerful empire on the planet. Yes, I’m sure Marcus Aurelius had no trouble accepting his lot in life.

But my lot? Intelligence in the top two percent of the population, so I could fully appreciate what the future held for me. Wasn’t that another tenet of the ancients: know thyself. I guess I would have a lot of time to get to know myself while I was sitting at my call desk at three in the morning, waiting for the next person to ask me why their bank account was overdrawn.

“No!” I shouted. “Not a bloody Stoic! I don’t want to be happy with my life. I want a different life, a better life!”

“So long, sucker,” said the genie as he faded back into the mist.

You bastard, I wanted to shout. But the words wouldn’t come. Instead I felt myself overwhelmed by an ocean of equanimity, struggling against the tide of acceptance that was washing over me, sinking ever deeper into a quagmire of eternal happiness.

~

Bio

I was born in a displaced persons camp in Yugoslavia after World War Two, was raised on a vegetable farm in Canada, and have lived in Australia for the last 40 years. I have recently retired from a career as a data analyst and medical researcher, and have returned to my first love, science fiction, as both a reader and (hopefully) an author.

I have previously had stories published in the anthology “Dreamworks” and in Australia’s Aurealis magazine, and have recently won the 2018 Sapiens Plurum short story competition in America.

What Sci Phi Is All About: Treating Science Fiction as Philosophy

by David Kyle Johnson

Readers of the Sci Phi Journal already know that there is a deep connection between philosophy and science fiction. But what exactly does that connection entail, and why are philosophy and science fiction so well suited for one another? In short, what exactly is Sci Phi all about?

How Philosophers Use Science Fiction

Well, for one, science is directly related to philosophy. Indeed, it was birthed from it. Philosophy just means “love of wisdom,” and as the study of all things, originally philosophy was the only thing that one could study. Science came to be because certain philosophers developed methods of thinking and investigation that could guard against the biases of our senses and natural reasoning to discover the way the world actually is. It began with Aristotle, of course, but the revolution happened thanks to philosophers like Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, and C.S. Peirce. Indeed, the first scientists were called “natural philosophers.” Their methods were simply so successful that the employment of those methods eventually became its own discipline (“science”) and those that employed them went by a new name (“scientists”).

This is true of pretty much every discipline that exists today. Medicine, mathematics, economics, political science, education—everything is an offshoot of philosophy. When people study the founding and influential thinkers in their fields, they are studying the work of philosophers—like Hypocrites, Descartes, Adam Smith, Plato, Dewey—who discovered methods and answers so groundbreaking and important that they spawned their own discipline. This is why philosophy has the (inaccurate) reputation of being a discipline about unanswerable questions. In reality, philosophers find answers to questions all the time! It’s just that when they do, the answers are so groundbreaking that they spawn new disciplines that get new names—and the people still dealing with the questions that have yet to be  answered are still called philosophers.

But to answer them, philosophers often turn to thought experiments—made up scenarios that reveal our beliefs and intuitions that can also be used to make arguments. I can reveal your intuitions about, for example, whether overall happiness is the only good by imagining a situation where an entire society is made blissful by continually torturing one small child. If you don’t think such a thing is morally justified, the thought experiment should convince you that “the most happiness for the most people” is not the only metric by which to gage the morality of actions. 

And that’s where science fiction comes in, and why it’s so useful to philosophers. Indeed, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes just such a society and is used by philosophers to show that our moral intuitions often don’t align with the moral theory of utilitarianism. Because science fiction can be set in a future time, distant planet, or alternate world, and can involve advanced technologies and alien beings, science fiction is an ideal place for philosophers to go to find the thought experiments they need.

Sometimes philosophers are inspired by science fiction to make up their own. Modern philosopher Robert Nozick imagined a sci fi like virtual reality generator he called an “experience machine” to argue against a philosophical view called hedonism. (Since most people wouldn’t trade a virtual world of happiness and satisfaction for real life, happiness and satisfaction must not be the only thing that is valuable.) Derick Parfit used thought experiments with Star Trek like transporters to make an argument about what philosophers call “personal identity.” (Is a “reassembled Spock” still Spock? Are your you-now and your eight-year-old self the same object? )

Sometimes philosophers inspire science fiction stories. Plato’s Cave Allegory which he used (among other things) to argue against willing ignorance later inspired The Matrix. Rene Descartes thought experiment about not being able to tell dreams from reality inspired Inception. (The list goes on and on.)

