Metaphysics

Tagged: Theme

One of the qualities of sf that sometimes baffles new readers is the relative infrequency, despite its label, with which it deals with the hard sciences; indeed, sf deals as often with metaphysics as with Physics. This is not an accidental or a recent development; the exploration of metaphysical questions has been central to sf at least since the time of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831). This centrality was not thereafter abandoned: it recurs in the pioneering sf of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson and pre-eminently H G Wells. The basic metaphysical question is the notorious Cliché, "What does it all mean?" It is to the credit of sf that it has consistently tackled this overwhelming (if nebulous) question, through a fantastically elaborate series of Thought Experiments, sometimes trivial and sometimes profound, in a way that the traditional novel of character and social interaction is ill equipped to manage.

Metaphysics is an important field of philosophy; and from early on has been regularly used as a synonym for ontology, the study of being or existence. Metaphysics is defined in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as "that branch of speculation which deals with the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity etc." Many of the thematic entries in this encyclopedia can be regarded as pertaining as much to metaphysics as to the natural sciences, notably Alternate History, Conceptual Breakthrough, Cosmology, Dimensions, End of the World, Entropy, Eschatology, Evolution, Gods and Demons, Intelligence, Linguistics, Mythology, Origin of Man, Parallel Worlds, Perception (under which rubric sf dealing with questions of appearance versus reality is discussed), Reincarnation, Religion, Sense of Wonder, Time Paradoxes, Time Travel and Virtual Reality. Indeed, it is no longer possible, particularly at the frontiers of theoretical physics, to distinguish between speculation which belongs specifically to the natural sciences and speculation which is metaphysical. However, if metaphysics can be distinguished from science it is in this (the quotation is from Man is the Measure [1976], by Reuben Abel, a good account for the layman of central problems in philosophy): "Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy which attempts to comprehend the Universe as a whole – not so much by examining it in detail (which is the procedure of science) as by analysing and organizing the ideas and concepts by means of which we examine and think about the world."

Thus, for instance, a central example of metaphysical sf is Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970), which asks to what extent can scientists studying a totally alien and apparently sentient planet comprehend its essence, if to do so requires transcending categories of thought that are limited by their very humanness. This question about the limitation of our perceptions is one of the fundamental problems sf regularly tackles; many further examples are discussed under Aliens and Conceptual Breakthrough. Confrontation with the alien, especially in sf stories of the 1960s and after, is often seen in sf as leading to a higher level of understanding, and a renewed sense of cosmic harmony. Robert Silverberg has written several novels of this type, a good one being Downward to the Earth (1970). Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960) projects its protagonist into a maze of metaphysical self-discovery by confronting him with a literal, murderous, alien maze or Labyrinth on the Moon.

Metaphysical questions of identity are particularly closely associated with the work of Philip K Dick, who by blurring the distinctions between human and artificial, between Man, Android and Machine, forces the reader to consider what qualities of consciousness constitute the essence of humanity. (Gene Wolfe entered the same area of speculation with his brilliant and subtle The Fifth Head of Cerberus [fixup 1972], in which one of the protagonists, it transpires, is a simulation.) Dick, in fact, has a finger in almost every metaphysical pie. He specializes in questions of appearance and reality, and of solipsism, asking to what extent the Universe as it appears to us is an objective fact, and to what extent it is a mental construct, either individual or consensual. The novels of Ian Watson have characteristically met some of the most difficult questions in metaphysics head-on and doggedly. Watson's special interest is also whether our models of the Universe, especially as reflected in language (see Linguistics), correspond to any external reality; at times he seems to go further and suggest that the meaning and shape of the Universe is created by the consciousnesses that observe it.

