Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

It’s been a good year for fans of science fiction on the large and small screens, aside from the death of Leonard Nimoy, of course.  It was a good year for movies in particular from the return of beloved franchises like Star Wars and Mad Max to new hits like The Martian and Ex Machina.
Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

I've made lists of my favorites, my least favorites, and my "okays" in movies released in 2015.  They're in three separate lists: best good movies, worst bad movies, and most mediocre mediocre movies -- all in my opinion, of course!

I spent a lot of time at the movies this year, but I didn't see everything, so please feel free to give your recommendations in the comments for anything I missed (or to offer your rebuttal to my rankings).  I've limited myself to movies that I reviewed on the blog, so while Kung Fury was an insanely hilarious homage to the 1980's, Jurassic World was a lot of fun, Pixels was one of the worst movies ever made, I'm not including them.  I'm not discussing Avengers: Age of Ultron (which was fun) or other comic book movies (seriously, Ant Man?  Another Fantastic Four?).   I don't really like superheroes, and even if I did, the whole comic book movie genre has been completely over-saturated in recent years and is well covered elsewhere by almost every other nerd on the internet.

And now to the movies!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rebooting Humanity: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's Seveneves is really two or three books.  The first part begins with a great opening sentence: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason" (p. 3).  The rest of part one details the dystopian realization that this event will cause worldwide devastation in a few years and the actions taken by the human race to get a portion of itself into space.  Part two covers the first few years of the survivors' activities in space, which leads, after 500 pages, to the first really philosophically interesting moment of the book (more on that later).  Part three begins with another nice line: "FIVE THOUSAND YEARS LATER" (p. 569).  I have to imagine Stephenson chuckled to himself as he wrote that.  This part deals with the descendants of (some of) the humans in part two and their return to Earth.

The radical break between parts one and two on the one hand and part three on the other hand seems to have annoyed some reviewers.  They really do feel like different books.  Part three reads like a distant sequel that happens to be set in the same universe rather than a third part of a single book. Unlike most reviewers, I liked the last part of the book a great deal more than the first two parts, because it gets more into wild Big Ideas SF, whereas the first two parts are much more bogged down in the technical details of Engineers' SF (more on that distinction here).  Perhaps if Stephenson weren't already a famous writer, the publisher would have insisted he publish this as a duology or trilogy instead of a mammoth single volume (and it is mammoth where, to play on the ice age metaphor, a mere giant sloth would do).

This is only the second Stephenson book I've read, the other being Snow Crash.  I don't really understand Stephenson's extreme popularity within and without the genre, but perhaps I lack a large enough sample size to make that assessment.  Seveneves is a very different book than Snow Crash, but I still get the sense that Stephenson is the kind of nerd who secretly thinks he's cool.  He's a nerd for the Silicon Valley crowd.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Interstellar Epistemology: Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit is one of my favorite books of the year.  It's also one of the most epistemological novels I've ever read.   (Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with knowledge - What is it?  How do you get it?  Do we have any of it?)  Knowledge is the central issue of Dark Orbit, specifically whether the senses and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.  It's no surprise that Plato is mentioned at least twice (p. 39, 141).

Our story begins far in the future.  We're never told exactly how far, but it has to be at least a few thousand years.  We first meet Sara (short for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning).  Sara is a Waster, or a person who regularly makes interstellar trips via light beam (sort of like a long range version of Star Trek's transporter).  This means that while she's disembodied information traveling at the speed of light, her planet-bound friends, colleagues, family, etc.  are aging at a normal rate (this also brings up plenty of issues of personal identity from page one).

Sara gets a job on a mission to a newly discovered habitable planet, Iris, where she's supposed to keep an eye on one of the crew, Thora.  Once they get there, there's a murder and a disappearance.  Without giving any major spoilers from here on, I'll just say that one of the brilliant things about this book is the mirrored structure between a native Irisian learning from the crew and a member of the crew learning from the natives.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

One Year, 100 Posts

I made my first post on this blog, "Philosophy as Science Fiction; Science Fiction as Philosophy," exactly one year ago today.  A few weeks ago I noticed that I was getting close to my 100th post, so I thought I might engineer an auspicious convergence of my one year blog-iversary and my 100th post!

I also thought this might be a good chance to do some meta-blogging and to reflect on my experience of the past year.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Five Reactions to Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Non-Spoilery Non-Review

I’ve now seen StarWars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens twice, so I’m finally ready to say something about it.  Since there are plenty of good reviews already (see a bunch on Rotten Tomatoes), since reviews always carry the risk of spoilers, and since people are taking Star Wars spoilers extra seriously, I thought I’d try something else. 

Rather than a review that explains specific elements of the film and my opinion about them, I’m giving my general reactions.  Five of them to be precise.

1. This feels like a Star Wars movie.

From the look of the film to the John Williams score, from the lack of everything that made Episode I so terrible to the presence of most of what made the original trilogy so great, this is a real Star Wars movie.

