Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review of Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

Since this novel is basically one long thought experiment about personal identity, I figured I'd skip right to the Philosophy Report section of the review.  See my regular review of stuff like the writing and the plot on Goodreads.

Anyone who's read John Locke on personal identity will recognize this one (curiously, Sawyer himself doesn't mention Locke, but there are a few pages on  John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment, so he's doing pretty well for a non-specialist).

What if your mind was copied into another body?  Would that other you still be you?  Would there be two yous, or just one real you and one fake "you"?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ursula LeGuin on "the realists of a larger reality"

Just in case I was starting to forget, Ursula Le Guin reminded me of why she's one of my favorite authors when she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters.  See the video and an article from the Bill Moyers site.

Is Le Guin right?  Can fantasy and science fiction help us to imagine alternatives for a better future?  Can philosophy help, too?  Who are your favorite "realists of a larger reality"?
Ursula Le Guin

Friday, December 26, 2014

Is the study of ancient philosophy like science fiction?


Despite the fact that the American Philosophical Association adopted a "Statement on the Global Character of Philosophy" in 1992, most American philosophers today still use “ancient philosophy” to designate the tradition that began in Greece around 500 BCE and continued with Plato and Aristotle.  In the last few decades, philosophers have come to include Greek philosophers after Aristotle and even a few Romans, but that’s about it.  You won’t find much included in “ancient philosophy” from places with elaborate textual traditions in ancient times like China and India and even less from other places.  I find this curious and wrong on many levels, but that’s a matter for another post.

The question

Since I’m a huge science fiction nerd and a philosopher, why is my academic specialization in figures and movements from the distant past?  The three major figures in my dissertation (Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, and Jayarāśi) all lived well over 1,000 years ago.  Many of my favorite Western philosophers are similarly ancient.  (I am fascinated by external world skepticism, which gets a big boost from science fiction stories like The Matrix and Total Recall, but let’s keep things ancient). Given my interest in science fiction, wouldn’t it make more sense if I specialized in the latest cognitive science-laden philosophy of mind with an emphasis on artificial intelligence or a field like robot ethics or philosophy of technology? 

My answer

Learning about ancient philosophy is like science fiction! 

Review of The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson

Another recent review from Goodreads.

The depth of world-building and character development in this book is amazing. The style of world-building is different than what you get in Herbert's Dune universe or Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Maybe it would have been nice to get more of a sense of the whole planet or what happened on Earth in the last few hundred years, but the world-building here is more tightly-focused on the main characters and their immediate environment. And it works. I feel almost as if I lived this book rather than read it. There's only one major human character, Juna, and the reader comes to know her well. Most impressively, though, are that you also get to know several alien characters, each with her or his own distinct personality. The first half or so of the book switches POV chapters between the human and the aliens so that the same event is often described from both POVs. This device could have worn thin, but in Thomson's skilled hands it works well right up until the human character becomes more a part of the alien way of life, at which time she, appropriately and artistically enough, intertwines the POVs more. All this world-building and character development take time, however; the only major criticism I have is that the book starts to drag a little bit in the middle, but it's still well worth the effort.

Review of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Of the "Big Three" of mid-late 20th century science fiction (Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein), I'm least familiar with Heinlein. I love Clarke most for his deep, cosmic vision and Asimov second for his cleverness. I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and liked it (at least the hippie stuff about peace, love, and grokking). But until now, that was it for me and Heinlein. At some point I heard that Heinlein put his right-wing politics into his books, which, combined with the fact that most of his books didn't sound as interesting, kept me away from him for decades. Lately I've come to suspect that I'm missing a big chunk of the history of science fiction. Since I heard Starship Troopers was controversial and not at all related to the movie, not to mention a big inspiration for contemporary military science fiction, I thought I'd give it a shot.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review of Matter by Iain M. Banks

For my first book review on this blog, I thought I’d start with a book in a series that has become one of my latest obsessions: the Culture series of Iain M. Banks.  This review is an edited and expanded version of my original Goodreads review.

Matter is the eighth Culture book Banks wrote, although the plots of the books aren’t directly related, so they could be read in any order (more on that later).  If you’re not in the know on the Culture (a galactic human-alien-AI post-scarcity anarchic utopia), you might want to check out this Wikipedia entry and an essay by Banks, "A Few Notes on the Culture."

And now to the actual review…

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book reviews coming soon!

Aside from blog posts on topics in philosophy, science fiction, and occasionally other stuff, I plan to use this blog to post book reviews.  I've become a big user of Goodreads the last few years.  I still plan to use Goodreads, but I thought it would be nice to have a place to post longer, more focused reviews that might generate interesting discussions.  I plan to have a few reviews posted soon.  My reviews of science fiction books will generally include a "Philosophy Report" (like Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report," but with less precognition) that explains some of the philosophical concepts explored in the book.  I suppose I may also include a "Science Fiction Report" in my reviews of philosophy books.

In the meantime, see my Goodreads profile, which will direct you to my Goodreads reviews.  If you're on Goodreads, too, let's be friends!

Philosophy as Science Fiction; Science Fiction as Philosophy

Welcome to Examined Worlds: Philosophy and Science Fiction!  This blog will consist mainly of my ruminations and explorations concerning two of my favorite things: philosophy and science fiction.

A little about me