Questions of good and evil in sf are intimately bound up with questions of human Evolution; to what extent do we carry the mark of the amoral beast within us, imprinted in the more primitive areas of our brains? Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) asks this question, and the theme is still very much alive today, in part through the work of such evolutionary behaviourist popularizers as Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, and in part through sf itself. An example of this kind of metaphysics running wild in sf is Altered States (1978) by Paddy Chayefsky, filmed as Altered States (1980), in which, absurdly, cause and effect are reversed (because consciousness may be coded in the DNA molecule, Chayefsky proposes that alterations in consciousness may be somehow able to alter our genetic make-up); his hero devolves first to hominid, then, briefly, to primal chaos, undifferentiated cosmic matter.

Reversals of cause and effect are not new to sf. It is the very nature of the Time-Travel story to confront us with thought-provoking paradoxes of this sort, and in so doing, of course, to make us speculate about the question (not merely an intellectual game) of whether the shape of our lives is created by free will or determinism. Stories that deal with this issue are legion: two good ones are "The Custodians" (October 1975 F&SF) by Richard Cowper and Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The very nature of causality has been questioned by stories like Brian W Aldiss's An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic!) and other Time in Reverse stories in which the arrow of time is reversed and time runs backwards, such as Dick's Counter-Clock World (1967) and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) (further examples are discussed under Perception); John Crowley's story Great Work of Time (in Novelty, coll 1989; 1991) is perhaps of all time-travel stories the one that most sharply (and movingly) questions the relationship of cause and effect.

The books of writers like Crowley, Gene Wolfe and Ian Watson are actually about metaphysical exploration; but such questions are by no means eschewed by writers of Hard SF. Arthur C Clarke has throughout his career been as interested in metaphysics as in physics; 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) amply testifies to that, as do many of his novels. Within hard sf and Space Opera to this day, metaphysical explorations consistently appear. Greg Bear, in novels like Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) and Eon (1985), perhaps cuts even deeper than Clarke, often by way of fantastic premises: genetically engineered microorganisms that develop a gestalt consciousness and ultimately transform humanity into a new state of being in the former, and the exploration of a conceptually impossible infinitely extended Space Habitat in the latter. While it might be objected that sf, though it indeed tackles metaphysical questions, has very often done so with a gosh-wow, pop crudity – producing metaphysical notions like brightly coloured flags without in the least understanding them – this is certainly not true of the writers of its upper echelons, of whom Bear is one. Another is Paul J McAuley, whose Eternal Light (1991) is the very model of a metaphysical space opera, luring the reader in with promises of high adventure and low conspiracy, and then stirring cosmogony, Genetic Engineering and (of course) the secret history of the Universe into a potent – and really rather demanding – mix. The increased sophistication, in some quarters, of hard sf and space opera must, of course, be connected with the sudden appetite the reading public has shown for nonfiction books by authors like Fred Hoyle, Fritjof Capra, Heinz R Pagels, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies: books about the most far-reaching speculations of contemporary theoretical physics. It was in such popularizations that, for example, most of us first learned about Black Holes, a theme that rapidly became an irresistible magnet for writers of metaphysical hard sf.

There is no traditional crux in metaphysics that is not amply reflected in sf, whether it be "What is the nature of mind as opposed to body?" or "Is there purpose in Nature?" Among sf writers of the pre-World War Two generation, Olaf Stapledon is certainly pre-eminent as a propounder of questions of ultimate meaning: he confronted all the great metaphysical questions one after the other. But Genre SF, too, has been amply supplied with amateur metaphysicians who have often made up in colour and verve what they may have lacked in rigorous thought; they may not have answered the questions but they certainly persuaded the reader to think about them (see Sense of Wonder). A E van Vogt is one such, and Charles L Harness, with his fantastic paradoxes of Cosmology, is another; while even in the early Pulp magazines John Taine, in The Time Stream (December 1931-March 1932 Wonder Stories; 1946) and elsewhere, flung himself headlong and daringly (and quite unselfconsciously) into questions of ultimate meaning. Later, and initially only in garish pulp paperback format, Barrington J Bayley did the same. Sf may derive its muscle and sinew from science and sociology, but much of the time its heartbeat derives from the drama of metaphysics, a drama that seems primarily intellectual, but has an enormous capacity to touch the feelings too. [PN]

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