Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Direction and Misdirection in the First Sentence of a Story

Story writers love first sentences. Probably more time goes into crafting first sentences than any other sentence, even the last. Already in the first few words the author is conveying tone, style, and mood, and usually also making a start on character, setting, and theme. That's a lot to do! The reader is already absorbing all of these things. Of course one must start on the right path.

What about plot? You might think plot is the one major story element the first sentence doesn't need to establish. Plot is necessarily spread across the story -- a matter of how things change away from what is established the first sentence. Except in unusual cases, you might think, the outcome of the story isn't already there to be seen in the first sentence.

Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I decided to try an experiment: Guess the plots of five new stories based on the first sentence alone. We chose the stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine. Although it seems impossible to fully guess the plot from the first sentence (else where would the suspense be?), to the extent the first sentence already sets up the plot, our guesses might not be entirely off target.

Here are the five stories and their first sentences:

1. "Magnifica Angelica Superable" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz:

A woman from the street came in laughing from the cold.

2. "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka:

It starts with light.

3. "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer:

Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died.

4. "5x5" by Jilly Dreadful:

Sugarloaf Fine Sciences Summer Camp
Bunk Note: Cabin Lamarr

Dear Scully,
I should've been suspicious of the girl in the lab coat offering me psychic ice cream.

5. "The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned" by Spencer Ellsworth:

Cromdor the Caldernian, thrice-condemned, (I've forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in.

The details of our guesses are here, here, here, here, and here.

At the end of the exercise, I was struck by three main things about these first sentences.

First: As expected, all the first sentences do set up a tone, style, and mood (1 is spunky, 2 is serious and straight, 3 is metafictional and preachy, 4 and 5 are lighthearted and funny). Character, setting, and theme are also off to a clear start in most. In 1, 4, and 5, Angelica, the girl in the lab coat, and Cromdor are starting to take shape. In 2, 4, and 5, we begin to see the lit but undefined space, the summer camp, the epic fantasy world. Sentences 1, 2, and 3 open the themes of responding to adversity, of beginnings, of life cycles. Most have hooks: The "psychic ice cream" of 4 is a great tease. In 5, the author has so efficiently sketched setting and character that already by the end of the first sentence, I'm wondering how the traveler will disrupt things. In 3, I'm intrigued by the strange abstractness.

Second: Somewhat to my surprise we actually weren't too bad at guessing plot. That doesn't mean we were good, but usually at least one of the five of us seemed already to have been able to guess something of the arc of the story. Story 2 would be a creation story with metaphysical themes and a dark ending. Story 4 would focus on the deepening relationship of the narrator and Scully. Story 5 would be about an old warrior's past family catching up with him.

Third: Most of these stories also have a bit of misdirection in the first sentence. This is clearest in Story 4: We all thought the "psychic ice cream" would be important to the plot -- but it wasn't. It launches us, and it works great for hook, tone, character, and setting, but the plot doesn't turn on it. In Story 5, we thought the three condemnations of Cromdor would be important, but again though it helps efficiently set character, setting, and tone, it doesn't matter to plot in the way we had guessed. In Story 1, where Angelica came in to doesn't matter as much as we'd thought.

So I wonder about this misdirection. It is a feature or a bug?

I want to say feature. These are good stories, in a top magazine. I liked them all, and they all stood up to close rereading. Why would the author misdirect us? Maybe it prevents us from too fully guessing what's coming, keeping the surprise, keeping us on our toes. Maybe it also makes the worlds richer, suggesting elements unmentioned or unexplored, pointing outside the frame of a story that might otherwise be too tidy.

So now I'm curious -- do famous, classic SF stories also tend to have this oblique entry or partial misdirection in the first sentence? I've arbitrarily chosen four personal favorites that are widely celebrated. Before this exercise, and up to this point in writing this post, I had no memory of exactly how these four stories began. As of now, the outcome is as much a mystery to me as to you.

So... here goes:

"Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes:

Progris riport 1 -- martch 5 1965

Mr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea.

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu:

One of my earliest memories starts with me sobbing.

"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler:

My last night of childhood began with a visit home.

Hm! I'd say almost no misdirection in these first sentences. "Flowers for Algernon" is of course the tragic story of a psychological experiment in which a man with low IQ is given an intelligence enhancement. "Omelas" is the story of people refusing to live in a beautiful city built on a terrible crime. "Paper Menagerie" is the sad story of a boy alienated from his mother's culture, failing to appreciate her magic. "Bloodchild" is about a parasitic alien species using human boys as hosts. The first sentences of these famous stories are tightly focused on theme, setting, and entry into the plot, taking us right there without misdirection.

The sample is too small. I am going to have to read more, with this issue in mind. Of course, there is more than one way for a story to work. Maybe I've chosen stories with a driving philosophical point, rather than with looser arcs, just because that is my taste....

ETA: As Ann Leckie suggests, another possibility is that the misdirection is less obvious to me in the four classic stories because I already knew how they would go and wasn't on the hook for a first guess.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How to Diversify Philosophy: Two Thoughts and a Plea for More Suggestions

Academic philosophy in the U.S. has diversity problem.