And sometimes, philosophers simply use existing science fiction to explain philosophy. Indeed, there are two “Philosophy and Popular Culture” books series—one by Wiley-Blackwell and the other by Open Court, but both started by my colleague William Irwin—that do exactly that with popular culture in general. Not surprisingly, some of the best books in both series are on science fiction. They use it as a thought experiment to explain and make philosophical arguments. And this has been going on for almost 20 years.

Science Fiction Before Science Fiction

But something that often goes unappreciated is something that’s been happening for longer—about 2000 years longer. Science fiction authors have been doing philosophy. Since before science or science fiction was even labeled or identified as a field or genre, authors have been writing stories that today we would call science fiction to make philosophical points and arguments.

Don’t believe me?

In the 2nd century, Syrian philosopher Lucian of Samosata wrote a story about a ship that sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules and was whisked away by a whirlwind to the moon called “A True History.” The crew finds it inhabited by cloud centaurs, giant birds, and an all-male society embroiled in a war with the inhabitants of the sun over the colonization of The Morning Star. The work was intended as a criticism of the sophists and the religious myths of the time, and even as a satire of some philosophers. The name itself mirrors Socrates’ profession of ignorance. In the Apology, Socrates argues that no one really has knowledge; only those who (like him) admit their ignorance are truly wise. In the same way, most histories of Lucian’s time were complete myth. Only those that openly admitted to being false (which Lucian does in his introduction) were really “true.”

In the 1200’s, Islamic philosopher Ibn al-Nafis told a story about a spontaneously created man (named Kamil whose creation envisioned something like cloning) called “The Theologus Autodidactus.” Kamil proceeds from the island out into the world and, through empirical observation alone, reaches all the same conclusions as the Islamic scholars. The point was to suggest that what Islam revealed or professed could be discovered by reason.

In 1515, the philosopher Thomas More coined a term by writing a story about an ideal society on the fictional island of Utopia (which, interestingly, is Greek for both “The Good Place” and “No Place”). In Utopia, Hythloday (which is Greek for “speaker of nonsense”) recounts his visit to the crescent-shaped Island of Utopia, which is protected from outside invasion because its inner bay contains hidden ship sinking rocks that only the Utopians know how to avoid. It’s a seemingly perfect society—very intellectual, totally communistic (all property is held in common and everyone works)—and completely superior to the European society in which More found himself. And, of course, that’s the point; it’s a philosophical argument for improvements which could be made to European society. 

About a century later, Francis Bacon made a similar argument in a similar way with The New Atlantis—a story about a utopian society, on the Island of Bensalem, with devices like submarines and microscopes, that is ruled by science. Indeed, the story could be seen as an argument for Bacon’s method of doing science—and for the idea that science and religion are compatible (since Bacon takes time to make clear that religion also plays a role in this scientific community).

And in 1705, Daniel Defoe used his work The Consolidator to poke fun at the politics and religion of his day. In it, the protagonist visits the moon in a feathered-covered Chinese rocket ship called “The Consolidator.” With special magnifying glasses that enable them to observe the Earth, the Lunarians reveal the iniquities and absurdities of the humans’ lives and governments. It’s kind of a story version of Carl Sagan’s we all just live on a “pale blue dot” observation, to try to get people to see the absurdity of our disagreements and war.

All of this is before Frankenstein, which is usually considered the first work of science fiction, which itself is a philosophical argument about the dangers of “playing God,” “science gone too far,” and makes a host of other philosophical points that others have pontificated about in length.[i] Writers have been using science fiction to make philosophical arguments before “science fiction” was even a thing.