2. It’s fun to see old favorites.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Getting Ready for Star Wars!

It's the most wonderful time of the year!  Like many fans, I have a ticket to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens tonight!  To prepare for this blessed holiday, I have been watching the original trilogy.

In watching The Empire Strikes Back, I was reminded of this post from several months back: "The Dress: Episode V - Han Solo's Jacket."  It turns out that science fiction fans have their own version of that dress that destroyed the internet in February of 2015.  In the Hoth scenes, there is some dispute about whether Han's jacket is brown or navy blue.  On my TV last night it looked brown to me, but now in this picture it looks navy blue.  Go figure.

But as I argued about the dress, this brings up interesting issues about philosophical skepticism.  Why do people get so dogmatically attached to their beliefs, especially when those beliefs often seem so precarious?  Why do people get so worked up about whether Han shot first or whether Jar Jar is a Sith Lord?

Whatever the answers to these philosophical quandaries might be, I am extremely excited to see what dogmatic beliefs people will get worked up about after watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Dystopia, Death, and Relationships: Todd by Adam J. Nicolai

Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been all the rage lately  (The Hunger Games, Mad Mad: Fury Road, etc.), but readers familiar with Adam J. Nicolai's other books will know to expect something beyond normal in any genre he works with whether it's ghost stories, demonic possession, or high fantasy.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that the author is a good friend of mine.  Let that influence how you take this review if you must, but I can say that I genuinely loved this book).

The mystery of Todd begins when almost all humans and animals abruptly disappear, all that is, except for Alan and his son Todd.  Things are creepy right away, and the creepiness increases exponentially as the novel goes on.

Alan’s inner monologue is great.  I feel like I really know him after reading this.  Too often characters in these types of stories turn into steely-eyed Rambo survivalists over night.  It’s nice to see someone with plenty of self-doubt, regret, and real fear.  It’s far more realistic, but then readers familiar with Nicolai's thorough characterization will not be surprised.  Fans of Stephen King will note King's pervasive influence on that count and many others.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Visionary Fiction: Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (Edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha)

"Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice.  ... Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless." 
- Introduction, Octavia's Brood (p. 4)

I love Octavia Butler, and I share the notion that science fiction can be helpful in thinking about social justice, so I was keen to read Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.  The editors, adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, have coined the term "visionary fiction" to describe the focus of the anthology.

I became slightly worried, however, when the Introduction went on to say that some of the contributors have never written fiction before, much less science fiction.  This definitely shows for many of the stories.  It's not so much that they're bad, but many aren't all that original or interesting as science fiction (or fantasy or horror).  For instance, Bao Phi's "Revolution Shuffle" is okay, but feels more like Walking Dead fan fiction than anything innovative in the genre.  With a few exceptions, like brown's "The River," I admit I was disappointed with most of the first third of the book.  If the first 100 pages were indicative of the whole, this anthology would be just okay.

Luckily, things took a turn for the better starting with Gabriel Teodros's "Lalibela," a fun alternative history/time travel story in which Ethiopia developed advanced technology in the 1100's.  Other highlights include Anderson's "Sanford and Sun" (a trippy take on an old TV show), Betts's "Runway Blackout" (genetically engineered supermodels take on racialized standards of beauty), and Vagabond's "Kafka's Last Laugh" (government enforced love of capitalism turns well, Kafkaesque).

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review of The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix is a 2015 prequel to Okorafor's 2010 book, Who Fears Death.  The Book of Phoenix would be perfectly accessible without having read Who Fears Death, but having read Who Fears Death does add some interesting dimensions to the prequel.

With some framing that connects this to the world of Who Fears Death, the plot of The Book of Phoenix focuses on young Phoenix who lives confined to the ominiously-yet-generically-titled Tower 7 in a future New York City that's partly underwater.  Phoenix is the result of genetic engineering on the part of Big Eye, a shadowy agency that seems to delight in ethically reprehensible treatment of their creations.

Phoenix's powers unfold as the story moves along.  Her powers initially include advanced maturation (she is two years old but looks 40) and the ability to generate tremendous heat from her skin.  The fact that her name is "Phoenix" may give some hints about her other powers (although it could also mean that she has a connection to the capital of Arizona).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Like Avatar, but Not Stupid: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

Kinda like Avatar, but not stupid.  
- My bumper sticker slogan for The Word for World is Forest

Okay, Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest is actually not that much like Avatar, but there are similarities.  Some militaristic Terrans come to steal resources from a forest planet inhabited by small, furry humanoids called Athsheans.  The Athsheans end up fighting the technologically superior but numerically inferior Terrans.  There's a Terran anthropologist who comes to almost understand the Athsheans (but he doesn't quite go full Avatar).

One of the villages of the furry guerrillas fighting an imperial power is called Endtor.  Maybe George Lucas owes Le Guin some royalties, not just James Cameron.

