Friday, 24 July 2015

Socratic Fiction

Poul Anderson wrote philosophical fiction. Let me explain.

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.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

While I'm willing to accept that Mary Shelley was the mother of modern SF, we should not neglect it's fathers: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The latter two writers have come to stand for the "hard" and "soft" strains of SF.

I would point out as well that religion, esp. Christianity, have played a role in natural philosophy developing science by moving from philosophic argument to inventing the scientific method. This is what Poul Anderson wrote in "Delenda est", Section 4, after van Sarawak expressed puzzlement over how the Afallonians could have the combustion engine but still be so intellectually backward: "No, it's quite understandable. That's why I asked about their religion. It's always been purely pagan; even Judaism seems to have disappeared; and Buddhism hasn't been very influential. As Whitehead pointed out, the medieval idea of one almighty God was important to the growth of science, by inculcating the notion of lawfulness in nature. And Lewis Mumford added that the early monasteries were probably responsible for the mechanical clock--a very basic invention--because of having regular hours for prayer."

By logical inference this means it would be very hard for a true science to arise ab initio from a purely pagan background. Because the pagan conception of the "gods" tends to see them as arbitrary, willful, capricious, amoral, etc.