On October 16 I'll be speaking about this at a MAP (Minorities And Philosophy) conference in Princeton. I'd like to toss some thoughts out there and solicit your suggestions.

Most of my previous work on these issues has focused on documenting disproportion. Compared to other academic disciplines in the U.S., philosophy is disproportionately white, male, and Anglophone. Plausibly, but not as well documented, its students are also disproportionately upper- and upper-middle class. Disabled people might also be underrepresented in philosophy compared to other fields (as well as compared to the population as a whole).

For October's talk, I want to discuss remedies. I'd like to suggest a few specific, concrete things that university philosophy instructors can do; and I'd like those specific, concrete things to target the situation in academic philosophy in particular.

Here are my two favorite ideas so far:

(1.) Encourage very-small-group discussion in the middle of class. (This sounds boring, but humor me for a few hundred words, because really it's magic!) Here's how to do it. Pause for 5-10 minutes in the middle of class. Have the students divide into groups of exactly 3 or 4 (not 2, not 5), and have them discuss one particular question from the lecture. To motivate discussion, require them to produce a simple written document, to be graded pass/fail. (For example, have each group produce what they think is the best consideration in favor of position P and the best consideration against position P.) Wander around during these 5-10 minutes, prodding groups that don't seem to be on task. Finally, reconvene and then have groups summarize the conclusions they came to.

I find that this exercise produces a pleasantly loud classroom, and that afterward a much broader range of people are willing to contribute to class discussion. Quiet people have finally got their mouths moving, and they probably found that what they said was respected by the 2-3 people they mentioned it to. This emboldens them to try it on the class as a whole. Also, the instructor can draw out normally quiet people by asking what their group thought. Individual students aren't as personally on the hook, since they can attribute the view to "the group", and they have already rehearsed the answer by talking it over with the group. If all else fails they can read what they've written down. This broadening of the range of people discussing philosophy in the classroom persists for the remainder of the period, often longer.

Here's why I think this exercise improves diversity: Philosophy classroom discussion is normally dominated by people with high academic/cultural capital. In the U.S. this means: rich, white, male, non-disabled, self-confident, parents with high educational attainment, fluent in highbrow English speaking styles. These are the students mostly likely to have the boldness to announce, in the second week of class, in front of their peers and professor, confident opinions about why Kant is wrong, or relativism is really the correct meta-ethical theory, or David Lewis's metaphysics is objectively better than Hilary Putnam's. (For an uncharitable version of the phenomenon, see this penetrating article.) Others need to be drawn into the conversation. Very-small-group discussion, in this above format, is the best way I know how.

(2.) Choose one non-white philosophical tradition to learn enough about so that you truly appreciate the range of positions and arguments in that tradition. (For me this is the ancient Chinese tradition.) This will take some time. But it needn't be unpleasant and you needn't aim to develop sufficient expertise to publish articles addressing that tradition. It's neither important nor achievable to have a global understanding of every tradition, and a superficial sampler approach risks misrepresenting and oversimplifying other traditions. What is important is that you have a moderately deep understanding of at least one other tradition, whose contributions you can discuss, with knowledge and enthusiasm, alongside the contributions of the currently dominant white European-derived tradition.

Interesting philosophy has emerged in every cultural tradition. How could it be otherwise? Philosophical issues are fundamental to one's worldview. In every culture, there will be thoughtful people who have reflected insightfully on such issues. Students know this. If we present the history of philosophy as the history of what white guys have thought about the fundamental issues of the human condition, then students will understandably regard philosophy in their university as an "area studies" program of white-guy thought. Even white students might forgivably be annoyed by this.

My hunch is this sort of cross-cultural engagement conveys a general message that encourages diversity of all sorts -- the message that you do not see philosophical value only in the words of people of high cultural power in your own tradition.


I offer these as concrete ideas for diversifying philosophy that individual philosophy professors can realistically implement. I'm interested in further thoughts and suggestions!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Network Map of SF Writers That Philosophers Love

Andrew Higgins has created another of his fascinating network analysis maps -- this time of the science fiction / speculative fiction authors appearing on my updated Philosophical SF list, which consists of 10 SF recommendations each from 48 professional philosophers.

Higgins writes:

Each recommendation was treated as a connection (edge) between a scifi author and a philosopher who recommended that writer. These connections pull authors closer together insofar as they're recommended by the same people. One way to see this similarity is the physical locations of the authors relative to each other, but the color of the nodes is a more accurate indicator of similarity (based on modularity measure groupings, resolution = 1.7). The size of the circles reflects the number of recommendations for each author (weighted degree), and the size of the author's name was determined by network centrality (PageRank).

Or, in the common tongue, "Ooooh... pretty!"

[click on picture to enlarge]

Thanks, Andrew!

Interview on Crazyism

Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking interviews me about the idea that something that seems "crazy" must be true in ethics and the metaphysics of mind.

Along the way, we discuss, among other things, Solar-System-sized orgasm machines, the possibility that the U.S. literally has conscious experience over and above the experiences of the individual people composing it, and the awesomeness of Jorge Luis Borges.

The interview is about an hour long. Listen during your commute or workout!