But as an American book published in 1972, the real background seems to be the war in Vietnam.  At one point one of the characters even alludes to the war for the sake of its historical lesson.  Le Guin has said in an interview that she doesn't create villains, but some of the Terrans here are unequivocally nasty.  One guy is even a white supremacist among Terrans in addition to hating the furry green Athsheans.  Does all of this represent the feeling of many Americans about the war in Vietnam, but cast onto a distant planet far into the future?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mars Trilogy Coming to TV: KSR by JMS

According to Variety, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is coming to TV.  The Spike channel has ordered a 10-episode season with J. Michael Straczynski at the helm.  Stracynzski is the co-creator of Sense8 and the creator of Babylon 5.  If anyone can make a Mars Trilogy TV series that isn't completely watered down and lame, Straczynski can.

I'm a huge fan of Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) and his Mars Trilogy (see my reviews of Green Mars and Blue Mars).  As for J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), I loved Sense8 and I've been slowly working my way through Babylon 5 (somehow I never got around to watching it in the 90's).  KSR and JMS may be a winning combination.

I don't do a lot of newsy type posts, but this has me excited, or at least cautiously optimistic.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Being Martian: Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

"Mars is free now.  We're on our own.  No one tells us what to do."
- Opening lines of Blue Mars

Blue Mars confirms it: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy has ascended to my personal pantheon of science fiction series.  It's up there with Frank Herbert's Dune series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Octavia Butler's Earthseed DuologyUrsula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, and the Culture series of Iain M. Banks.  Like these other masterpieces, the Mars Trilogy is not just something you read, it's something you live, something that stays with you and changes you long after your eyes pass over the final sentences.

As I noted in my review of Green Mars, the genius of the trilogy is that Kim Stanley Robinson combines hard SF, literary writing, and philosophical rumination to produce something beautiful -- maybe even something as sublime as Mars itself!

Red Mars is about settling on Mars, while Green Mars is about becoming Martian (hence, the title of my review: "Becoming Martian").  Blue Mars is about being Martian.  Once humans have completed most of the terraforming of Mars, and once Mars has had time to areoform humanity, what next?

What to do once some of us have become Martian?  That's the question of Blue Mars.

This question has multiple dimensions: political, biological, ecological, cosmological, artistic, mathematical, sociological, philosophical.  The depth with which Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) plumbs these dimensions is astounding.  I can't possibly do justice to this depth in one review.

Nor can I do justice to the literary beauty of KSR's prose.  Here are some of my favorite examples:

Thursday, December 3, 2015

A Random Thought

(Warning: Some strong language was required to describe an intense thought.  If you're sensitive about these things, get your internal bleeping ready.)

Have you ever been walking home enjoying the sunset behind Lookout Mountain when your mind boils over with the thought of how fucking amazing, how heart vaporizingly beautiful, the universe is, how lucky you are that for a cosmic nanosecond you have become a speck of the universe striving to understand itself ...

... and what a colossal shame it is that we spend so much of these minuscule, effervescent lives being complete assholes to each other?

Me, neither.

(Just kidding.  I had exactly this thought.)

Lookout Mountain at Dusk, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA (

Friday, November 27, 2015

I'm Thankful for My Regrets

Examining Regrets

When I teach the part of Plato’s Apology where Socrates says that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (38a), I ask students to engage in their own Socratic examination to explain whether they think this statement is true.  I ask them to try to think of counter-examples of unexamined lives that are worth living or examined lives that aren’t.

Often students will say that you should examine your life because it would allow you to live without regrets.  They sometimes say this as if living without regrets is the real goal, and living an examined life is merely a means of doing so. 

My students are representative of the larger culture, one that embraces the philosophy of YOLO and no regrets.  Everyone wants to avoid regrets.  Regrets gnaw at the soul.  You play a game of  “I should have…” and “Why didn’t I?”  The past becomes a battleground of desires.  Regret can incapacitate people as they face the future. 

At least this seems to be the popular conception.  
The assumption is always that regrets are all bad and should be avoided.

But are regrets always bad?  I don’t think so.

Being Thankful for Regrets

Yesterday we celebrated our Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States.  One popular tradition is to enumerate what you’re thankful for.  I’m thankful for lots of things.  Of course, I’m thankful for my family and friends and my cats.  I’m thankful that I have a fulfilling career and no major health issues.  I’m thankful that I have neither the greed nor the need to go “Black Friday” shopping today.  I’m thankful that the new Star Wars movie is coming out soon!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Believe - Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

It's Thanksgiving here in the United States, so I'm watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  I keep seeing the giant sign that says, "Believe," which reminds me of this post from a few months back:

Examined Worlds: Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?: Part One

This sign makes me wonder... Believe what, exactly?  Why does Macy's want us to believe?  Is it always good to believe, just because it feels good?  Do beliefs make us happy?

Whatever the answers to these quandaries may be, Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Overcoming My Aversion to Sequels, Part Two: The Sequeling (Reviews of Mockingjay, Part Two, The Outskirter's Secret, Darwin's Children, The Naked God)

In Part One, I discussed my trouble with sequels.  Even if I love the first one, I often have trouble getting to the sequels.

