Pyrkon, Philosophy, William Shatner

pyrkonBOG1

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist's conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist’s conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

They’ve announced it on Facebook, they’ve put it up on their website, so I guess I can announce it here: after a five-year absence, I seem to be returning to Poland as a “Special Guest” of Pyrkon: a massive Polish con attended by somewhere around forty thousand folks annually. According to the facebook comments attending the announcement, negotiations to bring BOG along are ongoing. So if you happen to be in Poznań between April 28-30, I will be making myself available to either a) apologize for putting my Nowa Fantastyka column on hiatus again, or b) accept your gratitude for same.

I’m also supposed to deliver some kind of lecture for the better part of an hour. I have about two months. Suggestions welcome.

*

Since I’m already thumping the ol’ tub, this might also be a good time to point out that Blindsight has made it onto Greg Hickey’s list of “The 105 Best Philosophical Novels“. According to the text, though, it’s not exactly Greg Hickey’s list: it’s based on “curated lists from The Guardian, Flavorwire and more, suggestions from readers on Goodreads, Quora and Reddit, and picks from philosophical fiction authors like Khaled Hosseini, Irvin D. Yalom, Rebecca Goldstein and Daniel Quinn”. On first glance that seems to be a pretty credible set of criteria (for obvious reasons, I’m not going to take a second glance).

Blindsight ranks 71rst overall, which puts it just behind Lord of the Flies and a few spots ahead of Blood Meridian and The Idiot.  It kicks the ass of various titles by Beckett, Dick, Vonnegut, Rand, and Atwood, and has its ass kicked in turn by other titles by the same authors. We all get our asses kicked by Camus’s The Stranger.

I find this list a bit suspect— maybe “mystifying” is a better word— and not just because I’m on it. For one thing, rankings were based on “a weighted score to each novel appearing on a previous list and combined these scores with votes from readers and authors to produce a cumulative score”, which implies some sort of quality-based hierarchy. But the list is also subdivided into other groups— “Black Tragicomedies”, “Cult Favorites”, “Social Critiques” (Blindsight falls under “Diamonds in the Rough”)— and all the titles in each of these groups is ranked contiguously. That is, all the “Black Tragicomedies” are worse than all the “Portraits”, all the “Portraits” are worse than all the “Mindfucks”, and so on. I find this odd.

I’m also a bit suspect of the whole idea of “philosophical novel” as a category. Fortunately I got a chance to vent on this very subject, since Greg approached me for a list of my own “favorite philosophical novels” (He includes a pdf of  annotated “Author’s picks” as a downloadable extra on the same page; my own remarks are perhaps the least informative of the eleven authors who weigh in). I tried to deflect attention from my own  lack of education by questioning the very definition of the term. “You could argue that science fiction is infested with philosophy, almost by definition,” I began, rattling off a list of obvious examples. “And those are brilliant books, and they do contain philosophical elements, but to describe all these as philosophical novels is like proudly proclaiming William Shatner to be Canadian because he passed through town on his way to Hollywood. You can make the case, technically, but it makes you look really insecure.”

Anyway. It’s a fascinating list, refreshingly genre-heavy (Dick and Stephenson are all over it, although Huxley’s the only SF author to make the Top Ten)— and if nothing else, it’ll give you a whole lot more to stick on your bucket list.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only read a quarter of them.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday February 20 2017at 03:02 pm , filed under On the Road, public interface, writing news . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

21 Responses to “Pyrkon, Philosophy, William Shatner”

  1. It is a fascinating list, weird categorization or not. I’ve saved it for later perusal. At first blush, I think I too have read about at least one quarter of them.

    I have to say that The Stranger and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were probably two of the most influential books in my life.

    In the 50’s and 60’s Hermann Hesse was a very popular author. Both Siddhartha and Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) were among my favorites.

    I am fascinated to see how many Vonnegut and Dick titles are on this list. And, while The Dispossessed may be LeGuin’s most openly philosophical novel, Left Hand of Darkness is her most profound and moving title.

    The only book missing from this list that surprises me is Heller’s Catch 22. As a young hippie/folksinger in the early 60’s, it was the first novel I read that approached the horrors of war as humorously as it did. It was important because for so many of us in the boomer era, our fathers who were combat veterans, were significantly silent about their war experience. My own father was a doctor thrown into the Battle of the Bulge, and, though he never spoke of it, it destroyed his psyche. Unfortunately, many of that generation, regardless of their own views, let John Wayne define WWII and war in general.

