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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Atomic Theory of Human Nature: A Critique -- Why (Most) Libertarians are Wrong

The relevance of one’s theory of human nature to one’s views in ethics and politics has been apparent to me ever since I read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes as an undergraduate.  Hobbes begins with the idea that people are essentially self-interested and ends up with a view that a government, any government, is better than what he calls “the war of all against all” or the “state of nature” in which people pursue their own interests to the detriment of everyone else’s.
Cover page for Leviathan
These days Hobbes is likely to sound like an apologist for authoritarian government overreach.  We’ve generally rejected his conclusion, but his premise is stronger than ever.   What I call the atomic theory of human nature is alive and well.

This theory says that human beings are atomic, isolated, free, and self-interestedly rational individuals.  We may care about others, but it is, strictly speaking, irrational to do so unless it somehow serves our own interests. The atomic theory of human nature is the basis of most of the discipline of economics.  It’s assumed by many ethicists and political philosophers.  The atomic theory is essentially egoist, both in the psychological and the ethical sense.  In politics, it’s especially prevalent among fans of Ayn Rand and more generally among American libertarians and conservatives (although there are exceptions, perhaps among some “bleeding heart libertarians” and authoritarian conservatives).  I suspect the prevalence of the atomic theory of human nature explains the popularity of dystopian science fiction, since such stories typically pit rugged individuals against hegemonic hordes.

The atomic theory of human nature is so prevalent these days that it’s almost odd to even point it out.  One might call it an invisible dogma. 

But do we have any good reason to believe it?  I don’t think so.  I think the atomic theory of human nature is fundamentally flawed, both empirically and morally.  It’s not an accurate description of typical human values and behavior, and it causes suffering insofar as it stunts the cultivation of virtues conducive to human flourishing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Becoming Martian: Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

"The point is not to make another Earth.  Not another Alaska or Tibet, not a Vermont or a Venice, not even another Antarctica.  The point is to make something new and strange, something Martian."  - Opening lines of Green Mars

(Bibliographic information here)

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy is one of the greatest achievements in science fiction.  Maybe this is an exaggeration, maybe I'll change my mind when I get to Blue Mars, or maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.  Whatever.  Robinson produced something great here: a blend of hard SF, literary writing, intricate world building, and deep philosophical ruminations on ecology, science, politics, and humanity's potential.  This is what might happen if Greg Bear, Frank Herbert, and Ursula Le Guin collaborated.

I understand why some people don't like these books.  They can be slow.  There's not always much action.  There are large blocks of text, sometimes several pages long, consisting of elaborate scientific details and descriptions of the Martian landscape.  Even worse, there are similar blocks of text on philosophy and politics (including several discussions of Thomas Kuhn, which warmed my philosophy of science loving heart - more on that later).  But if you're like me and you read science fiction for the ideas and don't cling dogmatically to the show-don't-tell rule, you may also love this series.

The plot follows the struggles of Mars to become independent from Earth.  Along the way we get Robinson's tremendous world building (those scenes where the characters drive around Mars and think about things have a point!).  Every five or ten pages Robinson produces a moment of literary beauty and philosophical depth.  There are even a few humorous moments, which often involve the character, Coyote, who lives up to his trickster namesake.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review of reviews: Pet Semetary, Grimspace, Mentats of Dune, and I, Mars

This time I'm reviewing four very different books: Pet Semetary by Stephen King, Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, and I, Mars by T. A. Uner.

Pet Semetary by Stephen King  (Bibliographic details here.)

I read a bunch of Stephen King as a teenager (I especially loved The Stand), but then none at all until recently.  Suddenly a few years ago I had a strange hankering to rekindle my relationship with Stephen King (see my review of The Shining).

Pet Semetary is a surprisingly deep meditation on the importance of accepting death.  It's also really creepy.  The whole plot revolves around whether the main character, Louis, can accept the fact of death.  In the beginning, Louis criticizes his wife's inability to accept death as a natural part of life, but then as the plot goes on we discover that Louis's rejection of death is actually far deeper and far more harmful.  