Here in Part Two, I'm going to offer some reviews of some sequels that represent my exploration of what sequels might do for me.  Have I been missing out?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part Two

Everybody's favorite (or second favorite after Battle Royale) child murder games are back! This is technically a sequel of a sequel, so it seems like a good place to start.

First off, I have to admit that I haven't read the books.  I would never criticize other adults who enjoy YA fiction, but YA books always bring me back to the uncomfortable space of teenagerness - a space I'd personally rather not inhabit.  Nonetheless, I have enjoyed The Hunger Games movies, and it's always nice to see science fiction go mainstream, especially with an interesting female protagonist.

Even if you haven't seen the movies or read the books, you probably have the basic idea: dystopian totalitarian regime makes kids murder each other in a kind of Running Man: Kids' Edition, intrepid heroine survives to challenge the system.  My favorite example of the extent to which The Hunger Games has permeated pop culture is Stephen Colbert's Hungry for Power Games, a series about US Presidential candidates dropping out of the race.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Overcoming My Aversion to Sequels

Hugo winner with sequels I never read
I have trouble with sequels. Even if I love the original, I never get to sequels right away. Often I never do.  In this age of binge watching and sprawling series, I wonder if I've missed something.

Leaving a series dangling...

I read Red Mars, the first book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, in 2003. I got to the second book, Green Mars, last summer, twelve years later (somehow I'm reading the third book, Blue Mars, just five months later). I've read the following books, but none of their sequels: China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, Amy Thomson's The Color of Distance, N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand KingdomsLarry Niven's Ringworld, and David Brin's Sundiver. Even if I do get to one or two more books, I may never finish the series (see Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos, Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space, etc.).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Harmful Fallacies: Rubio and Refugees

False Dichotomy: Rubio on Welders or Philosophers

Last week US Presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed that "we need more welders and less philosophers."

It turns out that Rubio's assertion that welders make more money than philosophers is factually incorrect according to labor statistics.  A nice round up of philosophers' responses can be found on this post on Daily Nous, and Larry Wilmore on The Nightly Show even had a crack at it.

My concern isn't with the inaccuracy of Rubio's claim, but with his reasoning.  Rubio is effectively making the following argument:

1. We have to choose between having more philosophers or having more welders.
2. We should have more welders.
3. Therefore, we should have fewer philosophers.

This is a textbook case of a logical fallacy called False Dichotomy (or False Dilemma).  Rubio has given no reason to think we can't have both more welders and more philosophers.  There's also no reason that some individuals can't be both welders and philosophers at the same time.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


This blog reached another milestone in the last few days: it hit 20,000 views since I began in December 2014.  That's as many views as leagues under the sea for all the Jules Verne fans out there.

It took about nine months to reach 10,000 views (as reported in a previous meta-blogging post), and then it took another three months or so to get to 20,000.

My most visited post so far is "Three Uses of Philosophy," which was linked to on Daily Nous.  I may discuss this subject again in a future post now that US Presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed that we need "more welders and less philosophers."  (Spoiler alert: I think both welders and philosophers are cool, but I'm less sure about Rubio.)

This blog has been a fun hobby for me. I predict it will continue to amuse me as long as my love of philosophy and science fiction endures, and I can't imagine that ending anytime soon.

Whoever you are and wherever you may be, thank you for reading!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Saturday-Sunday

This is the last in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015.  You can find out more about Stoic Week and my sci-fi take on it in my first post in the series.  Also, feel free to check out parts two and three.

Saturday: Resilience and Preparation for Adversity
Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ 
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Thursday-Friday

This is the third post in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015!  Stoic Week is an international event in which you can use a handbook to try to live like a Stoic for a week.  Sci-Fi Stoic Week is my take on it.  Find out more in my first post in the series.

Thursday: Virtue

The ancient Stoics thought that virtue is the highest good.  In fact, virtue is the only real good.  Other things, like wealth, health, fame, and so on, aren't really valuable in themselves.  The only thing that really matters to Stoics is being a good person.
Bill and Ted: Proponents of virtue as excellence

Like most ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Stoics are virtue theorists: what matters in ethics is character, which is different than many modern ethical theories, like utilitarianism and deontology, which tend to focus on the rightness or wrongness of actions.  Virtue ethics has made a come back in the discipline of philosophy in recent decades (see this article on Julia Annas, one contemporary philosopher who has been part of this come back).

The Thursday Lunchtime exercise in the 2015 Stoic Week Handbook introduces the idea of values clarification.  If virtue is so important, you should try to be clear about what counts as virtuous.  You should also try, as far as possible, to make sure that your values match up with the way you live your life.  The Handbook suggests that asking questions like the following is one way to do this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Tuesday-Wednesday

This is the second post in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week.  Stoic Week is an international event that invites you to live like a Stoic for a week by working through mental exercises.  To learn more about Stoic Week as well as my take on it, see my previous post.

