Philosophy in Science Fiction: Thinking about Anathem

Ezra Pound, writing in his Guide to Kulchur, joked that philosophy is just science for people too lazy to get out and actually do experiments in the real world. I say joked, though I don’t know for sure: Pound may have been a genius, but he was also crazy.

Regardless, it’s no mistake that science for a long time was also called natural philosophy. There has always been a blurring between the lines of the two disciplines. In a way, this is why so much science fiction could also be called “philosophical fiction.”

A prime example of this genre is Neal Stephenson’s incredibly erudite Anathem, a book I recently had the pleasure of re-reading. Anathem takes place in an alternate world flung far into the future, where the general populace has their food steeped in “allswell” and things are generally fairly dystopian, but not in a catastrophic way.

I say the general populace, because an order exists almost totally separated from this populace, and these people are called the avout. They are basically colleges, but taken to a greater extreme. Each order has different gates, and each gate only opens once per a certain time period. So the Day Gate opens every day, the Yearly Gate once per year, the Ten Year Gate every ten years, and so on. Once the yearly or ten year gate closes, the people there are stuck there until the next time the gate opens.

This provides a separation of universes, in essence, though there is some bleeding in. From this idea the concept of alternate universes is explored, and while I don’t want to give everything away it suffices to say that the idea of bleeding between alternate universes is given a very interesting spin (to this reader). Stephenson incorporates philosophy from Plato to Leibniz to Husserl, and an attentive and well-read reader can pick up on many interesting nuggets.

I was thinking about this explicitly philosophical sci-fi (there are scientific nuggets here too, such as rocket ships and so forth), as I thought about other writers and my own writing. Any science fiction book that doesn’t push the envelope in terms of philosophy doesn’t interest me overly much, but as I thought about it I realized the short stories I have been working on lately don’t necessarily push too hard in terms of central plot. Where they do have philosophy, it is mostly relating to thinking about the general environment, and a lot of times this isn’t so much philosophy as other disciplines such as political science and economics.

What is the minimum amount of philosophical expansion necessary in order to appeal to a science fiction reader? Certainly this varies, but I think at a minimum it boils down to the same thing people always go to genre fiction for: there has to be enough there to take the reader to an Other, and for sci-fi that Other has to be different enough via its use of fantastic devices that attempt to be explained by something other than magic to get the gears of the mind moving. If this is in there, it doesn’t matter if the central plot device is a romance or a thriller or a mystery.

What do you think? @me on twitter @cbsalem with your thoughts!


Posted by C.B. in Blog Posts

Establishing a Mood: Costumes in the Blade Runner 2049 Trailer

One of the things I have been most focused on lately is establishing a mood through descriptions, specifically descriptions of clothes. It’s a trick I noticed upon analyzing the master of it (in my opinion): William Gibson. Focusing on making a character’s wardrobe interesting places them not just as a character, but it places the world.

I have been obsessed with the trailer for Blade Runner 2049. If you haven’t watched it yet, you can do so here.

There is a lot to love there, including the environments, the music, and what they show of the story. But I want to focus on the costumes first.

We can see this begin with Gosling.

We see two outfits here from Gosling: One of them has the fur fringe with the leather and the second has a high collar (it is unclear if they are the same but I don’t think so). The fur signals boldness: organic in a world of synthetic. The ability to afford this and keep it clean means this guy has some status in society but is also not uptight. This is supposed to be a cool look (it’s also Gosling).

Compare this to the Russians.

These have the same signals of trying for the fur, but it’s obviously ratty and dirty. The shirt under the fur is synthetic (like the fur likely is) and tries to compensate with bright color. In the end, it does have personality, but looks cheap. You can also look in the background at the other fashions and notice something similar. This is not a particularly minimalist world. People fight back against the oppression of the future with their clothing, similar to, I don’t know, the 80s (or increasingly today).

Next we have the functional clothing of the Russian man.


The Russian man is not to be messed with. He has simple wireframe glasses that look almost institutional and a very functional shirt that has no personality at all. It is no surprise to see him tackling Gosling later in the trailer: he looks like a badass.

We have different functional clothing from a woman and Gosling later.

The woman, looks functional in an understated way. Here Gosling looks similar, though his shirt looks a little nicer. He has nothing to front about since this is not a street fashion. As such, you see a more appropriate, indoor, cop look.

Finally, the elegant minimalism of the bad guys (who are, I imagine, very tech-heavy).

This is very non-organic, embracing the technological future (as opposed to Gosling who has an uneasiness with it due to the fur). Leto has a beard, but then he’s the bad guy so I think the beard signals that more than anything about the organic vs. techno-fetishist paradigm.

Analysis like this leaves me with a question for my own work: How do I establish what the parameters are for cool vs. not cool in my world and then how do I signal that very quickly with a description? Gibson is awesome at this; a read through of any of his book (but especially Neuromancer) will prove this to you. Part of his trick, I think, is picking out things for the youth culture to wear that could be ugly but have been deemed cool by the universe of the book, but I am sure there are others.

What are some of your favorite movies for costumes? @me on twitter at @cbsalem with your thoughts!





Posted by C.B. in Blog Posts

Thoughts on William Gibson’s Descriptions

Since 2013, I have in one way or another been professionally focused on improving my skill as a novelist. I just looked at that date, looked at today’s date, and felt a shiver of horror, but those are the facts. My success to date has been actually completing a few novels–as a ghostwriter and on my own–and somehow managing through the generosity of others and my own form of hard work to be continuing to do it.

Through the last few years, one of the novelists I have come most to admire and analyze has been William Gibson.  While I am well-read compared to the average person but not well-read enough to be impressive to someone who is professionally well-read, I feel comfortable in expressing the opinion that Gibson possesses some qualities that put him on the top tier of novelists writing in English today.

The first thing people tend to talk about with Gibson is that he coined the term “cyberspace” in his first novel, Neuromancer. They take this to be some indication that is a prophet or a genius at imagining where the world is going. The counterpoint to this tends to be something to the effect of Gibson not so much being aware of where the world is going as where the world is at the moment. One of his most famous quotes is “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”

It takes a particular type of person to be able to write this way. Another example of someone who can remain perpetually a stranger learning about the world so he can imitate it and shift it is Thomas Pynchon. Knowing just a little about both authors, one common thread I can draw is a friendly relationship with drugs at least at a point in their lives. It’s easily seen in their writing.

The aspect of Gibson I find most interesting as someone trying to learn from him is his description of materials. His descriptions of Ratz’ ugliness, especially his pink plastic arm, stick with me. The nylons and synthetic fabrics, the bright colors (see how many paragraphs have a color in a row in that book!) and even the surfaces just jump out. While I don’t think it’s necessary to have experience with drugs to do this, I do think the associated disassociation probably helps.  When things seem alien, they are more noticeable, and in thinking about them more deeply a person can then describe them in a more interesting way.

Cultivating this voice has been one of my focuses in writing my own novels, though at this point I do not have the skill or frankly balls to push it as far as Gibson does. Beyond the density of Gibson’s descriptions, where he excels is in describing things poetically: descriptions of things you cannot quite put into words, but rather circle around so that the reader gets a general idea. Does Brazilian Dex sound like it would be an intense drug? Sure. The color of the sky being that of a television tuned to the wrong station? Means different things to different generations, but yeah I know what color he means. Can’t you just see the old trailer in The Peripheral, not even cleaned but just with a clear plastic coating on the inside that has locked in the detritus of a previous era like a fly caught in amber for eternity?

Isn’t that just the whole god damn world he created in a detail? How good is that?

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