Philosophy in Science Fiction

Do you have anything to say?

I was always struck by the pithy aphorisms that littered the works of writers such as Zelazny and Heinlein. In a few words they could show what made the protagonist tick, or even the universe.

Robert A Heinlein
I always found myself agreeing with Bob Heinlein, no matter what he wrote. I guess that’s the true magic of a gifted writer. In Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, the protagonist, Lazarus Long, is about 1,000 years old. He exists in a future where those who live a long life (that is significantly more than the normal span of years) end up being rewarded. Think of it as a genetic program. In his case the rewards include rejuvenation and pretty girls. Lazarus been around for quite and he keeps notebooks. As you’d expect, if you’re that long lived, you get to make up your mind about lots of things; heck you invent your own sayings… which is what’s in them. Lazarus Long’s notebooks in gave me plenty to think about.

Time Enough for Love  - Robert Heinlein illustration by Bruce Pennington

Time Enough for Love – Robert Heinlein illustration by Bruce Pennington

Edition shown
New English Library, 1975
Cover price 90p
Illustration: Bruce Pennington (you just know the style of some artists)

I read them, and for me they worked. Somewhere, I remember reading that Heinlein wrote a solipsistic point of view. I need to dig that reference out sometime.
A personal point of view onto the universe.

From the personal to the general; and

Roger Zelazny.
Zelazny was an entirely different proposition. His work (now largely ignored) contains acute observations on human nature. The thing is he does it in the context of the fantastic; which – let’s face it – he outrageously yet successfully, sets in reconstructed religio-belief systems, complete with working philosophical models. His most enduring exposition of this was the Hindu-Buddhist setting to Lord of Light (Hugo and Nebula award winner). Roger knew his game. The settings he used weren’t just eye-candy and weren’t always obvious either. One of his later creations was a rumbustious reimagining of medieval, War of the Roses, England as the Chronicles of Amber. This series spanned 10 novels and several short stories (plus a comic book adaptation or two). His characters are feist; they live and love. Yet something sits behind them, casting a pattern that shapes their lives.
Amber is the true Earth, all else are reflections and shadows. Where have were heard this before? Well I’d contrast this with Plato’s The Laws, pp 299 – 325 which covers the sections:
The Good as Ultimate Object of Knowledge
The Divided Line (the Simile of the Sun)
The Simile of the Cave

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny, illustration by Patrick Woodroffe

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny, illustration by Patrick Woodroffe

Edition shown
Corgi, 1974
Cover price 35p
Illustration: Patrick Woodroffe (hey he’s Yorkshireman like me)

As for the pattern, that empowers all who traverse it – or destroys them if they can’t… ’nuff said. ;-).

For me, that works; it inspires me to write. We authors take what we can from the masters in our craft.

Let’s go back to: Do you have anything to say?
Zelazny, for example, lets it infuse his work. It becomes an essential reference point to how his characters live and feel.

Heinlein and Zelazny set standards and it’s inevitable that you compare yourself against them. In my case, I need different ways of looking at things. I need it (some understanding of philosophy) for my aliens, if they’re not going to come over as Joe Bloggs with purple skin. I’ve provided three examples below.

1) Different culture but human.

2) Totally different to us and way beyond our ability to understand

3) Like us but slightly more advanced.

1) Different culture but human.

Here I look at the San People in the Kalahari Desert. The finer gradations of meaning in their myths will make little sense to others; we could find it difficult to understand. In the following extract, Sophie visits a village of the San for the first time and she asks about the village…