Tuesday: What is in Our Control and the Reserve Clause

Tuesday's morning text is one of my favorite parts of the Meditations from Marcus Aurelius, one that has helped me get out of bed on more than one occasion!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Monday

For the last few years I've participated in an international event known as Stoic Week. This year's Stoic Week begins today, Monday, November 2, and runs through the end of the week. The idea is to give people a sense of what it's like to live as a Stoic, which falls in line with the ancient Greek and Roman ideal of philosophy as a way of life, an ideal eloquently explained by French philosopher, Pierre Hadot (1922-2010).

To take part in Stoic Week, you need to start with the following:

1. Fill out an online questionnaire,
2. Register at the Modern Stoicism website, and
3. Download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook.

You can do all three through this blog post on the Modern Stoicism Blog.

One of the ideas mentioned in the Handbook is to blog about your experiences during Stoic Week.  Each day involves a Morning Meditation, Lunch Time Exercise, and Evening Meditation, so there's plenty to write about.  Since this is the first time I've had a blog during Stoic Week, I thought this sounded like a fine idea.  But I was also struck by a seemingly crazy idea: what if I stayed true to the inclusive sense of this blog's subject of "philosophy and science fiction" and tried to form connections between Stoicism and science fiction?  Maybe this idea isn't so crazy, since I've argued in the past that the study of ancient philosophy is a lot like science fiction.  In any case, that's what I'm going to try to do this week.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Horror Round Up: Crimson Peak, The Last Witch Hunter, Hellraiser 7-9

Today is Halloween, which at least for those of us in the United States is, like Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.  I've been gearing up for the last week by watching horror movies, which I have reviewed for your convenience.  Here are some movies that might make your Halloween a little creepier.

Crimson Peak

This newest offering from director Guillermo del Toro is as much a gothic romance as it is a ghost story (a point highlighted by the fact that the main character, Edith, is an author working on a ghost story to which she is told to add some romance).  There's less ghostly creepiness than I was expecting, and a good chunk of the movie doesn't even take place in that lushly designed English manor from the previews (get ready for a lot of Buffalo, New York, circa 1901).

Nonetheless, using the ghosts sparingly works.  We're shown just enough to maintain a timbre of dread.  When the ghosts do show up, they're as beautiful as they are horrifying.  And when we do get to that creepy mansion, the sets become characters in their own right.  See the preview below for some great shots of both the ghosts and the sets.  I definitely recommend seeing this one on the big screen if you can.

Occasionally the plot drags on a bit (especially toward the beginning), but if you trust that it's setting you up for some good old fashioned spookiness, you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Weird Knowledge: Lovecraft as Science Fiction and Philosophy

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” - H. P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

Lovecraft as Science Fiction

Halloween will soon be upon us, so a horrific post is the eldritch thing to do. And few people have shaped modern horror like H. P. Lovecraft, who has influenced big names like Stephen King, Clive Barker, H. R. Giger, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro. He also inspired one of my favorite role-playing games.  I've been reading Lovecraft since my teens and I've long suspected that, while he's obviously a giant of the horror genre, he also wrote a weird kind of science fiction. I was pleased to hear a series of radio stories on Lovecraft this weekend on National Public Radio here in the US; I tuned in while an actor was reading from "The Call of Cthulhu" and immediately recognized Lovecraft's distinctive prose. In the first interview, author Erik Davis argued that Lovecraft's popular Cthulhu Mythos is really a kind of science fiction (see also his essay on Lovecraft).

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Once and Future Past: Science Fiction with Ancient Themes

Everyone knows that science fiction is about the future.  But that's not quite right.  Steampunk is science fiction that takes place in the past, time travel stories can take place any time, and parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey take place millions of years ago and the rest of it takes place in a future that is now the past.
Bill and Ted and Socrates

In my post, "Is the study of ancient philosophy like science fiction?," I explained that science fiction and ancient philosophy are two of my favorite things because they put us in touch with other worlds. Whether you're reading the Culture series of Iain M. Banks or the works of the 2nd century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna, you are temporarily inhabiting another world.

As if to highlight my point, some science fiction stories make use of ancient themes.  From Stargate to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, science fiction is no stranger to the past.  Below are some reviews of books that also work with this theme, which I like to call "the once and future past."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Martian: Book/Movie Review

You could make a distinction in science fiction between Engineers' SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise) and Big Ideas SF (like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stanley Kubrick's film version).  Engineers' SF focuses on how we might solve problems.  Big Ideas SF focuses on why we might solve problems, and are they really problems, anyway?  I've always been partial to Big Ideas SF myself.  I'm a philosopher. Go figure.  I have nothing against engineers.  I love the stuff they make!  But we also need people to come up with the Big Ideas.  It's basic division of labor.

Both the book and the film version of The Martian are definitely Engineers' SF, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.  I read the book (see my Goodreads review) about a week before seeing the movie with the idea that I might compare them here as well as offer some of my reflections.

