Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Philosophy Through (Science) Fiction Short Story Contest


There's an exciting announcement over at the Blog of the APA (American Philosophical Association):

Short Story Competition: Philosophy Through Fiction

The basic idea:

We are inviting submissions for the short story competition “Philosophy Through Fiction”, organized by Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes University), with editorial board members Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Meghan Sullivan (University of Notre Dame), and Mark Silcox (University of Central Oklahoma). The winner of the competition will receive a cash prize of US$500 (funded by the Berry Fund of the APA) and their story will be published in Sci Phi Journal.

At War with Time: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

"Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there... the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity.  Or Buddhism.  Or get drafted."  
- The Forever War (p. 37)

This is one of those classic science fiction books I somehow missed until now.  Many people think of it as an answer to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  Despite the fact that Haldeman denies any such thing and Heinlein apparently loved the book, this characterization makes a lot of sense.  (Haldeman is also an obvious inspiration for contemporary military SF like John Scalzi's Old Man's War).

Both Starship Troopers and The Forever War have intricate battle scenes and detailed descriptions of military life.  (It's too much for my tastes, honestly, which is why I've never been a big military SF fan.)  Both depict a united Earth in an interstellar war with shadowy alien forces.  But while Starship Troopers seems to glorify a kind of fascist militarism (Or maybe not? ... see my review), The Forever War is usually read (for good reasons) as an anti-war novel deeply critical of the hyper-militarism that Starship Troopers glorifies.  It's also even more obviously an allegory for Haldeman's experiences in the Vietnam War (this was written in the early 70's a few years after he returned to America).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Last Gasps of Reactionary Bigotry?

Birgitt Peterson demonstrates a Nazi salute outside a Trump rally in Chicago (photo credit and story:

Are we in the midst of the last gasps of reactionary bigotry?  I believe the answer is a qualified “yes.”  I don’t know to what extent my belief is based on evidence and to what extent on hope, yet my belief persists.  Allow me to explain.

Reactionary Bigotry?

First of all, what do I mean by “reactionary bigotry”?  It is a reaction to the increasing visibility and influence of people who have until recently had little visibility or influence in popular culture, politics, business, education, and other areas of society.  That’s the reactionary part.  The bigotry part is the idea that people unlike oneself in some way (race, gender, sexuality, entertainment preferences, or whatever) are somehow of a less important kind of human, that “we” are better than “them.”  Another way of putting it: Bigots believe there are types of people from whom they have nothing to learn.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Expanding Humanity: Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

"'Never underestimate the power of an idea,' Taraza said.  The Atreides were ever philosophers in their governance.  Philosophy is always dangerous because it promotes the creation of new ideas.'"  
- Heretics of Dune (p. 440)

This is my third time through the Dune series, which is one of my favorite science fiction series of all time.  The first time I read the fifth in the series, Heretics of Dune, I thought it was okay, but it was my second least favorite of the series after Dune Messiah, mainly because it seemed more action-oriented and less philosophical, especially compared to God Emperor of Dune (see my review here).

But after reading Heretics again I need to re-evaluate my previous opinion.  Sure, there's plenty of action (Bashar Miles Teg is 100% Pure Grade A Badass).  You also get the typical Dune universe political machinations between and within the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, and the new Honored Matres.  Nonetheless, there's some heady stuff going on here.

As with most of Frank Herbert's Dune books, there's little sense in separating the philosophy from the rest of the book (plot, characters, themes, etc.), so I will abandon my usual book review practice of having a section called "The Philosophy Report."  (Those "McDune" cash-grabbing sequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are another matter, which I won't talk about in this review although I have briefly reviewed Sisterhood of Dune and Mentats of Dune).

Friday, June 17, 2016

Science Fictional Meditations on the Value of Diversity

I’m still reeling from the tragic mass shooting at the Pulse gay bar in Orlando last weekend.  Although I wrote a short post about it addressed to my LBGTQIA+ friends, I still don’t quite know what to say.  Remember the victims and who they were.  Please listen to LGBTQIA+ voices, whether your own, in your social circles, or online such as those here and here.  I in no way mean to co-opt these voices.

Science fiction is sometimes thought of as an escapist genre.  I admit to finding some of that kind of solace in the last few days, especially in reading Heretics of Dune (book five of Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles) and finally almost finishing Babylon 5.  

But whatever escapist tendencies it might have, science fiction is also a philosophical laboratory in which ideas are put to the test in extended thought experiments.  This is why I created a philosophy and science fiction blog.

While I certainly don’t mean to imply that science fiction can solve the social, political, and personal ills that led to the Orlando tragedy, I think science fiction is an excellent way to address some of the issues that arise in a diverse society.  

How should we think about and live with people different from ourselves?  How should the marginalized react to the powerful and vice versa?  Should diversity be tolerated?  Valued? Celebrated?  What kinds of diversity are we talking about, anyway?

Here are some works of science fiction that constitute meditations on these questions.  Please feel free to add more in the comments.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dear LGBTQIA+ friends...

Dear LGBTQIA+ friends and readers,

I haven't been saying much after the heartbreaking murder of 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando last weekend.  I don't know what to say.  I don't want to be another straight, white cis gender man trying to make this tragedy about himself.  It's about you, and we should all listen (see some resources below, and please feel free to suggest others).  As horrifying as this has been for me, I realize that I can't imagine what this has been like for you.

There are many disturbing, heart-wrenching things about this brutal murder of 49 human beings.  One of these is the thought that that could have been you, any one of you.  This was an attack on LGBTQIA+ people, most of whom were people of color, mostly Latinx.  Wherever the national conversation takes us on terrorism and guns, we can't forget who was attacked and what this means.

You deserve to live on this planet (or any other) as much as anyone.  You matter.  I've always admired the courage you have just to be who you are.  Especially in a world that demands that you be somebody you're not.  I hope that your courage will inspire everyone to create the world that you deserve.

In love and solidarity,
Ethan Mills

PS:  Here are a few of the online resources I've found to be worth reading.  Please feel free to add more in the comments.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Otherness of Ourselves: This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman

C. S. Friedman's This Alien Shore is one of the deepest science fictional meditations on diversity I've encountered.  Not only do the people look differently from one another, they think differently.  Physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.  And as scary as all this can be at first, the message is that humanity is better off for our differences.


There's a lot of Dune here (there's even a Guild) with a dose of computer capers à la Neuromancer or Snow Crash.  Despite these obvious influences, Friedman's book doesn't feel derivative.  I'm a huge Dune fan, and I'm a little surprised that such a classic hasn't inspired more books like Friedman's.  Even though there is a Guild, they are something more like a combination of Herbert's Guild, Bene Gesserit, and Mentats all in one, but not exactly any of those things, either.

I'm not much of a computer person, and although I appreciate the genius of Gibson and Stephenson, I've never been a big cyberpunk fan.  Maybe it's because Friedman had to learn about computer programming to write this novel (as she says in the acknowledgments), but I found the computer passages of this book far more engaging and readable for a non-programmer than any cyberpunk story I've read before.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Two Conferences in Hawaii

I'm currently in Honolulu, Hawaii where I'm attending two academic conferences: The Eleventh East-West Philosophers' Conference (which just ended today) and the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy Annual Conference (which begins on Thursday).
The University of Hawaii at Mānoa
(both conferences take place in the building on the lower left)

Lest you think I'm in Hawaii just for a vacation involving the beach and drinking Mai Tais (it's not just for those things!), here are my abstracts for my talks!

You can see this post on the Indian Philosophy Blog for more on some other papers at the East-West Philosophers' Conference.  And see this post for more on some of the other papers for the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy Conference.