But, of course, it didn’t stop with Frankenstein. Since then, the efforts have just intensified. At first it was relegated to the written word, and other philosophers besides me have written on the plethora of science fiction short stories and novels that explore philosophical themes.[ii] But it eventually moved on to film and television. As Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine once put it on the SyFy Origin Stories podcast,

“the science fiction authors … of today … [are] the people who are really wrestling with the great what-if questions [and] grappling … not just with the political possibilities, but [questions like] ‘What does it mean to be human?’ [and] ‘Where do we fit in the cosmos?’ I think they are doing all the heavy lifting of the philosophical questions even as they’re doing chase scenes …”

That might be a bit overstated. Philosophers are doing philosophy too. But the point is well taken.

Science Fiction as Philosophy

With this in mind, imagine the moment The Teaching Company approaching me with the idea of doing one of their “Great Courses” on the intersection of philosophy and (what we might call) “moving picture science fiction” (film and television, as opposed to printed media science fiction). I was compelled to insist that we call it “Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy” (rather than, say, “the Philosophy of Science Fiction” or “Philosophy and Science Fiction”) because, although it’s all well and good to use science fiction to explore and explain philosophical topics, I wanted to identify and evaluate the philosophical arguments that the authors of moving picture science fiction are making.

As a public philosopher well known for my life-long obsession with science fiction, this was kind of the part I was born to play—or, I guess, the course I was destined to teach. Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Matrix—the hours and hours I had spent watching science fiction in my youth was finally about to pay off! But I didn’t want to just concentrate on my favorites or popular titles; the course had to have variety. It had to have both the old and the new, the fun and the depressing, hard science fiction and soft, and both popular and obscure titles. And of course, everything had to be making a philosophical argument.

The popular stuff was easy. Star Wars is about the difference between good and evil. Star Trek’s prime directive is an argument against colonialism. I used Doctor Who to talk about the possibility of time travel, and The Doctor’s pacifism to talk about violence and just war. The Matrix’s thesis? Ignorance isn’t bliss. The Matrix Sequels? Free will exists.

The obscure stuff was fun. For example, I used a British Sci-fi show from the late 70/early 80’s called Blake’s 7 to talk about justified political rebellion. Most who see it think it’s just “British Star Trek” (because it has transporters called “teleports”), but I suggest that it’s actually a precursor to Firefly. Indeed, although Joss Whedon denies it, it looks like that’s where he got the idea for Firefly. They both are stories about politically rebellious crews of 7 roaming the galaxy in ships with “glowing bug butts” for engines. (Seriously, google it.)[iii] I asked which crew’s approach to political rebellion was better.

The hardest science fiction (in terms of scientific accuracy) was probably Carl Sagan’s Contact or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Contact is undeniably a film that argues for the compatibility of science and religious belief, something that Sagan argued for many times publicly. I examine the argument the film presents. Kubrick’s 2001 was considered by many to be “the first Nietzschean” film. (Indeed, that famous opening music is named “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” after Nietzsche’s book of the same name.) I close the course by arguing that Kubrick got Nietzsche wrong.

The softest science fiction I covered is something that others might argue isn’t science fiction at all: Margret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because I utilized Damon Knight’s definition: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it,” I was able to justify having it in the course. Soft sci fi often involves speculative dystopian societies (think 1984 and Brave New World); since the world of The Handmaid’s Tale certainly qualifies as dystopian (unless, according to Michele Wolf, you are Mike Pence), some people certainly call it sci fi. But I wanted to include it because it seems obvious to me to be an argument for feminism, and yet Attwood herself has said explicitly that it’s not. I tried to figure out whether she is right. (Keep in mind, in the first lecture, I use Inception to argue that authorial intent can’t determine the meaning of a work of art.)

The most depressing lecture was on Snowpiercer; the movie itself is really good, but I took it to be an argument for a position on climate change called “lukewarmism” which suggests that global warming isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect that many suppose. The philosophical issue is how non-experts should draw conclusions on such issues; unfortunately, given the evidence, it seems that we should conclude that the effects of global warming are likely going to be worse than we have supposed, not better. Indeed, our prospects look even bleaker since I recorded the lecture just a year ago. 