Book vs. Movie

The movie more-or-less faithfully follows the plot of the book: astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and struggles to survive until he can be rescued.  This article by Mike Reyes gets most of the major differences, but I'd sum it up like this:

  • The film lacks most of the book's swearing, much of its intricate detail, some of the jokes, and a couple of Watney's near-death experiences.
  • Ridley Scott's film gives us hauntingly beautiful Martian landscapes (see below) set to Harry Gregson-Williams's score and makes it easier to keep track of the non-Watney characters by giving them faces in addition to names.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sci-Fi Plato, Continued: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

"Then, if in the limitless past, those who were foremost in philosophy were forced to take charge of a city or if this is happening now in some foreign place far beyond our ken or if it will happen in the future, we are prepared to maintain our argument that, at whatever time the muse of philosophy controls a city, the constitution we've described will also exist at that time, whether it is past, present, or future.  Since it is not impossible for this to happen, we are not speaking of impossibilities.  That it is difficult for it to happen, however, we agree ourselves."  
- Socrates in Plato's Republic (499d) 
(Grube and Reeve translation)

Jo Walton's The Philosopher Kings is a direct sequel to her earlier book, The Just City, which concerns the time-traveling goddess Athena's attempt to set up the city of Plato's Republic in the distant past, all with some help from Socrates and robots!  In my review of that book, I noted that, as a science fiction fan and philosophy professor who regularly teaches Plato, the book was pretty much tailor made for me.  While the same can be said of the sequel, I have to admit I didn't enjoy it quite as much.

The main reason for this: Socrates is gone along with most of his favorite interlocutors: the robot Workers (their dialogues were my favorite part of the first book).  Without Socrates and the robots, the one isn't as much fun.  

The sequel takes place 20 years after The Just City ends.  We meet the daughter of Apollo and Simmea: Arete (her name means "excellence" or "virtue," which provides plenty of fun word play).  Arete's story is interesting, but it does turn into typical YA fare of a young girl discovering that she's "special."

Friday, September 25, 2015

Birthdays and Deathdays: Why Birthdays are Worth Celebrating

Today is my birthday.  In a world with an unseemly amount of suffering and disappointment (and that’s just high school) I think birthdays are worth celebrating.  Another year older.  Another year wiser, or at least closer to being of an age where people will assume you’re wise. A birthday represents another year of life, but also another year closer to death.

At 39 I’m just about middle aged, statistically speaking.  According to the 2011 US Social Security Actuarial Table I’m almost exactly middle aged with a life expectancy of 39.39 more years. 

Academic types often refer to historical figures with dates after their names.  Some of my favorite philosophers and science fiction authors, for instance, would be referred to as such: Socrates (470-399 BCE), Hypatia (c. 350-415 CE), Jayarāśi (c. 770-830 CE), David Hume (1711-1776), Octavia Butler (1947-2006), Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Iain M. Banks (1954-2013), etc.  This convention allows us to place these figures in their historical contexts, but it also allows us to reflect on a fact of human life: it comes to an end.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?: Part Two -- The Self, Dogmatism, and Donald Trump

In Part One I discussed what I called, echoing the band Journey, the believing feeling, the feeling that most of us get when we have certain kinds of beliefs.  But is this feeling good for us?

The Good Kind

I feel good when I believe that my family and friends care about me and when I believe that I care about them.  Luckily there seems to be pretty good evidence in favor of these beliefs.  Even when the immediately available evidence is questionable (for instance, when we annoy each other), we’re probably better off maintaining this belief for the sake of fostering healthy relationships.

Skeptical Therapy from the Cross-Cultural Trio

The problem comes when the believing feeling makes us worse off, intellectually and morally.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?: Part One

“Don’t stop believin’.  Hold on to the feelin’.” – Journey

“Believe.” – Macy’s

Ours is a culture of belief.  As Journey and Macy’s remind us, belief feels good.  And we like what feels good.  But what feels good isn’t always good for us.  I think there’s something odd, maybe even harmful, about the way we valorize belief and the feelings associated with it. 
An epistemological imperative from Macy's
Of course, these statements need qualification.  I’m talking primarily about the United States and primarily about people’s most deeply held beliefs in areas like politics, religion, and philosophy rather than more mundane beliefs like, “2+2=4” or “Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico.”  

The beliefs that Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico or that the Earth revolves around the sun probably don’t make people feel good unless they’re lobbyists who like the Southwestern charm of Santa Fe or people with a fanatical interest in Copernicus and Galileo.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fantasy for Science Fiction Fans

For many years I explained my preference for science fiction over fantasy like this: science fiction is an expansive and diverse genre in terms of ideas, setting, scale, and so forth, while a lot of contemporary fantasy consists of rehashing Tolkien without any of Tolkien's genius.

While I still lean heavily to the science fiction side of fandom, I've changed my assessment of fantasy largely as a result of books such as those listed below.  Other fantasy-averse science fiction fans might find these books interesting as well.  (You should, of course, read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, but since everybody's either reading those books or watching Game of Thrones, I don't need to say more.)

