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Book Review: Science Fiction and Philosophy edited by Susan Schneider

# Genre: Non-fiction, Philosophy
# Paperback: 368 pages
# Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
# Publication Date: June 15, 2009
# ISBN-10: 1405149078
# ISBN-13: 978-1405149075
# Editor Homepage: Susan Schneider

Though no philosopher, I found the essays and short story mix of Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence edited by Susan Schneider, thought provoking and mind stretching. The work is designed to be a potential textbook for college level philosophy, but I found that even this poor layperson was able to keep up with the material. II do however, recommend no distractions while reading, your brain is going to hurt, but in a good way.)

Editor Schneider has “borrow[ed] from the world of science fiction thought experiments to fire the philosophical imagination.” The volume is broken into five sections, each dealing with a particular philosophical experiment.

  1. Could I be in a Matrix or Computer Simulation?
  2. Free Will and the Nature of Persons
  3. Mind: Natural, Artificial, Hybrid and “Super”
  4. Ethical and Political Issues
  5. Space and Time

Each section begins with a story, usually written by a philosopher (so we must acknowledge that the majority of these “stories” sacrifice any true story in order to make a philosophical point) though to be fair, Schneider also includes and Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury tale as well. After each story, various and occasionally contrasting viewpoints on the topic are then developed by some leading philosophers, including well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil, and philosopher Nick Bostrom. Schneider, in the first section on the nature of reality also pulls in some selections from Descartes and Plato, showing that indeed, some of these philosophical conundrums are not new.

Most of the essays also include graphical representations, which are a great help in visualizing the concepts. Too, many of the supporting and related works are often movies (Matrix or Blade Runner) which similarly make it easy to get the essence of some of the arguments being presented. And no few of these philosophers are aware that they are writing a book that needs to be accessible, and although they make you think, and you focus is required, their language is accessible and not overfull of jargon.

I do think this collection focused too much on movies, when it is in books and short stories that these concepts are really explored best in fiction. This may be perhaps because movies are more widely accessed by the general public, although it should also be said that no few of them are based on stories, such as Blade Runner or I, Robot. That is not to say that books or stories as related works are absent, as Schneider also recommends books like Flatland and Slaughterhouse Five. Still as someone more interested in fiction on the page than the screen I was a little disappointed.

I was also disappointed that Schneider chose to use stories by philosophers that were obviously didactic in three of the five sections. These were not really stories, and with such a wealth of science fiction, I think Schneider could have found the tales she was looking for with some effort or on the recommendations of experts like Gordon van Gelder, Gardner Dozois, or Ellen Datlow.

The collection is a textbook first and foremost and is meant to provoke thinking and learning in its reader. Fortunately, it is thought-provoking, if a strain on the brain. If you enjoy both science fiction and philosophy, this is a great work for you. Or if you want to see how science fiction can meld with philosophy you may like this as well. As for me, I expect I will return to it on more than one occasion as a resource of ideas for writing. Science Fiction and Philosophy met its goals well and is an accessible work for students and hobbyists alike.