“What is it like here?
“You might know us as the San. Our people have lived here a long time.”
“Is it always this hot?” she knew the answer to this.
“The seasons change. Spring and summer bring rain. We thrive. In the harsh heat we die.”
“What will we do tonight?”
“We will have our meal. As is custom we talk. About the day, ourselves, many things.”
“Do you have other customs?”
“We also dance and paint.”
“Can I watch?”
“Our ways aren’t yours.” But !Isann’i smiled. There was no offence. “We do not do these tonight – they are serious things. You are our guest and do not know our ways yet. Perhaps when you know us better.”
“My mother says you are primitive and uncivilised.”
“Civilisation destroys old ways. Unchannelled it wreaks havoc, leaving ruin in its path.”
“But you have nothing. No cars, no computers, no television. Civilisation is good. It brings good things. Television, mobiles, pop music.”
“And pollution and disease. You are slaves to your civilisation. If you think the wrong thing, Bang! they lock you up. But we are free. A disagreement for us is not the end of the world. If disagreement is very strong, we… we leave. For us each person can be right. For you, even if you disagree, you must think the right thing, or you are wrong.”

The darkness grew and a fire was lit. A rich scent came from the cook pot. Soon the evening meal began. Sophie didn’t dare ask what filled her crudely shaped dish. It looked and smelled like stew but was replete with strange textures and tastes. She imagined that some of it might have been crawling on, or wriggling in the ground, earlier in the day. The sounds of the night were no less than those of the day; a constant stream of insect chirrups and calls.

Her meal was surprisingly good. The San engaged in lively conversation, sometimes in their clicking speech, sometimes in English. !Isann’i and her man, Ghehi, spoke exclusively in English. They debated, gesticulated, joked and re-enacted. Sophie heard the name Utixo several times. She waited for a break in the to and fro of conversation.
“What are you doing, Kissani?”
“We talk about our ways. We talk of Utixo.”
“Who is Utixo?”
“For our people he is a celestial being; lord of the skies.”
“I’ve never heard of Utixo.”
“Utixo sees into our hearts. If a person is undeserving or consumed by pride, Utixo will say his name out loud so Bi-Blouk will hear.”
“Bi-Blouk is also a powerful being. She is dark like the night. Her hair is a firmament of stars and her eyes the grey of rain.
“Is she ugly, cruel and evil? Is she good?”
“A child’s question. She is very beautiful. Why wouldn’t she be? Beauty isn’t kindness. If she hears Utixo say your name, she draws you into her lair and strips your youth from you. If she spits you out again you are ugly. Does that make you evil?”

In this exchange¹ I’ve made Bi-Blouk (a creature of San legends) a stealer of men’s hearts. Although set on Earth, this offers an alternate view of things.

2) Totally different to us and way beyond our ability to understand

The big test is aliens from outer space. My alien here is big and powerful; powerful enough to end all life on this planet should she choose. She. She is Yshierl, one of those set to watch our development (get yer paranoia in gear). Yshierl is a Star Being. Aspects of her act as independent entities. They discuss God, free-will and anything else that will achieve her objectives. She isn’t the peak of evolution and there are rules she is careful to observe. In the following extract, Yshierl’s philosophy (if you’ve done your Plato) is contrasted with on basis of what we know (the Cave, the Sun and Perfect Form).

Shadows without form, flickering in the light of fire. And be the fire too hot, too fierce, an unfaceable truth; then turn to face the walls of the cave where the shadows play; to the seeming of reality.

Sages speak of perfect immutable forms, anchoring the imperfect copies that litter this reality. So then: a perfect leaf? A perfect fruit? Perfect branch, root, tree… for every species of tree? And shrub… grasses, flowers, fungi, animals, fishes, birds, parasites… extinct creatures… all life on this planet, other planets, the extra-stellar (killing) dark, created things, natural things, all phenomena….

How could this be? Perfection in thought, given reality? Given form? On some idealised plane of existence? In some hyper-realised dimensional location?

So the truth is out there? Or perhaps it is hidden within, conscientiously nurtured, guarded for some special time, a time that may never come, or comes only upon expiry. Carefully tended private universes, perfect solipsism.