You might be wondering: What’s the distinction between science fiction and fantasy?  See the first post on this blog for my answer, which draws on Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the “literature of cognitive estrangement.”  Of course, like most distinctions, this one can be blurred.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Puppies as Conspiracy Theorists: Why the Sad/Rabid Puppies Lost and Why This is Good for Science Fiction

If you haven’t been following the strange case of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies and the Hugos, see my previous posts here and here.  If you’re not aware of how the Hugo voting turned out, see the official results here and commentary here.

The evidence is overwhelming: the vast majority of Hugo voters rejected the Puppies.  As Arthur Chu observed at this year’s Worldcon, the Puppies don’t represent the majority of fandom.
The Hugo Awards
Some Puppies claim that their defeat is explained by the fact that science fiction and fantasy fandom is controlled by hyper-liberal SJWs (Social Justice Warriors), SMOFs (Secret Masters of Fandom), and CHORFs (Cliquish Holier-than-thou Obnoxious Reactionary Fanatics).  Within this acronym-laden hellscape, a conspiracy was forged that continues to operate at the deepest levels of fandom.  Or so say the Puppies.  

But as George R. R. Martin points out, it’s likely that most Hugo voters of all political stripes simply found the Puppies to be obnoxious.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Three Uses of Philosophy

Thales, the putative first ancient Greek philosopher, is alleged to have accurately predicted an eclipse in 585 BCE. If I'm doing the math right, this was 2,600 years ago this year. (If you’re not impressed, let’s see you do better in 585 BCE!).

My favorite Thales story, though, is about his reaction to people who said that philosophy is useless. He made a bunch of money renting out olive presses and in doing so "he proved that philosophers can easily be wealthy if they wish, but this is not what they are interested in" (from Aristotle's Metaphysics 1259a9-18).

Why philosophy?

I make a modest living teaching philosophy, but I could make a lot more money doing something else – banking, engineering, business, renting olive presses, etc.

Elsewhere I’ve argued that money is 21st century America’s hyper-value, a value that trumps all other values.  We admire shrewd business people and visionary entrepreneurs.  Nobody says Bill Gates was wasting his time creating Microsoft, because Microsoft makes a lot of money.

Thales could have been the Bill Gates of the 6th century BCE Mediterranean olive press market, but he chose to do something else. This prompts the question people have been asking for at least 2,600 years: Why would anyone choose to spend time on philosophy?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fortune Cookie Philosophy

I often say that my #1 dream job would be to write the fortunes for fortune cookies -- and to do so on a tiny typewriter.  I'm only half joking (okay, more like a quarter joking).  I love the idea of getting a little intellectual morsel along with a tasty cookie, not to mention lottery numbers and the fun of adding "... in bed" to the end of the fortune.

This blog post won't provide edible cookies or lottery numbers, but I have written some little morsels that might provide material for your mind to ruminate (whether you add "... in bed" is up to you).

According to Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that "a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious)." (One wonders if either Malcolm or Wittgenstein were joking).

I once wrote a short appendix to a philosophy paper consisting entirely of jokes (with middling results), but I think one could also do philosophy consisting entirely of fortunes.  I'm particularly excited about this since I'm teaching a bit of Chinese philosophy in my Asian Philosophy course this fall, which gives my students and me the chance to see if Confucius really said what fortune cookies say he said.  And yes, I know that fortune cookies aren't actually Chinese.

Since yesterday and today have marked Independence Day in Pakistan and India respectively, I should mention that I'm covering Indian philosophy in my class as well.  Readers wanting to admire South Asia's philosophical heritage might read these fortunes as classical sūtras/aphorisms to be expounded upon by the reader.

Monday, August 10, 2015


Sometime in the last week this blog reached a milestone: 10,000 views since I began in December! (See my first post from Dec. 23, 2014 here).

I'm sure really popular blogs and websites get 10,000 or more views in a few minutes, but I think that's pretty good for a little hobby that I started to amuse myself and to have conversations about my two favorite things: philosophy and science fiction.  Along the way I've discovered that I really enjoy blogging (sometimes even about random other stuff) and that the internet is a very strange place.

Speaking of milestones, my recent post on Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora has now been viewed over 500 times, which makes it my single most viewed post yet.

Thank you for reading whoever and wherever you are!  I appreciate it!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Melancholy Among the Stars: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

“Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars.” – Instructions to the ship, Aurora (p. 45)

(Bibliographic info and brief plot summary here).

Aurora may be my favorite Kim Stanley Robinson novel yet.  Given how much I’ve loved his previous work, especially the Mars Trilogy and 2312, this is saying quite a bit.  And the ship itself may be one of my favorite SF characters of all time. 

Last year I attended an event at the Tucson Festival of Books in which Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) explained his next project, the novel that became Aurora.  He explained his thoughts about the physical futility and human arrogance of the very idea of interstellar colonization.  He said people would find the novel too pessimistic.  People would hate it.

KSR’s prediction turned out to be right for some reviewers (see this one by Gregory Benford and this one from Giulio Prisco).  Others have had more mixed feelings (see this one from a fellow philosophy and science fiction blog, Xeno Swarm, as well as this follow up).  And some, like myself, have praised it (see this one on From Couch to Moon and this one on Val’s Random Comments).