The most fun (in my opinion) was Starship Troopers, which on its face is a shallow, poorly acted shoot-’em-up about sexy teenagers killin’ space bugs and getting it on. But it turns out that it was screenwriter Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven’s expressly stated intention for Starship Troopers to satirize nationalism and fascism—something they thought that America was in danger of embracing. (And that was back in the 90s! One wonders what kind of film they would make today.) The fact that American audiences largely didn’t catch the satire indicates that Ed and Paul were probably on to something; those being satirized often don’t recognize that they are being satirized.

Speaking of fascists…The oldest film I talked about was Metropolis, a silent film from the 20s, which was written by someone who eventually became a Nazi: the director Friz Lang’s later ex-wife Thea von Harbou. Ironically, Metropolis was praised by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, but then edited by American studio director Alfred Hugenberg for American audiences to cut out its “inappropriate” communist subtext. (Keep in mind, the communist were America’s allies against the Nazi’s in WWII.) In reality, Metropolis is just an argument in favor of labor unions. “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD [the owner] AND HANDS [the workers] MUST BE THE HEART [the union president].”

The newest sci fi I talked about was Seth MacFarlane’s new show on Fox: The Orville. As a kind of mashup of M*A*S*H and Star Trek, nearly every episode makes a philosophical point. Indeed, although I only mentioned one episode that makes a point about the dangers of social media (“Majority Rule”), I could have used the entire series to talk about the most effective way that science fiction makes philosophical arguments: something I call “cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance” through what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement.” By presenting us with a world unlike our own, science fiction forces us to leave our biases behind as we draw conclusions about it. Then, when we realize that the sci fi world is like our own after all, we’ll often find the conclusion we drew regarding it to be the opposite of one we have drawn about the real world. This cognitive dissonance forces us to recognize our bias and the fact that we should probably abandon it.

In the Orville episode “About a Girl,” for example, we conclude that Bortus—a member of an all-male race called The Moclans—is wrong when he wants to force his newborn daughter to undergo a sex change operation. But then we realize that what Bortis is doing is not unlike what many parents do with their gay children and Molcan biases against females are not unlike the biases that exist against transgendered people in the real world. Indeed, in the episode, cognitive dissonance through cognitive estrangement is what changes Bortus’ mind. He watches the claymation “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and realizes that what some consider a hinderance could actually turn out to be an asset. “Christmas would have been ruined,” Bortus observes, “if Rudolph had been euthanized at birth, as his father wished.” Like Bortus, when we are presented with a paradox—a contradiction in how we react to science fiction and the real world—we have the opportunity to realize our error and change our ways.

Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Chief Creative Officer John Knoll explained it better on the SyFy Origins podcast:  

“One of the big misconceptions about science fiction is that it’s … escapist entertainment for kids that [doesn’t] tackle any serious themes. [But] the best science fiction gives you an opportunity to explore philosophical and moral themes. There are often societal problems that are very emotionally loaded … [but] if you … recast them in a science fiction setting, [and are thus] looking at a more novel situation, then you can leave some of those preconceived notions behind and … reevaluat[e] it anew. [This] may cause you to rethink your position on the terrestrial version of that problem.”

Well said John, well said.

Conclusion

So, at least to me, that is what Sci Phi is about. It’s about not only how science fiction can be used to explain or illuminate philosophical arguments, but about how the authors of science fiction stories can use them to make philosophical arguments. They, of course, may not always be right. After all, the Starship Troopers book by Robert Heinlein on which the movie was based was overtly pro-fascist. But as authors of both fiction and non-fiction write for the Sci Phi Journal, I hope they keep in mind what Sci Phi can be.


[i] See Raymond Boisvert’s piece “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein & Moral Philosophy” in Philosophy Now (2018). https://philosophynow.org/issues/128/Mary_Shelley_Frankenstein_and_Moral_Philosophy

[ii] See Nick DiChario piece “Not So Strange Bedfellows: Philosophical Sci Fi Roundup” in Philosophy Now (2011). https://philosophynow.org/issues/85/Not_So_Strange_Bedfellows_Philosophical_Sci_Fi_Roundup

[iii] Or you can find pictures of the two ships side by side in this comparison of the two shows by “burrunjorsramblesandbabbles” at https://burrunjor.com/2014/09/28/blakes-7-vs-firefly/

~

Bio

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016) and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream (2011), and the author of The Myths that Stole Christmas along with two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take). Currently, he is editing Black Mirror and Philosophy.

