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!