The written transcript is also available in PDF and DOCX.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Philosophical SF: Updated Master List and 30 More Recommendations

We might think of fictions as extended thought experiments: What might it be like if...? Ordinary fiction confines itself to hypotheticals in the ordinary run of human affairs (though sometimes momentous, exotic, or exaggerated). In contrast, speculative fiction considers remoter hypotheticals. Although much speculative fiction considers hypotheticals of future technology (and thus is science fiction), speculative fiction also includes fantasy, horror, alternative history, and utopia/dystopia. (The abbreviation "SF" can be read either as meaning science fiction specifically or speculative fiction more broadly.)

Speculative fiction is often of philosophical interest: SF writers think through some of the same hypotheticals that philosophers do -- for example about personal identity, artificial intelligence, and possible future societies. Good SF writers think through these hypotheticals with considerable insight. I would like to see more interaction between philosophers and SF writers.

Since 2014, I have been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of "personal favorite" works of philosophically-interesting science fiction or speculative fiction. Each contributor has given me a list of 10 works, each with brief "pitch" pointing toward the work's philosophical interest. So far, I have 48 sets of recommendations -- almost five hundred recommendations total!

Since the master list is huge, I have organized it in two ways: by contributor and by author recommended. The by-contributor list consists of each list of ten works, in alphabetical order by contributor. The by-author list lists the authors (or movie directors) in order of how frequently their work was recommended. For example, the single most recommended author was Ursula K. Le Guin. The list begins with her, gathering together the Le Guin recommendations from all of the contributors. Next come Ted Chiang and Philip K. Dick, so that you can see what work of theirs has been recommended and why; then Greg Egan, then... well, I don't want to spoil your surprise!

* Stable URL for both Master Lists and other "Philosophical SF" project links.

* Master List by Contributor as of Aug 15, 2016.

* Master List by Recommended Author as of Aug 15, 2016.

Below are the three most recent sets of recommendations.


New Contributions:

List from Lucy Allais (Professor of Philosophy, University of Witwatersrand and University of California at San Diego):

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Surely the reasons for this are well known enough; amazing exploration of political and social possibilities.

Alastair Reynolds, trilogy starting with Blue Remembered Earth (novels, 2012-2015). Fun trilogy in which Africa leads the space race, with different forms of consciousness and intelligence including elephants and machines.

Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity (novels, 1972 and 1955). By far his most interesting and imaginative work I think. Though my favourite is The Gods Themselves, for philosophical interest The End of Eternity is great as it’s about time travel.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). I also found Brin’s uplift trilogy a lot of fun but this one is more philosophical in ideas about personal identity.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Bangkok in dystopian post climate apocalypse future, interesting ideas about modifying humans.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake trilogy (novels, 2003-2013). Also post climate collapse, many ideas about current social and technological trends taken to extremes.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (novel, 1968; short story 1966). So many Philip K. Dick works to choose from!

Vernor Vinge, trilogy starting with A Fire Upon the Deep (novels, 1992-2011). Amazingly fun different forms of consciousness, including collective consciousness.

Octavia Butler, Earthseed/Parable series (novels 1993-1998). Interesting ideas about post climate collapse, societal collapse and about religion.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary trilogy (novels, 2013-2015). Awesome story and cool ideas about AI and collective consciousness.


List from Melanie Rosen (Lecturer in Philosophy, Macquarie University):

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). **spoiler warning** Although the lives of the protagonists are at the forefront, the story raises ethical issues regarding cloning for organ donation and the status of clones. What is a person?

Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). Questions the meaning of life- or lack thereof and free will. A character who is swept up by fate suffers, loves, finds happiness, dies. Social critique and the pointlessness of war.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). Discusses many philosophical topics including parallel worlds, discussion of metaphysics. Describes a world in which modern philosophy is highly valued.

Phillip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (short story, 1966). Philosophy of memory, what does it mean for something to be my experience?

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). Ethical issues of a world where fertility is declining, feminist critique of the value of women in society.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife (novel, 2003). Time travel! Can you change the past? When our timelines are determined, what differences do our choices make?

Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Questions the meaning of life, ethics, utilitarianism, and the treatment of indigenous populations. Discusses issues of fate and being able to see the future, suggests at the perils of AI.

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). Description of life in a 2 dimensional world, social critique of the arbitrariness of social standing and the class system, references Plato’s cave allegory.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (novel, 1979). Discussion of the meaning of life (or lack thereof), critique of how indigenous or rural populations are treated, discussion of determinism regarding the end of the universe and time travel.

Grant Naylor, Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (novel, 1989). Last human in existence scenario, discusses the meaning of life, AI, consciousness downloading, time travel, and how to be your own father among other themes. Hilarious.


List from Craig Callender (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego):

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (novel, 2010). Only 93 percent of the laws of physics were installed in this universe. People time travel, but mostly in sad desperate attempts to change the past. Yu, the narrator and character in the book, is a low level technician whose job is to stop them. Cool send-up of time travel books, but very human story.

Philip K. Dick, Counter-clock World (novel, 1967). OMG this one is stupid! It’s the opposite of Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow in terms of depth, meaning, writing, sophistication and coherence – but fun and philosophical and right up my alley. In 1986 time arrow flips: people start calling from their graves to be let out, un-smoking stubs to clean their lungs…and don’t think about eating and excreting.

