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Brenda Cooper (CRACKING THE SKY) on Science Fiction and Philosophy

Photo by Mary Cooper

Photo by Mary Cooper

Brenda Cooper is the author of eight science fiction and fantasy books. Her most recent novel is Edge of Dark (Pyr, 2015). Also releasing this year is a short fantasy collection, Beyond the Waterfall Door (self-published via Kickstarter, 2015), and a science fiction collection, Cracking the Sky (Fairwood Press, 2015). Her other works include The Creative Fire (Pyr, 2012) and The Diamond Deep (Pyr, 2013) as well as the Silver Ship and the Sea series (Tor Books) and Building Harlequin’s Moon, with Larry Niven (Tor, 2005). Her most recent short fiction includes “Elephant Angels” (Heiroglyph, 2014), and “Biology at the End of the World” (Asimov’s, August 2015). Brenda blogs frequently on environmental and futurist topics, and her non-fiction has appeared in Slate and Crosscut. Winner of the 2007 Endeavor Award for a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author or authors Brenda lives in Bellevue, Washington with her wife and three dogs.

Science Fiction and Philosophy

by Brenda Cooper

There is a fascinating futurist named Gray Scott who calls himself a techno-philosopher. I recently attended one of his talks at the World Future society, where he discussed rapidly approaching changes in robotics, AI, and energy. There are a lot of technology futurists willing to present us with these things, but what Gray does extremely well is talk about what they might mean, and what questions we should ask ourselves about the future. He’s great fodder for a writer like me; I jotted down at least six story ideas during his forty-five minute talk. If you want a taste, catch his new Futuristic Now podcast.

Gray’s talks got me thinking about the philosophical nature of science fiction. The Merriam Webster dictionary contains a number of definitions for the word philosophy, the most interesting of which is “a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means.” That’s a lot like the way I approach story, whether I’m reading one or writing one. In either case, I want to learn something. The very best SF makes me think about something in a new way. This isn’t terribly surprising; my love of SF originated with a little girl’s desire to understand how the world works. I suspect I’m still asking the very same questions that I used to think about when I was seven years old and standing in the long driveway watering our trees on hot California summer days (my childhood chore).

I return to many questions, but almost every story has a core question that is at least borderline a philosophical question. For example, in my most recent novel, Edge of Dark, the core questions are about how we define life and soul, and what being human is really about. I use a combination of human and post-human characters to explore the boundaries between biological and mechanical life, and the way that either might or might not display empathy to the other. In my short story collection which is just now coming out from Fairwood Press, Cracking the Sky,  I explore the implications of robots raising humans, of VR re-creations of the past, and of cloud-based artificial intelligence.

My drive to write about these topics started in my early teens when I read Asimov’s I, Robot and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and coupled those with books by J. Krishnamurti’s teachings on the nature of reality (Yes, I was a strange child). Part of what drew me to science fiction is the genre’s implied freedom to ask about anything. Ray Bradbury explored the affects of television as well as forces for social control in Fahrenheit 451. He also touched on banned books and ideas; a conversation we have been having since books were first printed – who has access to what ideas, and what ideas are harmful? Will good ideas save us? Both Brave New World and 1984 also deal with the ways that information might be provided or withheld, and with the consequences of those choices. Even though they were written decades ago, they echo into our time, into Orwell’s and Huxley’s far future.

Our best living writers follow the same traditions. Ursula LeGuin discussed gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. Greg Bear examined the relationship of humans to the living ecosystems inside them via Darwin’s Radio long before the topic started in health blogs on the Internet. Nancy Kress explored the ethical implications of genetic engineering in Beggars in Spain. Ramez Naam examined neuroscience and connection, contrasting and inter-twining world politics and Buddhism nicely in the Nexus Trilogy of science fiction thrillers.

While some of our stories are more about entertainment or politics, many of our best stories ask the deep questions that have driven humans throughout history.

Perhaps many of us who are writing science fiction are also techno-philosophers, and perhaps that’s even why some great science fiction touches such deep nerves.

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