Friday, 24 July 2015
In the European tradition, Thales, the first pre-Socratic philosopher, initiated natural philosophy, now called "science," by theorizing that "all is water." Socrates differentiated conceptual philosophy, now called "philosophy," by analyzing concepts like goodness and justice instead of theorizing about material substances.
Mary Shelley initiated science fiction by writing a novel about a natural philosopher who creates life. Thus, science fiction is already and essentially about philosophy in its original sense. Frankenstein is a successor of Thales.
In the futuristic sf of Alan Moore's Halo Jones, philosophy and horror fiction have been synthesized (not a serious suggestion!), thus generating titles like Frankenstein Meets Wittgenstein. That imaginary title is not as far-fetched as it might seem because, although Frankenstein and his Monster have become cinematic horror fiction characters, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley is a reflection, full of Biblical, Miltonic and mythological references, on the consequences of natural philosophy. I suspect that Alan Moore was conscious of this when he wrote a throwaway line in Halo Jones.
Isaac Asimov addressed "the Frankenstein Complex." Poul Anderson's Genesis re-asked: Would it be right to (re-)create human life? Anderson's Starfarers summarizes modern scientific cosmogony, thus addressing the philosophical question of the nature of reality. Recent blog discussion of Anderson's Technic History and of SM Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers addressed the philosophical question of the nature of morality.
Thus, science fiction at its best is speculative or philosophical fiction. We might say "Socratic fiction," to preserve the initials. CS Lewis, who addressed theology and morality through science fiction, belonged to a Socratic Club, more properly a Christian Socratic Club, Christians debating with sceptics. The Club was "to follow the argument wherever it led them." However, natural philosophers have moved from mere argument to the scientific method. For the rest of us, important issues are decided by our total experience of life, including our ability to reason about it, but not by the abstract arguments of comfortable academics!
Anderson's characters learn about life by acting in the world. I am forever locating Anderson in appropriate traditions but this is the first time that I have traced science fiction back via science to Thales.