Thursday, January 28, 2010

Philosophy: Science Fiction as Commentary

(this post started out as an introduction to my review of Camouflage... and then just kept growing, so I decided to make it its own post)

Joe Haldeman is best known for his novels Forever War and Forever Peace, neither of which I have read. From what I understand, however, Forever War was a scathing commentary on the Vietnam War, thereby doing what science fiction does best - thinly discussing a critique on a current problem that everybody else is perfectly comfortable critiquing without the disguise (that is, when it is critiquing an old issue that everyone is perfectly comfortable talking about out in the open).


I actually think that science fiction can be quite good at critiquing issues that people don't feel comfortable talking about. On the other hand it seems that, at least in modern science fiction, people do a lot of disguising of things that don't need to be disguised, just so they can pat themselves on the back for having commented on a political issue. I think now, for example, of Battlestar Galactica, which did a commentary on the Iraq War when everyone was already opposed, or District 9 which commented on apartheid (what shall we do next, make a science fiction story that is a disguised portrait of how evil the Nazis were?).

Ultimately, I don't think science fiction has to be a commentary on anything, it can tell good stories and weave important myths. But, if you're going to use it as a vehicle for veiled social commentary, at least comment on something worthy of being veiled.

Thank you.

Book Review: Camouflage

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman
2005 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel 

My review of this will be short, because really I don't have that much to say. The basic premise involved to alien shapeshifters who had spent millions of years on Earth. So long, in fact, that both had forgotten their origins. In the near future, however, a team of scientists unearth an alien artifact that draws them both to it - the one because he is trying to discover his origins, the other because he is driven to kill any beings like him. 

 It was a fairly interesting set up, with aliens that were moderately alien in their psychology (though not enough so if you ask me). The pacing was also quite good, and I kept turning the pages waiting to find out who these aliens were, why they were on Earth, and why the one was driven to kill the other. There was too much of that modern science-fiction impulse to have frequent and pointless sex scenes. I find it all rather juvenile, but can look past it for a riveting story.

*SPOILER (mouse over to read)
Unfortunately, all that excited page turning went entirely unrewarded. The book ends with an anti-climactic battle between the two aliens, followed by the "good" one giving us exposition on who he is that only tells us information we (as the readers) already knew, and explaining that he doesn't know who the other alien is. Then he flies away.

That's it.


This actually seems to be a chronic problem with science fiction writers. They're often brilliant at set up, but totally fall on their faces when it comes to execution.

Oh well.

Ultimately, Camouflage was neither particularly spectacular, nor entirely terrible, and so my concluding thoughts on the book are... "meh". 

Philosophy: Animal Experimentation

It's been some time now since I've published a blog, what with one thing and another (insert excuse here).  Regardless, the time has come for me to get back in the saddle, and ride valiantly into the bloggosphere. To start up, I thought I might begin with a light and cheerful subject - animal experimentation.

This quarter I've been taking a class on Rationality and Emotion, which includes lots of readings (mostly written by the teacher) that, among other things, talk about a variety of experiments done on animals in the area of cognitive research.

I'm not sure what I think of this.

Now, let me be clear, I think animals (and nature in general) should be treated with respect and cared for as much as possible, but I do not think they have priority over humans. As such, I really have no problem with experiments designed to, say, search for cures for cancer... or even for the common cold (though I do think we should do our very best to do as minimal damage in the process as possible).

On the other hand, I'm very strongly against experimentation for frivolities - makeup, for example. I don't think there's anything wrong with makeup per se, but I think it's terribly wrong to test makeup on animals to make sure it doesn't irritate eyes or cause blindness. If that's the cost, makeup can go (or, you know, we could just use the formulas we already have that work fine). 

But what about pure research? Certainly, such research is not a frivolity like makeup, but then neither is it directed towards any specific good. Some of the experiments I've read about recently have included creating lesions in bird brains to test if a certain cognitive function still worked, removing parts of monkey brains to find out where the anticipation response lies, and subjecting rats to painful electrical shocks to test how strong their curiosity is. At least on the face of it, this strikes me as unjustified cruelty, yet it's not as straight forward as the makeup case.

 For one thing, while such pure research is not directed at any sort of cure, it often results in accidental beneficial side effects. In testing what part of the brain controls a certain cognitive function, we may in fact discover how to restore that function in humans who have lost it.

I think, in general, I'm leaning towards thinking this sort of research is unethical, but I am certainly not totally decided. Thoughts?