I don’t find the novel to be pessimistic.  I do find it melancholy.  And beautiful.  And intensely thought provoking.  And heart wrenching.  And poignant.  And deeply satisfying.

Melancholy among the Stars

The primary emotional mode of the novel is melancholy.  Unlike pessimism, which I would define as sadness about things not turning out as they should, melancholy is a resignation about how things have turned out and a questioning of why anyone ever thought things should be otherwise.  Schopenhauer is pessimistic; Ecclesiastes is melancholy. 

Commemorating the Anniversary of my Mom's Death

My mom died 15 years ago today.  After struggling with breast cancer for about two years, she had been admitted to the hospital a week before and had taken a very sharp decline a few days earlier.  I got the call from the nurse around 11am.  She was 51.  I was 23.

I celebrate my mom's birthday every year.  See my post from her birthday earlier this year.  My celebrations usually involve a trip to Dairy Queen to get what my mom used to call a "recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen."
My ritual: Peanut Buster Parfait

I also commemorate the anniversary of her death.

The practice of commemoration

My sense is that few Americans these days do much to commemorate the anniversaries of their loved ones' deaths.  This is, however, a common practice in many cultures, especially in Asian countries.

I've been reading a little bit of Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion.  It's not rigorous academic philosophy by any means, but de Botton makes a great point about the loneliness and isolation of grieving for many people in secular cultures today.  This goes for religious people in predominantly secular cultures as well, but it's especially poignant for those of us who find ourselves without a religious community.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reflections on a Year in the South

Aside from a little bit of international travel and a college study abroad trip to India, I’ve lived my whole life in the United States.  I grew up in the Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin), lived for about two years in Hawaii, and most recently spent nine years in the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona).  But I had never lived in the American Southeast.  That is, until I moved to Tennessee just over a year ago. 

Stranger in a Strange Land

As with any country as large as the United States, regional variations make for such diversity in culture, language, landscape, climate, etc. that these regions are united more by political happenstance than anything else.  Having lived in several regions, but never in the Southeast, I’ve found myself once again to be a stranger in a strange land. 

Here are some things I’ve learned so far.

1. Southerners are generally chatty and laid back.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Stephen King’s Attempts at Science Fiction: IT, The Tommyknockers, and Under the Dome

Stephen King is undoubtedly the most famous horror author alive, but he does occasionally stray into other genres, such as fantasy with The Eyes of the Dragon and The Gunslinger.  He has also tried his hand at science fiction.  As a science fiction fan who has recently rekindled a reading relationship with Stephen King, I couldn't resist checking out some of King's science fiction.

Sci-Fi King?

I’ll concentrate on three books that I argue have strong science fictional elements, but which in my estimation fail to live up to their SF potential: IT, The Tommyknockers, and Under the Dome.  (I’m not dealing with The Stand, because, while it has SF elements, it’s fundamentally more fantastic.  I also haven’t read it in over 20 years.  I’m not dealing with 11/22/63, The Running Man, or many others simply because I haven’t read them.  Please recommend other books in the comments!)
I love books, too, Mr. King.
My favorite definition of science fiction comes from literary theorist Darko Suvin, who says that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement.”  That is, SF stories happen in a world that is not our own (the “estrangement”), but they could happen without violating too many known scientific laws (the “cognitive” part).  In other words: no magic or supernatural stuff allowed!  Although Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining could be taken as either supernatural or psychological, King’s novel is pretty obviously a supernatural tale.  The three books I’m discussing here, however, proceed with little, if any, supernatural aspects.  Like Alien, they seek to mix the genres of horror and science fiction.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Self/Less, Selflessness, and Gullibility

Like Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan and many other science fiction stories, the new movie Self/less revolves around the idea of moving a person from one body to another.  Mindscan explores this idea with some degree of philosophical sophistication; it's not up to the standards of a philosophy journal, but for a mainstream science fiction novel that will be read by more than ten people (unlike most academic journal articles) it's not bad.  See my review here.

Self/less, on the other hand, begins with a similar premise and does almost nothing interesting with it, with one possible exception that I'll discuss toward the end.  I have a history of liking "rotten" movies on Rotten Tomatoes; see, for instance, my discussions of Jupiter Ascending and Terminator Genisys.  I liked Self/less more than most critics (it's currently at a paltry 21% fresh).  As a somewhat interesting action movie with a bit of mystery and exciting chase scenes, it's not bad (although I don't think it passes the Bechdel Test).  And Ben Kingsley's portrayal of a sort of actually classy Donald Trump is quite good.  But I do share the critics' critique of the philosophical bits: namely, there aren't enough of them!

Personal identity and selflessness

What if your mind were transferred to another body?  Would that new mind-body complex be you?  Could there be more than one person inside a single body?

Those are the big questions that I was hoping to think about when I walked into the theater to see Self/less.