Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger and the Idea of Space Travel

The crew of the Challenger
Thirty years ago today seven US astronauts were killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 78 seconds after launch.

At the time I was in third grade at Birch Grove Elementary in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Our teachers wheeled TVs into a classroom so we could watch the coverage. We may have been watching the whole launch, especially since a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on board, but what I remember most is the aftermath: stunned and distraught teachers and confused and distraught kids. As a space-loving nine-year-old, it was one of the saddest days I had experienced in my young life.

After the Challenger disaster a lot of people have wondered if space travel is worth the risk. Given the dangers and expenditures involved in human space flight, maybe we would be better off focusing on our problems here on Earth.

Others are more qualified to comment on the commercial and scientific benefits of space travel, but as a philosopher and science fiction fan it seems to me that another possible benefit involves the very idea of space travel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Imposing Nonviolence: The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown

A few years ago I read one of Brown's short stories (in The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF), which I loved, so I've been keen to read more of his work.  The Serene Invasion has a lot of great ideas that made me want to love it, but it doesn't come together as well as it could have.

The good

I'm a sucker for the SF trope of benevolent aliens.  Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is one of my all time favorites, and Brown obviously owes a lot to that novel (see my review of Clarke's novel and the recent SyFy miniseries).  Like Clarke's Overlords, Brown's aliens, the Serene, come to Earth to help us create utopia, although the Serene are slightly more proactive in that they make all acts of violence on Earth impossible (how they do this is pretty interesting).

I liked all the characters, and it's good to see an international cast.  Ana Devi, who we first meet as a street kid in Kolkata, was my favorite, but I also liked the others, especially Kath, a kindly English friend who has some big surprises.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Celebrities Die And So Will You

In recent weeks we've seen a lot of famous people die, especially musicians.  Lemmy Kilmister, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey have all shuffled off this mortal coil.
Bowie's SF film,
The Man Who Fell to Earth

Death is one of the deepest issues we confront as human beings, and it has been for thousands of years.  What's relatively new is the internet-fueled cult of celebrity that provides the fabric of so much of our popular culture these days.

The Oddity of Mourning Celebrities

I'm not opposed to online expressions of grief for celebrities (see my tribute to Leonard Nimoy), but I do find it somewhat odd that we pour so much effort into grieving for people who are strangers.  There's also an interesting issue of grieving for our favorites while mocking others who do the same (see, "You Mourned David Bowie, but Mocked Glenn Frey.  Why?").  I wonder to what extent online celebrity grief represents an unhealthy reaction to the existential fact of death.  Are we engaged in the online denial of death?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

MLK, Social Justice, and Science Fiction

“We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. , Strength to Love (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be observed tomorrow here in the United States.  This is my favorite holiday.  As I explained in a post last year, this is because it's a holiday about hope for a better future, rather than a holiday of pure remembrance or a religious holiday that can't speak to everyone.
MLK Memorial, Washington, DC

Before I get into the substance of this post, I should note that the bad part of the MLK holiday is that it sometimes encourages people to reduce King to a sanitized, apolitical dreamer, while he was in fact a controversial figure who worked on labor issues and opposed the war in Vietnam in addition to his more famous work in civil rights and his often misunderstood commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence (for more, see "The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King, Jr.").  We tend to forget that that was controversial in his day.  And since I live in a country where nine people were murdered in a church in June 2015 and police are routinely still not indicted for killing black people, even 12-year-old boys like Tamir Rice, I think it's safe to say that we have a great deal of work to do in this country when it comes to racial justice.

MLK and Science Fiction

While thinking about ways to commemorate the MLK holiday on the blog this year, I thought I would try to see what connections, if any, I might find between King and science fiction.  I thought of two such connections.  I remembered that King once talked Nichelle Nichols into staying on as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek.  I also recalled being introduced to the idea of "visionary fiction" in an anthology called Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements; according to this idea science fictional thinking about new ways of being is an essential part of working for justice.
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura

Friday, January 15, 2016

2015 TV: Sense8, The Expanse, Childhood's End

While I tried to read a lot of new books and watch a lot of new movies in 2015, I didn't watch much new science fiction TV in 2015.  Maybe it's because I don't have cable or satellite, maybe it's because I'm too technologically inept and vaguely guilty when it comes to illegal downloading, or maybe it's just because I've been slowly working my way through older shows, like Futurama and Babylon 5.  

The few new TV shows I did watch were Sense8, The Expanse, and Childhood's End, and the last two I didn't watch until 2016!

With a sample size so small, a "best of" list seemed a bit presumptuous, so instead I think of this as a report on three new shows.


Whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that this creation of the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski is one of the most ambitious things on TV.  The series was filmed on location on four continents with a diverse ensemble cast.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Year in the Life of an Academic

Over at The Indian Philosophy Blog (where I am the Book Review Editor and a contributor) blog co-founder Elisa Freschi issued a call for "End of the Year Balances."  Perhaps inspired by my recent 2015 favorites lists here on this blog (see my favorite movies and favorite books of 2015), I thought I'd comment with a list of some of my academic accomplishments of 2015.

A philosophy professor's natural habitat

It then occurred to me that, if the blank looks on some people's faces when I tell them I'm a philosophy professor are any indication, there may also be some general interest in understanding just what a professor of philosophy actually does for a living.  And thus was born the idea for a post on a year in the life of an academic.

Here are are some things I did in 2015 in my role as a philosophy professor:

Saturday, January 2, 2016

2015 Books: Favorites and Oddities

In addition to watching a lot of movies, I read a lot of good books in 2015.  I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and Iain M. Banks’s Culture series.  I read classics from some of my favorites, like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.  
Some of the new books I read (or started reading) in 2015

If you care to check out my Goodreads Year in Books, you might notice that I read mostly older books.  The main reason for this is that I tend to get books from libraries and used book stores.  I also read almost exclusively paper books rather than e-books (see "In Praise of Paper Books.")

Nonetheless, I’m trying to read more new books, both to stay hip and because reviews of new books tend to generate more interest. It also gives me material for a Favorites of 2015 list limited to books that were published in 2015. But because I can't help it, I'll discuss a few older books and oddities after the Favorites list. Without further ado...