Fred Hoyle, Black Cloud (novel, 1957). I’m excited to see others suggest this and also that it got a new release in 2015. Great for epistemology and philosophy of mind. One of the best sci fi books I’ve read.

Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995). This collection contains many of my favorite stories ever, including “Hundred Light Year Diary” (bouncing signals off a time-reversed galaxy gets you answers before you sent questions…fate, fatalism, free will, time) “Learning to Be Me” (functionalism, personal identity). I’ve used three of the stories in philosophy courses.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Capitalism, genetic engineering and global warming all run amok…the world portrayed is massively original. For more stress on the American West, water and environmental ethics (or lack thereof), read Bacigaluipi’s The Water Knife.

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest (novel 2008, trans. 2015). This is the second installment after The Three Body Problem. Good for game theory? After learning what the title refers to (a theory), you’ll never be in favor of the SETI program.

Battlestar Galactica 2 (television series, 2005-present). My favorite scifi TV series. Hard to think of topics in philosophy not thoughtfully done here. Just fantastic.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (novel 1961, trans. 1970). Seems wrong not to mention this classic. Great for epistemology and philosophy of science.

Hugh Howey, Wool (short story series, 2011-2013). Not great writing, but fun, fast and original. Plato in the Cave themes, trolley problem dilemmas.

M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (novel, 2014). The book jacket says, “Kazuo Ishiguro meets The Walking Dead.” That seems right. Good moral tensions.


Further contributions welcome!

To qualify as a contributor, you must either be a professional philosopher (PhD or full-time permanent research/teaching post in philosophy) or a professional SF writer (generating a livable income or comparable degree of critical acclaim) who has done graduate work in philosophy.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

My 1000th Post. Whoa!

This is my 1000th post at The Splintered Mind.

Ten years. 500,000 words. Four million pageviews. Gadzooks!

I think a toast is in order:

What keeps me going? Three things, I suspect:

I love the discipline of it. At least once a week, I must take some weird thought, or some philosophical or psychological or science fictional idea, and give it shape. It has to be novel enough that specialists won't find it boring. It has to be clearly enough articulated that educated non-philosophers can make sense of it and see why it might be interesting. Every week, I need to find something new that meets these criteria. What an exercise for the mind!

I love the directness and lack of filter. I can write whatever I want here! It doesn't have to go through editors. It doesn't have to please referees. I don't have to wait two years to see it in print. It's not behind a paywall or buried in section three of a twenty-page journal article, beribboned with caveats. I can put it here, and you can see it, and I can link to it, and you can link to it, and we can argue about it in the comments section, and there need be no one between us.

I want to engage with a broad audience. Since the topics that interest me also sometimes interest people outside of my corner of the academy, I want to be able to reach those people, have discussions with them, possibly influence them and be influenced by them. Although insular debates among specialists have an important role in philosophy, and sometimes even have an awesomely nerdy beauty, I think philosophy fails if it doesn't also regularly reach out beyond the academy -- and in a way that involves genuinely working out one's ideas in public (as opposed to presenting simplified digests for a public from whom one does not expect to learn anything).

The result has been a hundred posts a year for ten years.

All this blogging has, I believe, changed me as a philosopher. It has solidified my commitment to an ideal of philosophical writing that is as clear and accessible as possible without oversimplifying, my commitment to always seeking what is humanly interesting in philosophical questions, and my commitment to thinking of philosophy as an activity in which everyone engages and to which everyone brings some valuable wisdom rather than as a specialists' exercise to be conducted behind a wall of jargon.

Even if you have never linked or commented, the very notion of your presence has influenced my work, pressuring me always to write more vividly, interestingly, and defensibly. I imagine you reading this post and I am inspired to think through and write each idea as well as I can.

Thank you.

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Monday, August 08, 2016

Forty New Philosophical SF Recommendations

Since 2014, I've been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF -- where "SF" is meant to include not only science fiction but also "speculative fiction" more broadly construed. Each philosopher recommends ten works, along with a brief "pitch" pointing toward the philosophical interest of those works.

The results as of last summer are here (41 philosophers' recommendations). Last week, I nudged some of my friends and got another seven sets of recommendations. Below are the first four. Next week, I'll post the next three (and any others that arrive in the meantime) and I'll update the overall list.

I welcome further contributions to the list (as well as revisions by earlier contributors). To qualify as a contributor, you must meet one of two criteria: (1) You are a "professional philosopher" in the sense that you either have a PhD in philosophy or have a full-time permanent teaching or research post in philosophy; or (2) you are a professional SF writer who has done substantial graduate work in philosophy even if you haven't completed a PhD (where a "professional SF writer" is someone who either generates a livable income from writing SF or who has a level of critical recognition similar to those who generate livable incomes).


List from Paul Prescott (Part-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University, and Lecturer in Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University):

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). The original mind-bender.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). The original bioethical cautionary tale.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). A critique of contemporary social-political philosophy that still rings true today.

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961). What would it mean to meet a truly alien intelligence?

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Another critique of contemporary social-political philosophy … sure to be relevant for some time to come.

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (novel, 1946). A powerful Christian Platonist vision.

Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959). A challenging vision of one all-too-possible future.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). A contemporary bioethical cautionary tale.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). A challenging vision of another all-too-possible future.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). A brilliant, albeit dark, meditation on the nature of the good.


List from Helen Daly (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College):

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (novel, 2010). Could an AI have moral rights, even if it’s just software? It is hard to imagine drumming up sympathy for the characters in your computer games, but this novel succeeds in pushing us to consider even bodyless software blips as objects of moral concern.

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, but with more philosophical depth than the book. It sparks at least these two great philosophical questions: Could androids be people? and What would you ask or say to your creator, if you were really angry about the human condition?

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (short story, 1995). Some questions raised by this short story are: How would it feel to be a farm animal? What exactly is sexual consent? Is the survival of our species worth any price?

Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Story of Your Life” (short stories, 1998-2001). Each of these is a fully envisioned reality that offers a new way of seeing our own. They are each mind-blowing in a distinctive, inventive way. Ted Chiang is a genius.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (novel, 1953). What would it mean for people living now if we knew the human race were about to “evolve” out of existence?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). The narrative perspective of the novel is one of its chief strengths. We discover the plot along with the narrator, so we spend much of the book wondering what’s going on. A key question raised: Do human clones deserve the same rights as other humans? The novel strongly suggests that they do.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). Like Never Let Me Go, this is a horrifying look at how we might treat someone (again, a clone) whose humanity we question. The pace is extremely slow, so it might not be appropriate for undergraduates.

Greg Egan, “Learning to Be Me” (short story, 1990). This may be the best short, fictional introduction to questions of personal identity and consciousness. There are many great ones, but this is chilling and delightful.

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). If genetic diseases were all readily discoverable, would genetic discrimination be permissible? The movie is heavy-handed in its opposition to genetic discrimination, but it never gives great reasons for that. A devil’s advocate could easily disagree.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this raises skeptical concerns about memories. It is also a fun Schwarzenegger action movie.


List from John Holbo (Associate Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, 1990-2002). Many others have recommended Chiang and this is absolutely, utterly justified. His stories are far more sophisticated than those of most other sf authors. He is a ‘new’ author, relatively. But he is up there with the best of the classic authors, deservedly. I teach eight Chiang stories every semester and, at most, two by any other author.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur B. Evans et al., eds. (anthology, 2010). When I was first planning to teach SF and Philosophy I fretted long and fruitlessly about which anthology to make into the spine of my syllabus. There are an awful lot of choices—new and old, cheap and expensive. Many of them are very good. Still, I had a perfectionist temptation to make my own from scratch. But it’s better to give the kids some one published collection they can have and hold. I decided the Wesleyan was best of the lot. My personal dissents from the editors’ selections could be turned from bugs into teaching features as we went along. (You’re never going to be perfectly happy with someone else’s anthology about a subject close to your heart, when it comes to teaching that subject. It’s like using someone else’s toothbrush. Well, deal with it.) Some of my choices below are how-to-fix the Wesleyan tips (by my lights). One fix too big for any top-10 list: the Wesleyan is Anglophone—i.e. mostly Americans and Brits. That is a defensible editorial focus, and is tolerably clear from the Table of Contents, if not the cover. You can’t be everything to everyone, plus everywhere at once. (If you want something more international, the very new The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by the Vandermeers, looks a solid option.)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). So standard you might fail to try it. Try it! I’m a historicist, so I bounce off Brian Aldiss’ well-known Frankenstein-is-first critical line. A nice teaching trick: ask the kids to tell the story of Frankenstein before they read the novel for the first time. So what’s the philosophical difference between what we know is going to be there, and what actually turns out to be there? Also, this is maybe the single most often adapted work of sf, in a broad sense. (So many artificial beings constructed, so unwisely, since Shelley’s day.)

Greg Bear, The Wind From A Burning Woman (short stories, 1978-1983). Bear is first and foremost a novelist, and many of his novels are philosophically fantastic and would be eminently teachable. But in the classroom there is a limit on the number of novels you can assign. Short stories are the way to go. I pick Wind, rather than, say, Tangents, because it contains “Petra”, about the day the laws of nature change. Very grue. But medieval, if that’s your cup of after time-t and/or you want to get Goodman and the Good God of Augustine out of the way at the same time. I list Bear to compensate for his unjust omission from the Wesleyan. I think their picks from the 1980’s are non-representative. (I have not actually assigned Bear in my own class but am planning to do “Petra” this coming semester.) Bear deserves to be higher on the list of recommended authors than he currently stands.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). Another hard-sf ‘Killer B’ (like Bear—see also: Benford) from the 80’s who didn’t make the Wesleyan cut. Brin is not so strong in the short story department (so his exclusion from a short story collection is pardonable.) Kiln People is a novel from 2002, but I rate it philosophically higher than his better-known Uplift books. Kiln came in second for, like, every prize. It coulda’ been a contender for classic novel status! If you are teaching personal identity stuff and you want Derek Parfit’s Reason and Persons, but a murder mystery, this is for you. Brin is on my list twice, not because he’s so great as all that, just because if I assign essays or criticism from fiction writers, I like to sample their actual fiction as well. And I assign Brin’s criticism. See the next entry. This semester I’m planning to recommend (not require) Kiln.