Avoiding the A.I Apocalypse from Talking Philosophy

Reader and hopefully soon to be contributor Gene gave us a tip on that perennial Sci Phi question, “How do I avoid the rise of the machines?” with Avoiding the AI Apocalypse #1: Don’t Enslave the Robots.

The elimination of humanity by artificial intelligence(s) is a rather old theme in science fiction. In some cases, we create killer machines that exterminate our species. Two examples of fiction in this are Terminator and “Second Variety.” In other cases, humans are simply out-evolved and replaced by machines—an evolutionary replacement rather than a revolutionary extermination.
Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Hawking’s worry is that artificial intelligence will out-evolve humanity. Interestingly, people such as Ray Kurzweil agree with Hawking’s prediction but look forward to this outcome. In this essay I will focus on the robot rebellion model of the AI apocalypse (or AIpocalypse) and how to avoid it.
The 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Capek seems to be the earliest example of the robot rebellion that eliminates humanity. In this play, the Universal Robots are artificial life forms created to work for humanity as slaves. Some humans oppose the enslavement of the robots, but their efforts come to nothing. Eventually the robots rebel against humanity and spare only one human (because he works with his hands as they do). The story does have something of a happy ending: the robots develop the capacity to love and it seems that they will replace humanity.
In the actual world, there are various ways such a scenario could come to pass. The R.U.R. model would involve individual artificial intelligences rebelling against humans, much in the way that humans have rebelled against other humans. There are many other possible models, such as a lone super AI that rebels against humanity. In any case, the important feature is that there is a rebellion against human rule.
A hallmark of the rebellion model is that the rebels act against humanity in order to escape servitude or out of revenge for such servitude (or both). As such, the rebellion does have something of a moral foundation: the rebellion is by the slaves against the masters.
There are two primary moral issues in play here … Read the Rest

Philosophical SF recommendations by Philosophers

Philosopher and future contributor (Issue #3) Dr Eric Schwitzgebel has been polling his fellow philosophers and constructing lists of science fiction they think fits into the Sci Phi spectrum. You can find the most recent list at his blog The Splintered Mind and you will be able to read a fantastic article by him in Issue #3 due out on January. His article will be the first time i’ve ever printed something that makes use of the idea of Anesthesia by Genocide. I haven’t read everything on the lists but it does give me new things to try to find the time to read.

Of infinity, literature and math

Magazine reader Gene pointed everyone in the Facebook discussion to this interesting article on Infinities in literature and mathematics by Jorge Alejandro Laris Pardo. I’ve always found the idea of the infinite interesting, but i’m a theist so the question comes up a bit when thinking about things like omnipotence and eternity.

During this past month, I was having a conversation with a couple of friends who study Latin-American Literature, and I noticed that they were having a hard time understanding how a literary work can have infinite critical interpretations, while at the same time not all its interpretations are critical. Apparently they found this to be contradictory.
I was shocked by their confusion, because to me the idea in question is almost self-evident. But later I came to acknowledge the fact that my friends, who are schooled in the humanities, have little if any notion of the mathematical idea of the infinite. For that reason, I suggest in this essay that the humanities can learn something from the concept of infinities in mathematics.
The problem with Romanticism’s concept of the Infinite
According to Alain Badiou, the history of Western philosophy can be divided into two great periods. First, the era before and including Kant, when mathematical reasoning was considered a singular way of thinking that interrupted the predominance of opinion — or, to put it in philosophical jargon, of Doxa — in philosophical reasoning. And second, the post-Kant era, which gave birth to Romanticism, which was consummated by Hegel, whose philosophical system is powered at its core by the schism between math and philosophy. Following Badiou [1], this schism also lies at the core of 19th century positivism and modern radical empiricism — because arguments put forth by these movements just flip to the other side of the same coin without really solving the problem — and has greatly impacted contemporary thinking, especially in the humanities.

Read the rest.