Saturday, March 14, 2009

Philosophical SF Writers: Robert J. Sawyer

The Hugo and Nebula award winning author Robert J. Sawyer has often remarked that the most ambitious science fiction stories are "philosophical fiction." It's fitting, then, that I inaugurate this new category of post by saying just a bit about Sawyer's writing--before I give you something to think about!

Many of Sawyer's books (although I confess I haven't read them all) are driven by a provocative thought experiment, often just the sort of thing that you'd find widely discussed in the philosophical literature. What would it be like if... everyone in the world were to catch a glimpse of the future? Or if we were to discover scientific evidence of a soul leaving the body at death? Or if we were able to return our aging bodies to their youthful condition? Or if we were to encounter an alien who believed in God? If you want to know what Sawyer thinks it'd be like if such things were to happen, read Flashforward, The Terminal Experiment, Rollback, and Calculating God, respectively. You can count on his books to engage your mind not only with plot and character but with ideas. As somebody once said, the true protagonist of a good science fiction story is an idea rather than a person!

I want to think about the central thought experiment in one Sawyer yarn (Mindscan) in a bit more depth. Suppose that you're in your forties and you've just discovered you have a terminal illness that'll kill you sometime in the next few months. Now suppose that you are presented with an extraordinary opportunity: your consciousness--personality, memories, and all--can be copied and downloaded into a synthetic body that will live on indefinitely. The biological you would live out whatever time you have left, too--out of the way and on the moon! What kind of objections might be raised against doing this? Would you do it? Why or why not? Do you think the result of this procedure would be you? Or a mere copy of you? What's the difference? Does it matter? Here's another chance to think about personal identity in a sf context....

UPDATE: You really ought to check out Sawyer's talk about the relevance of sf. It's called "A Galaxy Far, Far Away" My Ass! and it's been given the Youtube treatment in three parts: 1, 2, 3.

UPDATE 2: Rob has kindly linked to my little blog here. Thanks!

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