Star Wars On Trial, David Brin et al. (non-fiction anthology, 2006) Resolved: Stars Wars is crap and the cause of the ever-increasing crapification of sf. That’s pretty much it. Then the various authors line up and go at it, hammer and tongs, pro and con. This book is fun, available in a cheap Kindle edition (as of this writing) and extremely helpful for teaching-by-example a particular style of writing: informal, opinionated, argumentative (in all senses) personal essays. This is also a good book for bridging the literary-vs-film gap, if you need something to help you over that hump; and to help address the historically huge phenomenon of Stars Wars—something curiously invisible if you are just using, say, the Wesleyan anthology. At a certain point sf became mostly not on paper. So is that good, bad or indifferent?

Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music (novel, 1994). Lethem takes up the Philip K. Dick mantle in about as stylish and sophisticated a way as anyone ever has. PKD is a giant, of course, and I assume you are teaching some. (What are you? A fool?) So maybe you want to talk about the literary legacy of that line? Gun, With Occasional Music. It’s got an Ubik-y, VALIS-y, Scanner Darkly-y paranoid noir-vibe. In a weird way it would go great with Brin’s Kiln People (see #5). Or his Uplift novels, come to think of it. (That kangaroo!) A murder mystery that is really an exploration of personal identity, only in this case the technical novum is not qualitative duplication of selves but deliberate (often pharmaceutical) self-design. Yet Lethem is stylistically the antipodes of Brin. So hereby you get at that no-nonsense hard-sf thing that goes back to Campbell and Gernsback, vs. the literary New Wave that starts in the 60’s. You can’t teach the history of sf without touching on that, I say.

James Tiptree, Jr., anything from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (besides “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”) (short stories, 1969-1980). Alice Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr. is the best female sf author who isn’t named Ursula. Or maybe she’s just the best. But the Wesleyan editors, in their wisdom, include what I regard as one of her most ‘meh’ stories. No accounting for taste, but I would recommend her other stories, and every sf and philosophy class should include one from Tiptree. (Also, I suppose Her Smoke Rose Up Forever goes well, in a titular sense, with Bear’s The Wind From A Burning Woman. Not that I recommend being pyromaniacal about it. But maybe you have a St. Joan thing?)

Fritz Lang, Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells, Things To Come (movies, 1927 and 1936). They go together. If you are teaching SF film you have to teach Lang’s Metropolis. It’s the first special effects blockbuster, which failed (it lost money). It’s the first glossy triumph of sexy style over philosophical substance (that is trying to be philosophical, despite succumbing to its own sexy siren song of style.) It’s the first blockbuster dystopia. It’s dumb (which might trick you into thinking you can skip it, but you would be an idiot to do that, at least if you seek any kind of history angle on the subject.) Less well-known: you have to Teach Menzies’ (H.G. Wells scripted) Things To Come, which was a deliberate, blockbuster response to Lang’s failed blockbuster—which also failed and lost money. Things is highly utopian and rationalistic in spirit, which plays very weird onscreen. It’s a study in how not to make Star Wars (for example). The students will dislike it. Then you ask them: list everything this film does wrong, by contemporary Hollywood standards. Might it be that Wells was trying to write a philosophy of technology? (Alas, an sf screenplay cannot be a philosophy of technology.) This is an excellent via negativa exercise.

The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute et al., eds. (non-fiction encyclopedia, 1979-present). Weirdly, students often seem not to find this when they are looking for stuff. You really ought to point them to it. It’s not itself fiction, nor (primarily) philosophical, but it’s scholarly enough. And it’s huge. Why don’t more people know of it? Why isn’t it higher in the Google ranks? I don’t know. I really don’t.


List from Ethan Mills (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga):

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). In the far future humans use technology to become gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, until a Buddhist challenger arrives. Not entirely accurate, nor easy to understand, but always fun.

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune (novel, 1981). The most philosophical of a philosophical series. Aside from Herbert’s usual ruminations on politics, ecology, and what it means to be human when some are more human than human, it asks: What would you do with the whole human race?

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (novels, 1993 and 1998). During a chillingly realistic slide into dystopia paired with meditations on race, gender, empathy, and nationalism, a quasi-religion, Earthseed, is founded by the main character and later questioned by her daughter. Should we make space travel a long term organizing goal rather than war, economic gain, or political domination?

C. S. Friedman, This Alien Shore (novel, 1999). A bit of Dune, a bit of cyberbunk, and deep science fictional meditations on the value of diversity in which physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.

Amy Thomson, The Color of Distance (novel, 1995). A scientist is marooned on a planet with amphibian aliens. Exploration of issues in feminist ethics and philosophy of science: Should we abide by abstract rules and sanitized observation or should we also rely on lived experience, particular judgments, and direct interaction?

Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem (novel, Chinese original 2008, English translation by Ken Liu 2014). Begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and follows a First Contact story and a video game that features Mozi and Leibniz and introduces a world where the laws of nature aren’t uniform.