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  2. Nothing to add on the old philosophy front, just dropping a comment hoping that mysterious health glitch sorted itself out, no news being good news, I hope.

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  3. >proudly proclaiming William Shatner to be Canadian because he passed through town on his way to Hollywood. You can make the case, technically, but it makes you look really insecure.

    Pretty sure this is official policy. Well, at the very least, standard practice of Canadian fandom. We claim famous figures as Canadian if they were born here (even if they didn’t spend much time here), or if they ever decided to live here even if “decided to live here” was “because I was filming a TV series that filmed in Canada and I stayed one day longer than I had to.”

    And, of course, assuming we like them. Many of us are happy to deny all connection to some US exports (Ted Cruz for example, was clearly American all along).

    But in SF-author terms, (in addition to yourself and other inarguable Canadians some of which are favorites) we get to claim William Gibson, Judith Merrill, Jo Walton, and Robert Charles Wilson (the fact that those were in alphabetical order is mostly accidental (I swapped two) and probably bunches more I’m leaving out. Insecure or not, I’m claiming ’em all! :)

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  4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance outranks Nausea… SMH

    And they categorized Thus Spoke Zarathustra as a novel, which… I’m not certain that’s accurate (albeit it’s been 15 years since I read the damn thing).

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  5. Does anyone want to make those pdfs available without requiring one to share an email address?

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  6. Don’t sell yourself short Peter. I’d never questioned my free will until reading “Blindsight”, and it lead me to read that dense-as-hell Metzinger book you cited in the bibliography.

    To the extent that a novel can be philosophical, “Blindsight” easily fits the bill.

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  7. >>I’m also supposed to deliver some kind of lecture for the better part of an hour. I have about two months. Suggestions welcome.<<

    An Andre Picard article today titled "Gene editing has far more promise than peril" caught my attention. I'd like to see a lot more discussion around potential futures in this area. Currently, the concerns seem to be with the modifying of our code in general, from the ethics of eugenics to specific concerns for the humans who might emerge from non-perfected tampering.

    Eugenics concerns tend to conflate government control over offspring with parental control, but there's a whole lot here to be teased out. Gattaca touched on some. Could you blame (leaving aside legal action here) your parents for making modifications to give you enhanced abilities in some areas, or to make you look a certain way? Could you blame them for not doing so, when certain attributes could have made your life better? Democratic governments will likely be far behind the wishes of parents in these matters for obvious historical reasons, but in the same way that governments have attempted to intervene in cases where parents' drug/alcohol use will affect a fetus, at some point will they see parental non-intervention in gene therapy under certain conditions as negligent? If parents have the right to manipulate their offspring's genes for, say, intelligence, will the state begin to at least advertise the benefits of doing so (akin to ads against smoking and drinking by pregnant women)? If the technology was foolproof, what would the arguments be against gene therapy? Religious? Natural evolutionist (e.g. modification puts the power to determine in the hands of parents, or state, breaking the connection the resulting children would have had to evolutionary modifications)?

    Technical downsides are a reason to not engage in gene modification, but what if, in the near future, on balance, the upsides win? Where does this leave us in relation to the religious, natural evolutionist, self-determinist positions? And in this scenario, what does self-determination even mean? None of us appear to get to choose our parents or our genes at present. How is having someone who loves you make the decision worse than the random lottery of evolution doing so?

    And what are the technical up and downsides? I know Dolly didn't live long, but not much more…

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  8. I’ve read 27, which is better than I usually do on these lists; and what’s more, I read most of them when I was much younger! Gotta thank my high school English teachers for a quality curriculum high on quality and low in bullshit.

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  9. Fun list, thanks for posting!

    One glaring omission: R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy series: https://www.amazon.com/Darkness-that-Comes-Before-Nothing-ebook/dp/B010MEPN14/ .

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  10. I’ve read 36, and have quite a few missing that I really SHOULD read.
    Fairly good list I think (no expert here though). Your list link seems to point back to this list, not yours.

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  11. Only one novel by Lem in the list? Come on….and NOT A SINGLE BOOK by BORGES!?!?!? That’s a huge miss IMHO

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  12. Blindsight, the gift that keeps on giving.

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  13. It’s a weird list, but hey, both Blindsight AND Star Maker are on it. Can’t be all bad!

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  14. Nestor: Nothing to add on the old philosophy front, just dropping a comment hoping that mysterious health glitch sorted itself out, no news being good news, I hope.

    Almost. Mainly limited to the shoulders, now. Chinups and pushups still hurt, but I can do ’em. Military presses kill me somewhere between 70-80lbs.

