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Feminist Philosophy And Science FictionReview - Feminist Philosophy And Science Fiction
Utopias And Dystopias
by Judith A. Little (Editor)
Prometheus Books, 2007
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Jan 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 2)

Thought experiments are a staple in philosophy. We all remember the unconscious violinist, the Thomson lamp, Galileo's complex objects, People seeds, and Einstein's elevator. These "experiments" are narratives designed to stimulate thought on some philosophical problem or other and to encourage discussion. Often challenging, they ask readers to reconsider long held beliefs and pay attention to the consequences of a position. For example, imagine that there is a village in which all the adult males are clean shaven. In the village is a barber. The barber shaves all and only those adult males who do not shave themselves. So, if Bob shaves himself then the barber does not shave Bob. And, if Bob does not shave himself then the barber does shave Bob.

Question: Does the barber shave himself?

Russell's teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies somehow upon the skeptic to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religion. In an article entitled Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell said the following:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

In addition to providing opportunity for discussion thought experiments are also just plain fun. Students of all ages love them.

And they will love Little's book. She presents a series of stories written by first rate sci-fi writers to support discussion of some serious problems in the history of utopian and dystopian philosophy as well as feminist and anti-feminist Western philosophy. Little includes selections from such noted writers as Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Karen Joy Fowler, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., and many others. These stories are collected under four main themes:

1.    "Human Nature and Reality" -- which concentrates on the question "Is there an intrinsic difference between males and females.

2.    "Dystopias: The Worst of all Possible Worlds" -- which portray world where men and women are constantly at war or where women find themselves mere slaves in misogynistic societies (that sound eerily familiar).

3.    "Separatist Utopias: Worlds of Difference "-- which ask probing questions concerning the reasons women might desire to be separate.

4.    "Androgynous Utopias: Worlds of Equality," in which the authors create possible worlds that anticipate the consequences, good and bad, of perfect sexual equality in education, intelligence, capability, and reproduction.

One reviewer (Bill Clemente) writes, "While fashioned as an academic text, this compelling anthology belongs in every Science Fiction collection." And this reviewer would add that the general reader as well as philosophy students will find the collection compelling. Although presented as a standard text book with introductory questions to direct readers to key ideas, and a set of discussion questions after each story for classroom discussion, the book is exemplary in its selection of stories which not only bring out the topics but do so with narrative skill and exciting prose. Story after story presents readers with often shocking situations which will challenge and upset, and force assessment of attitudes and beliefs. Employing science fiction to investigate feminist ideas is a beautiful marriage. These possible worlds often impinge on the actual world and force us to evaluate, and ask us to think.

Using What if? --  the basic question of all drama, Little's book forces us to consider counterfactuals and to relate imaginative worlds of narrative to the world of convention we have created.

© 2009 Bob Lane

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.

 


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