I was mucking around the Internet when I stumbled onto a list of “The Works that Most Influenced Science Fiction, 1963-1992.” It’s a decent list and got me thinking that there must be a similar one for philosophical science fiction (or philoscifi, as I call it). Surprisingly I could find one…at least not without a lot of digging. So I decided to make my own list. After seeing the Popular Mechanics 100 best sci-fi movies list, I decided to throw in movies and games too, just for fun.
Like the SF book list mentioned above, this is NOT a best, most popular, or favorites list. It’s not even a “most influential” list. It is a list of books, games, and movies that I found memorable for being moving and/or thought provoking, “Big Idea” science fiction. I’m always looking for moving and thought provoking stuff, so please feel free to suggest any philoscifi you feel is worth checking out in the comments!
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Dune by Frank Herbert is often cited as the single most influential, visionary, and bestselling SF novel ever, for good reason. If you are new to the genre and read nothing else, at least give Dune a try. Feuding houses fight for control of the most precious substance in the universe–spice–which exists only one planet. Politics, social commentary, ecology, evolution, religion, and the fate of mankind–this book has a little of everything.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A touching story of an experiment to increase human intelligence and what happens when it unravels. There is a movie version, Charly. The book/movie Awakenings explores a very similar idea and is based on real experiences.
Hyperion series by Dan Simmons – Six pilgrims journey toward a mysterious alien artifact, each with his/her own story. What happens to them will change the universe forever. In turn beautiful, bizarre, and visionary, Hyperion mixes religion, evolution, cyberpunkiness, and poetry. Not everything works, but when it does, it is nothing short of amazing. The first two books are stronger than the last two, IMO.
The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey is about a brainship who matures through love and loss. This story has stuck with me despite its flaws. There is a book version, but I actually prefer the short story.
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov is often voted as the best SF short story ever. It is a story about an epoch ending event and the clash between religion and science. There is a novel version too, but the short story is far better, IMO. Asimov is best known for his Foundation and Robot series, but he also wrote a tremendous amount of nonfiction. He was one of the earliest science popularizers.
The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin is a short story about the harsh consequences of an innocent mistake in the cold emptiness of space. I first read this story in high school, and it has haunted me since.
The Postman by David Brin – Not really a Big Idea story, but the thought of one man trying to stitch society back together by acting as a postman has stuck with me through the years. At least it offers a different, more hopeful take on the usual post-apocalyptic fare.
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Gattaca – This film is one of the finest works of philosophical science fiction I’ve seen. Stellar art design, compelling story and premise inspired by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In such a world, is it possible to rise above your station? Gattaca’s tagline: “There is no gene for the human spirit.”
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“Soylent green is…” This famous last line is now part of SF lore, but how many people have actually watched the movie? It is still worth watching, even if you know the answer.
First contact: how it will go?
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Alien was memorable for two reasons: 1) a strong female protagonist and 2) scaring the crap out of me as a kid. Even watching it now, it is still disquieting. As the tagline famously says, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
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A message is received from space, and it is much more than we expected. How do we respond? Who gets to speak for humanity? Contact is intelligent and more plausible plot-wise than most first contact movies. It also makes you think, “What if religion and science are not so different in the end?” Based on the book by the late, great Carl Sagan.
Disutopia: everything is a remix
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Metropolis by Fritz Lang is a landmark SF film that continues to impress and influence long after its 1927 release. Its influence can be seen in all of the films in this category. It drew its ideas from the Bible (Tower of Babel) as well as philosophy (Marx and Engels).
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How does one tell the difference between an android and a human? And if we cannot easily do so, what does that mean for humanity? Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner gained cult status for its gritty world and is now generally recognized as one of the best SF film ever. Roy Batty’s last speech is certainly one of the most famous–if not THE most famous–in SF history.
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Is there any escaping the techno-bureaucratic machine? Drawing inspiration from George Orwell’s classic 1984 as well as similar themed films, Brazil is a brilliant disutopian film that will mess with your mind and maybe even make you feel a bit paranoid and claustrophobic.
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Released slightly before The Matrix and exploring similar themes, Dark City was sadly was lost in the hype for The Matrix. I’m betting that not everyone has watched or even heard of this film, which is a shame, because in some ways it is more mindblowing than The Matrix. See it and judge for yourself.
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The Matrix draws its ideas from Plato, Descartes, Ghost in the Shell, Gnosticism, and Neuromancer…just to name a few. Much has already been said of this mind-bending, cyberpunk, kungfu fighting, superman flick. Just watch it if you haven’t already.
What just happened…?
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Humanity repeatedly makes contact with an alien artifact which greatly impacts humanity’s evolution. Along the way you also meet Dave and HAL, who have a dysfunctional human-computer relationship, to say the least. You will find 2001: A Space Odyssey on virtually every “best sci-fi list.” Yes, it is confusing and maddeningly slow. But it’s also visionary, iconic, and utterly unforgettable in parts.
Is death a destructive or a creative force? The Fountain is a love story through time that touches upon some of humanity’s oldest themes–death, pain, and loss–in such a remarkable way that it is easy to forgive its flaws. Hauntingly beautiful, confusing, emotional, spiritual. Many words have been used to describe this film. Draw your own conclusions once you have “finished it,” and check out mine if you like.
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Xenogears (ps1) – A robot lands near a peaceful village and sets off a chain of events that forever changes the world. Psychology, politics, religion, multiple timelines, and of course, giant robots–get ready for the one of the most epic, mindblowing sci-fi experiences in any medium, not just games. “Stand tall and shake the heavens!”
Mass Effect trilogy– Humans are newcomers to the galactic community of sentient races, but they are the key to defeating the Reapers, a mysterious alien race that destroys everything in its path. The story was not particularly new, but it had a few Big Ideas and was serviceable until the lackluster ending. Still, with its richly diverse cast of characters and first rate dialogue, the Mass Effect universe was one of the most memorable sci-fi universes of any medium.
One thought on “Philosophical science fiction worth reading, watching, and playing”
Recently, I received the following comment from Nicholas Joll: “Thank you for the list. But: what no Hitchhiker’s Guide?”
Any list is subjective, and there is bound to be some works left out for one reason or another. For me, Htichhiker is one of those works that I just didn’t get into, unfortunately. Thanks for mentioning it though. Anyone who hasn’t tried to read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should at least give it a shot. It may not appeal to everyone, but you won’t know until you try!