Recently, I decided that a discussion that started in the comments section of the Why is philosophy important? article merited its own spotlight. Specifically, I will highlight the perceived advantages of philofiction over philosophy and philosophical science fiction (sci-phi or philoscifi).
Defining the players
First, let us agree upon the basic terminology, starting with philosophy. This basic definition from Wikipedia will serve our purposes: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.”
What is philofiction, and do we really need such a distinction? Doesn’t most literary fiction show readers something true about human nature and existence? Yes. When you explore people’s lives in a serious manner, you’ll inevitably touch upon these issues. However, in philofiction, exploring philosophical issues can be the entire point of the story, not merely a “natural consequence.” Since I cannot find a better definition of philofiction, I shall quote James Canon’s comment from the article mentioned in the introduction:
“Philofiction, an inspirational literary genre taking as its starting point the recognition of difference and multiplicity of the world in which we live. [It] encourages an identification of the boundaries that define us and asks us to relate across those boundaries…a significant proportion of the [work] is devoted to a discussion of the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, the role of art in human lives, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge.”
He goes on to list examples of philofiction authors such as Sri Aurobindo, Ernest Hemingway, and Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez.
Finally, philosophical science fiction (philoscifi) can be considered a specialized subset of philofiction. There are many working definitions of “science fiction;” however, the one that I like best comes from Dr. Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog Science Fiction & Fact: “Basically we publish science fiction stories…stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” Incorporating philosophy into the plot and dialogue turns it into philoscifi.
The problem with philosophy
Philosophy fascinates many people, but it can also be intimidating for newcomers. First, there are many terms and logical reasoning techniques to learn. After you get past this barrier, you are confronted with a myriad of ideas across a host of different topics. Still worse, philosophy is not just about ideas but about the evolution of those ideas. Thus, it is not enough to know what Plato said; you are expected to know what Descartes said about Plato and what Nietzsche said about both of them, etc. As you can see, this endeavor can be rather intimidating and off putting.
So is there any way of getting to the meat of the coconut without having to drill through such a dense shell? Philofiction and philoscifi are two such ways. Since their aim is to ask questions without necessarily answering them, authors of these genres can incorporate philosophical ideas into their stories without the heavy baggage. These ideas add an extra dimension to the story and serve as “teasers” for the study of philosophy.
Philofiction vs. Philoscifi
Each genre has it distinct strengths and weaknesses, so one is not necessarily better than the other. However, it is fair to say that philofiction attracts a larger potential audience than philoscifi does. Philoscifi excels at speculation. It is a powerful medium for analyzing ideas across space and time, but this power comes at a cost. Since philoscifi is often set in an unfamiliar world or future, the author often must spend a good deal of time explaining terms and backstory. Sci-fi has also built up many conventions over the years that authors feel compelled to follow. Again, more explaining. So much explaining is a potential turnoff for readers. Since philofiction is generally set in our own world, past or present, readers can quickly get up to speed and into the actual story. This appeals to many readers, resulting in a larger potential audience for philofiction. Of course, since philofiction is set in “our world,” the author’s ability to speculate is significantly limited.
As a writer, understanding the differences between the genres can be critical. In philoscifi, the world sometimes becomes another character in the story and can overshadow the main characters. In philofiction, the world usually stays in the background. I recently wrote a philoscifi short story which I intended to be largely character-driven. However, one of my readers commented that he was more interested in the world than the protagonist. Try as I might, I could not make the protagonist more interesting than his environs. Of course my writing skill (or lack there of) has something to do with this, but I also suspect that the genre played a large role. For a purely character-driven work, philofiction might have been a better genre choice. At least then the protagonist need not compete against his environs for the reader’s attention!