But we are not shadows; we are made of the stuff of the universe. And in our own small ways do we inscribe patterns. Patterns sucked from the teat of the belief systems to which we subscribe. And sometimes patterns from the heart, beautiful patterns, cruel patterns, true patterns, for are we not a race of sapience, do we not make God in our own image? A metaphysical structure with all our design flaws (but it is ours).

Then consider outside our sandbox, where the big boys play. What are their behaviours and desires, goals and aspirations? Would they understand our limitations? See our constraints as a hurdle in continuum, one which they pass over without a second thought? True and real.

Sometimes Yshierl doesn’t follow the rules. In those instances, she does what she does and then pays the price.²

3) Like us but somewhat more advanced.

What when aliens are almost equal in power and knowledge? Almost, because placing an alien in the present day implies they have access to star-travel and maybe other advanced technologies.

Not looking up, Lucky said conversationally, “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, isn’t it?”

Psycho was restless as if impatient to be causing harm, “Tell her to cut the crap,” he muttered menacingly. His eyes glittered shrill hate.

Lead-guy toyed with his coffee and placed it back down. He put his hands together with fingers clasped and paused for effect. “I’ve limited patience.” He gestured at Psycho behind him, “He’s none. I strongly recommend you don’t play games.”

It occurred to her that here, away from her space vessel, she could be badly injured, or even die. At a pinch, the Expedient could retrieve her but if things came to that pass, it would only be because this planet wasn’t as backwater as it appeared. She hoped that that wasn’t the case.

Lucky a heard faint click from somewhere in the diner. What was it? Neither of the thugs heard it; they were totally focussed on her. They were running low on self restraint, and she, out of time.

Psycho drew himself to his feet. “You know I could just…” The noise of him rising muffled a brief crunching sound. He didn’t finish his sentence, an ear-shattering siren went off. It was the diner alarm.

Lead-guy swivelled to Psycho. “Get that noise off,” he commanded.

Psycho, momentarily taken aback, turned to the counter and bellowed, “For fuck’s sake get that off!” Counter service was nowhere to be seen. Lead-guy dropped his calm exterior and barked, “Sort it!”

Psycho was in the process of sitting back down; he leapt and turned, simultaneously kicking his backpack from under the table. Lucky knew movement. Was she not one of the flowing people? He was unbalanced. To right himself he would need to plant his leg onto something stable. Was his backpack stable? It had moved to the only place he could go. He tried to step beyond it and his foot went onto coffee he’d slopped. He slid awkwardly and flailed; his chair slammed into Lead-guy. She didn’t stare – not while opportunity blossomed. Lead-guy, who was facing her again, whipped his head back around.


The time was now. A split second. Her heart pounded. One swift movement. Rise. Left leg pivot. Deliver a stunning blow across the table to Lead-guy’s neck. The last of her lukewarm espresso was knocked over. Brown stained liquid began brief trajectories, which she ignored, rather, watching his whip lashed head, pulling his body.

Totally unprepared, he sprawled half out of his seat, his hand reaching for a weapon or an enemy.

Two hands.


His head went down on the floor hard. His body untensed as resistance collapsed.

Two split seconds were done. Psycho’s backpack had burst, scattering its contents. Unaware of anything except the alarm ringing in his ears and graceless humiliation, his hands moved to steady his spread-eagled form.

Panic, panic. Deal with him. Make it seem an accident. Balance gracefully. Stride; poise; lash. She delivered a powerful kick to the back of his neck. He tensed. Again! Another precise kick in the same place. Hardly more than a second and it was over.

How could they allow such ill-mannered people to even exist? Not her problem.

Lucky is a humanoid alien – one of the flowing people. She values perfection in movement and regrets that she must hide among the clumsy.  Also, she is a refugee, fleeing a war at the heart of the galaxy. She hopes to pass herself off as human on a relatively obscure planet, known to the locals as Earth. ³

¹ Ice made and other stories p64 (Lulu Quarto edition)

² A Guide to First Contact p493 (Lulu Quarto edition)

³ Lucky and other stories p81 (Lulu Quarto edition)

About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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