In praise of speculative (or even science) fiction

I have always liked science fiction. This is not something that serious people usually want to admit to, though the perception that the genre is fit only for nerdy adolescents has diminished over recent years. There has been a growing, if somewhat reluctant, acceptance that the more thoughtful end of science fiction can be valuable as a kind of futurology; I’ve even used the idea myself in considering Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Odyssey vision’ and prediction in the information sciences.

I now feel largely vindicated, however, by the increasing interest in science fiction by the philosophical community, surely a mark of vindication. Several journal issues and books along these lines have appeared recently, and two in particular caught my eye.

A book providing a collection of articles on Philosophy and science fiction, produced as a supplement to the Journal of Social Philosophy, addresses the nature and value of science fiction. I was particularly taken with Ben Blumson’s argument that all fiction, and science fiction on particular, provides modal knowledge; it helps us to learn what may possibly be the case, and what must necessarily be the case, even in circumstances far different from those which we observe in our own life / planet / branch of the multiverse. A slightly different explanation is given by Brian Keeley: speculative fiction, a term which he prefers to science fiction, takes what we believe to be true, and imaginatively explores what might be the consequences if the circumstances were different. In both cases, the genre is seem as a kind of thought experiment instantiated in fiction.

This idea of science-fiction-as-thought-experiment is explicitly developed in a volume on Science fiction and philosophy, which uses a series of articles on concepts from science fiction to explore a wide variety of current issues. These range from from virtual reality and free will, to time travel and the singularity, and to artificial intelligence and transhumanism. As Eric Schwizgebel puts it, introducing a selection of science fiction recommended by philosophers, speculative fiction “engages imaginative and emotive cognition about possibilities outside the ordinary run of human experience”.

So, speculative (and even science) fiction is a serious matter now. If the philosophers think it’s worthwhile, I shall not feel queasy about appreciating it, and neither should you.

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