This provides plenty of food for thought about ourselves, especially in a death-denying culture like the United States. (I've discussed this in the Culture series of Iain M. Banks).

And did I mention that Pet Semetary is also creepy?  Say what you want about Stephen King, he knows creepy.  Next up for me: It.

Rating: 92/100

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Terminator Genisys: Part Two: Genisys is Not About Time Travel

In Part One, I argued that time travel to the future is both logically and physically possible, while time travel to the past is at least logically possible.  Now I want to argue that Terminator Genisys isn’t really about time travel.
Arnold trying to smile
Philosophical views on time? Don't ask.

Before diving in, it helps to ask, what is time?  As Augustine famously noted, “When no one asks me, I know.  If I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know” (Confessions, 11, 14).  But not knowing never stopped anyone from thinking, so people have developed three basic views on time: Presentism, Possibilism, and Eternalism.

Presentism says that only the present exists.  If this is true, then there would be simply “now” and there would be no past or future to which to travel!  I think this is the theory of time endorsed by one of my favorite movies, Spaceballs (1987).

Terminator Genisys: Part One: Is Time Travel Possible?

Terminator Genisys is not about time travel.  Like many other time travel stories, from Back to the Future to Looper, it’s really about travel between different universes or different worlds.  My claim requires some examination (appropriate enough in a blog called Examined Worlds).  The examination will require two parts.  In the first, I’ll concentrate on whether time travel is possible, which will provide the background for the second part, where I’ll explain why Genisys isn’t really about time travel.

Terminator Genisys

The movie has gotten mostly negative reviews (currently 27% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), but I really liked it.  I loved Schwarzenegger’s movies as a kid, so it’s nice to see Arnold out of politics and back in Hollywood.  He even reminded me that he can be funny. Genisys isn’t on par with the first two Terminator movies, which ought to be enshrined as science fiction classics, but I liked Genisys a lot better than the third and fourth movies.  

Philosophically, Genisys brings up all the major issues of the previous films.  What would artificial intelligence be like?  Would it want to kill us?  Could it be reasoned with?  Could AIs be considered persons in a moral or legal sense?  Could we form personal relationships with AIs?  Might AIs do a better job running things than we do?  (I covered some of these issues in my reviews of Robot and Frank and Ex Machina and in my many discussions of Iain M. Banks).  There’s also the classic problem of freedom and determinism: Is the future in some sense set or can our choices and actions change it?  Are individuals so important as the Great Man theory of history posits, or could other people have fulfilled the roles of Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, and John Connor in the human resistance?

Is time travel possible?

But the biggest science fiction trope of the Terminator series is supposed to be time travel (see this excellent piece for a thorough attempt to understand all the timelines in the series).  Is time travel really possible, at least outside of the normal rate of one second per second into the future at which we normally travel?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sense8: Ambition and Altruism

I finished watching the first season of Sense8 about a week and a half ago.  I've been thinking about what to say about it ever since.  I'm still not sure what to think about it.  It sounds cliché, but there's something about it that defies explanation.  Since we're talking about the creators of The Matrix, let me double down on clichés: I can't tell you what Sense8 is.  You must experience for yourself. 

The main cast (the eight sensates)
(I reviewed the first part of the season in an earlier post).

An Ambitious Narrative

Even people who hate the show agree that the one thing it does not lack is ambition.  It was filmed in nine locations on four continents.  It has eight main characters whose stories just barely intersect (at first).  It deals with gender and sexuality in a way rarely seen on TV, especially in science fiction shows (this fascinating article from io9 compares Sense8's treatment of gender to Philip K. Dick's treatment of other identity issues).  There is little hand holding for the audience.  The first season leaves a lot to be explained.  All this ambition can be a bit overwhelming.