Jo Walton, The Just City (novel, 2015). Time traveling goddess Athena tries to set up Plato’s Republic in the pre-Homeric Mediterranean world. Socrates shows up. Hijinks and philosophical ruminations ensue.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (novel, 2015). A beautiful, melancholic work of hard scientific speculation and philosophical inquiries on artificial intelligence, narrative theories of personal identity, and whether it’s ecologically plausible or ethically desirable to colonize other solar systems. The ship is one of my all time favorite characters.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (novel, 2014). Aliens first contact a giant swordfish and then encounter various humans of Lagos, Nigeria. Science fiction doesn’t have to be Eurocentric or even anthropocentric.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, Dark Orbit (novel, 2015). An expedition to a planet where the inhabitants are mostly blind. Interrogates whether the senses, especially in the modality of vision, and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.

ETA: Ethan welcomes further discussion on his blog here.


[image source]

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Mind/Body Problem Revisited

... a new interview of me, on the philosophy and science of consciousness, by Tam Hunt, in yesterday's issue of Noozhawk.

I'm pretty happy with how the interview turned out. Thanks, Tam!

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Are the Social Elite Moral Experts?

Michael Huemer has just published an ambitious and interesting article defending the idea that global moral progress toward "liberal" values is best explained as a result of the gradual discovery of the truth of those values. By "liberal", Huemer means views that recognize the equal dignity and worth of diverse people and oppose gratuitous coercion and violence. (Published version here; free preprint here.)

I'm inclined to accept Huemer's big-picture view (with some hesitations and modifications). But I want to highlight one passage for discussion. It concerns "reformers" -- the people who see past the prevailing norms of their day and push toward moral progress (e.g., early anti-slavery activists, early advocates of women's right to vote).

... reformers tend to be disproportionately influential members of society. They are more likely, for example, to be authors, professors, other intellectuals, or business or political leaders, as opposed to members of less influential professions. This is because the ability to see through errors in prevailing social norms will be strongly correlated with one’s degree of intelligence and reflectiveness, which itself is correlated with belonging to relatively socially influential professions.

In the manuscript preprint, but not in the final published version, the passage continues:

For example, a talented writer who wants to promote greater tolerance for homosexuality will have more influence on society than a steel worker who wants attitudes toward homosexuality to stay the same. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that people who desire social reform tend to have much more influential social positions than the average member of society.

So: Is it true that intellectuals and business leaders are more likely to see beyond the moral errors of their culture and more likely to desire social reform?

This is partly an empirical question. It would be interesting to see some empirical data on this. My hunch, though, is that the situation is more complicated than Huemer suggests.

Here's what strikes me as likely to be right about Huemer's claim in the quoted passages:

The social and intellectual elite will, on average, have traveled and read more widely than others. As a result, (1.) they will, on average, have been exposed to a greater variety of social norms, including some that conflict with the local cultural norms of their childhood, and this is a plausible source of social and moral insight; and (2.) they will, on average, tend to have more cosmopolitan worldviews in general, seeing less of a divide between themselves and the social elite in other societies to which they have been exposed.

The social and intellectual elite might also, on average, have more social opportunity to advance reforms that they care about, especially if pushing for reform can advance their career goals (e.g., giving them opportunities to write attention-grabbing articles).

However, I hesitate to draw the conclusion that members of socially elite professions have more accurate moral views in general or are more likely to desire social reform.

Here are some of my reasons for hesitation:

* The view comes across as a little bit elitist and self-congratulatory, at least on the surface. I say this not as a personal critique of Huemer, but just as a thought about how these statements read at first glance. These are reasons not to accept the view quickly or casually, without careful examination of alternative possibilities.

* Members of socially elite professions tend to be people who are benefiting from the status quo, so it would be surprising if they were disproportionately dissatisfied with the system that has put them in their positions of power.

* Huemer is emphasizing certain sorts of moral norms on which, I agree, there has been a lot of progress in the past couple of centuries, and for which there is at least some superficially plausible reason to think intellectuals might tend to be opinion leaders -- what he calls the "liberal" norms of non-violence and equal rights. But of course there are many other arguably ethical norms on which it's not clear we have made progress, and on which it's harder to build a case that intellectuals and businesspeople exhibit leadership, such as norms of kindness and thoughtfulness to those around us (not being a jerk) and norms of modesty, restraint, and humility. It seems to me at least possible that whatever cosmopolitan liberal insights the social elite may tend to have are approximately counterbalanced by a tendency toward lack of insight on some of these other issues.

* Suppose we grant that intellectuals are more likely to develop radical new moral insights at variance with their culture. One possible explanation is greater moral intelligence. But another possibility might be something like a random walk view: Intellectuals might tend to to reject culturally prevailing norms in all directions, good, bad, and sideways, just because part of being an intellectual means questioning existing norms. We might then disproportionately remember the ones who endorsed views that we now favor and disproportionately forget the ones who advocated breaking cultural norms in ways that we don't favor -- e.g., calling for eugenics, increased colonization, nudist communes, forcible religious conversion, unrealistic utopian social planning, etc. This disproportionate forgetting might lead to the impression in retrospect that intellectuals tend to be insightfully ahead of their time.


HT: Helen De Cruz, "Who Needs Moral Experts, Anyway?"