    Sheila:
    Does anyone want to make those pdfs available without requiring one to share an email address?

    OK. Here are the Author’s Picks; here’s The List.

    zac: One glaring omission: R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy series

    I didn’t mention that particular title, but I did cite Scott’s Neuropath in my own list.

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  15. You could elaborate on growing code (the concept you introduced to my life in Maelstrom). Now AI seems to get good on it, with a little help from Microsoft Research. See https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331144-500-ai-learns-to-write-its-own-code-by-stealing-from-other-programs/

    Well I know you’re a sucker for the original, so here it is https://openreview.net/pdf?id=ByldLrqlx
    =)

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  16. I have a topic suggestion. I was struck by the implicit liar’s paradox built into the moral underpinnings of Nandita Becker’s last act in Collateral. Because if she is morally justified in killing these innocents to prevent more of her ilk from being created, then she is not a moral monster. Thus future soldier so constituted also need not be moral monsters. But if future soldiers so constituted need not be moral monsters, then clearly the massacre of innocents to prevent them from coming into being is a horrifically evil act, one that makes her a moral monster, and thus implies that her future ilk will be likewise. In which case the killing of innocents may well be justified as the lesser evil.

    This is the first time I have ever seen the classic liars paradox applied to an ethical question, and it seems to me to open up many interesting vistas. For instance, is there some Godelian twist that proves that, for any possible ethical theory strong enough to generate the golden rule, proves that there are an infinite number of evil acts that the theory can not recognize?

    Or, how about Raymond Smullyan’s coercive questions? Smullyan proves (in “The Riddle of Scheherazade”) that, if a person agrees to give an honest answer to a question you will ask, and then does, you can make them do anything you want. (For example, Scheherazade can ask the prince “Will you either answer no to this question or spare my life?”) Humans can avoid this by just changing their mind after agreeing. But it certainly is not generally known that a mere commitment to honesty — say, resulting from a psychological treatment, or imposed on an artificial intelligence — entails a complete surrender of free will.

    Or how about a more disturbing version of the Martian Paradox? A Martian with a very strange sense of humor has the demonstrated ability to predict your actions with 99 percent accuracy. It releases a universally deadly plague. It gives you a box with a toggle. Flip it to the left, and one compartment of the box will open, giving you a vaccine that will save half the people in the in the Northern hemisphere. Flipped to the right, it opens both compartments. If the Martian predicts that you will flip left, it puts a second vaccine that will cure half the people in the Southern hemisphere in the second compartment. If it predicts you will flip right, it puts nothing in the second compartment. Then it goes on vacation. Flip left or right?

    It seems to me that there is a rich untapped well of story ideas here. And I think you are exactly the right person to turn them into dark, twisted, fascinating fiction that gets stuck in the reader’s mind and won’t let go.

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  17. I would agree with Angelo that the total absence of Borges from a “philosophical” literary list would be highly suspicious… except that this is explicitly a list novels, of which Borges has written none.

    I find Lem’s near-absence more distressing.

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  18. Ivo,

    Absolutely. Among many other candidates in addition to Solaris (such as The Chain of Chance), His Master’s Voice is one of the most profound ‘first contact’ novels ever written.

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  19. Andrew Hoerner,

    I’m not sure if I missed something… I flip right because that gives me a 1% chance of saving everyone… there is no downside to flipping right, is there?

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  20. Nestor,

    Yes, there’s a downside. The difference between a 99% chance of saving everyone and a 1% chance. I believe this is a variant of the “Roko’s Basilisk” problem, a subset of Newcomb-like game theory problems.

    As with RB, the solution is very dependent on details that are usually left out. For example, do we have foreknowledge of the alien’s ability to make nearly perfect predictions?

    If we do, it’s immoral not to flip left. If we don’t then we can hardly blame the sap who flips right, thinking that he will find a second vial, only to discover they were duped.

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  21. Actually, in this iteration of the puzzle it doesn’t seem to matter, at least if I’m understanding it correctly.

    If you choose left, you get one vial, because even if he put a second vial in the second box, that side never opens.

    If you choose right, you get one vial, because he predicted you’d choose right and even though both compartments open, he only put one vial in there.

    Unless of course you can eventually brute force the compartment open, in which case, it’s best to choose left and then break the second compartment open, because even if the Martian is wrong, all it loses you in choosing left is the manpower it takes to open the other side of the box.

    I suspect that was a mistake on the person laying the scenario out though.

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