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Inner Space: Philosophical SF

In contrast to last month's best and bloodiest, this month I'm offering something completely different: philosophical science fiction.  While philosophical SF doesn't necessarily stint on the action and suspense-- witness the ratcheting tension of Charles Stross's Glasshouse or the action-laced intrigue of Elizabeth Bear's Carnival-- action isn't the primary focus.  Instead, concept is key.  It's part of a literary genre known as the "novel of ideas," wherein fiction is used as a tool to examine some of the big questions: what it means to be human, how we should treat one another, what our purpose should be-- the answers to life, the universe, and everything.*

Though these titles take the thought experiment as their focus, honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to name a sci-fi novel that doesn't contain some measure of philosophy.  With its emphasis on speculative futures and worldbuilding, its ability to draw us out of our own reality and transport us to alternate futures and alien cultures, science fiction is perhaps the best of all possible homes for this literary subgenre.  It lets us approach profound and often uncomfortable questions from a new and unexpected angle.  Clive Thompson put it quite succinctly in his article on the link between philosophy and science fiction for Wired Magazine: "[Science fiction] authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?"

Because philosophical SF is generally less about genre tropes and more about what's going on inside the character's heads, it's often a good starting point for readers who want to test the waters of science fiction.  Near-future titles like Connie Willis's Doomsday Book offer a setting so "normal" and familiar (Oxford University, much as it is today) that the fantastic elements (historians using a time machine as well as archaeology to document the past) are much easier for newcomers to swallow.  There's plenty at the other end of the spectrum, too-- if high-concept alien cultures or far-future technology are more your speed, give Ursula K. LeGuin or Vernor Vinge a try.

Whatever your taste, philosophical SF is guaranteed to give your brain a good workout... and perhaps give you a better understanding of what it means to be human.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (SF Atwood)
Carnival by Elizabeth Bear (SF Bear)
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear (SF Bear)
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (SF Bester)
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (SF Bradbury)
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (SF Butler)
Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh (SF Cherryh)
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke (Reading List Clarke)
Counterfeit Realities by Philip K. Dick (SF Dick)
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (SF Haldeman)
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Fiction Ishiguro)
Children of Men by P. D. James (SF James)
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan (Fiction Jordan)
Maximum Light by Nancy Kress (SF Kress)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin (SF LeGuin)
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (SF Lem)
The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (SF MacLeod) (COMING SOON!)
Embassytown by China Mieville (SF Mieville)
The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon (SF Moon)
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (SF Robinson)
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (SF Russell)
Paradise Tales Geoff Ryman (SF/Fantasy Ryman)
Flashforward by Robert Sawyer (SF Sawyer)
Glasshouse by Charles Stross (SF Stross)
The Margarets by Sheri S. Tepper (SF Tepper)
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (SF Tiptree)
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge (SF Vinge)
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (SF Willis)
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (SF Wilson)
The Golden Age Trilogy by John C. Wright (SF Wright)

 

 

* (That would be 42, by the way.) [top]

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