Related posts:

Steven Pinker: "Wow, How Awesome We Liberal Intellectuals Are!" (Apr 13, 2012)

On Whether the Rich are Jerks (Mar 31, 2012)

[image source]

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2016

In 2014, as a beginning writer of science fiction or speculative fiction, with no idea what magazines were well regarded in the industry, I decided to compile a ranked list of magazines based on awards and "best of" placements in the previous ten years. Since people seemed to find it useful or interesting, last year I updated. Below is my new list for 2016.

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies or standalones.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "Year's Best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing on in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) Lists of this sort do tend to reinforce the prestige hierarchy. I have mixed feelings about that. But since the prestige hierarchy is socially real, I think it's in people's best interest -- especially the best interest of outsiders and newcomers -- if it is common knowledge.

(8.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(9.) I welcome corrections.

Results: [corrected Aug 8]

1. Asimov's (253 points)
2. Fantasy & Science Fiction (190.5)
3. Clarkesworld (104.5)
4. Tor.com (96.5) (started 2008)
5. Subterranean (82.5) (ran 2007-2014)
6. Lightspeed (64.5) (started 2010)
7. Strange Horizons (51)
8. Analog (48)
9. Interzone (45.5)
10. Fantasy Magazine (27.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
11. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (18.5) (started 2008)
12. Postscripts (16) (ceased 2014)
12. Realms of Fantasy (16) (ceased 2011)
14. Apex (14.5)
14. Jim Baen's Universe (14.5) (ceased 2010)
16. Electric Velocipede (7) (ceased 2013)
16. SciFiction (7) (ceased 2005)
18. The New Yorker (6.5)
18. Nightmare (6.5) (started 2012)
20. Black Static (6) (started 2007)
20. Intergalactic Medicine Show (6)
20. Uncanny (6) (started 2014)
23. Helix SF (5.5) (ran 2006-2008)
24. McSweeney's (4.5)
25. Cosmos (4)
25. Flurb (4) (ran 2006-2012)
27. Black Gate (3.5)
27. Conjunctions (3.5)
27. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (3.5)
27. Tin House (3.5)
31. GigaNotoSaurus (3) (started 2010)
32. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
32. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
32. Nature (2.5)
32. Shimmer (2.5)
32. Weird Tales (2.5) (off and on throughout period)
37. Aeon Speculative Fiction (2) (ceased 2008)
37. Futurismic (2) (ceased 2010)
37. Harper's (2)
40. Cemetery Dance (1.5)
40. Daily Science Fiction (1.5) (started 2010)
40. Sirenia Digest (1.5)
40. Terraform (1.5) (started 2014)
40. The Dark (1.5) (started 2013)


(1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, and Harper's are prominent literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos and Nature are popular and specialists' (respectively) science magazines that publish a little bit of science fiction on the side. The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. Tor.com (57)
2. Clarkesworld (54.5)
3. Asimov's (54)
4. Lightspeed (37.5)
5. F&SF (35)
6. Subterranean (24)
7. Analog (21.5)
8. Strange Horizons (13)
9. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (12)
10. Interzone (11.5)
11. Apex (8)
12. Nightmare (6)
12. Uncanny (6)

My sense is that recently Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Lightspeed, and F&SF form approximately one peer group; Analog is its own unique thing (with a decades-long reputation as a great place for old-school hard SF); Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, and Apex form a second peer group; and Nightmare and Uncanny are influential newcomers. (Subterranean is now closed.) The future of Tor.com remains to be seen now that it has closed its slushpile in favor of submissions by invitation only.

(3.) One important thing left out of these numbers is the rise of good podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, and Pseudopod), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasting might be the leading edge of a major change in the industry. It's fun to hear a short story podcast while driving or exercising, and people might increasingly obtain their short fiction that way. (Some text-based magazines, like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, are also now regularly podcasting their stories.)

(5.) Philosophers interested in science fiction might also want to look at Sci Phi Journal, which publishes both science fiction with philosophical discussion notes and philosophical essays about science fiction.

(6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. Ralan.com is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

(7.) The "Sad Puppy" kerfuffle threatens to damage the once-sterling reputation of the Hugos, but the Hugos are a small part of my calculation and the results are pretty much the same either way.

[image source; admittedly, it's not the latest issue!]

Survey on What Is Important in Philosophy

... conducted by Valerie Tiberus.

She writes:

In my capacity as the president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association and as part of the research for my 2017 presidential address, I have created a survey for philosophers: “What Matters to Philosophers”. The point of the survey is to gather the views of philosophers regarding what is valuable in our academic discipline, so that we can address questions about philosophy’s future and its role in the academy on the basis of values we share as a community. They survey is anonymous and the data will be shared.

Survey here.

This is an important topic, and the results might have some impact on APA policy and general perceptions of the field. It takes about 15 minutes to complete. I would encourage readers to complete it, regardless of their degree of formal connection with the field. In fact, I would especially encourage non-philosophers to express their perceptions of the field, since I expect non-philosophers will not be well represented among survey respondents, and it would be valuable for the APA to get a sense of their views about what is important in philosophy. (At the end of the survey there are demographic questions so that the responses of people with different degrees of philosophical training can be distinguished.)