Books : reviews

David Kyle Johnson.
Sci-Phi: science fiction as philosophy.
Great Courses. 2018

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 11 April 2019

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially a transcript of each lecture, plus a few pictures, and some resources and related reading.

I watched the lectures, rather than reading the book, as that was easier to do over lunch. The theme is that before each lecture, you are supposed to watch a particular science fiction film or TV episode, which is then used to illustrate the philosophical question at the centre of the lecture. I didn’t do this “preparation”, I confess, although I had seen many of the works previously.

Johnson certainly has a good knowledge of SF films and TV: he referenced many more films and shows than just the “required watching”. It is not all American based, either, as he includes Dr. Who, and at one point he talks about a TV show that he thinks no-one will have heard of: Blake’s Seven. Gosh, did that not make it over the pond?

I felt that sometimes the SF references seem a little strained, or over-interpreted, to support the points being made. For some of the more science-based issues (like time travel and artificial intelligence) I sometimes found myself shouting at the screen: “you can’t say that; that’s not how it works!” Also, the philosophy is quite introductory, and I sometimes found myself shouting at the screen: “you’re just stating that without justification!” (Which probably happens all the time in philosophy lectures.)

However, there is a good wide range of material here: free will, science versus religion, time travel, artificial intelligence, rebellion and just wars, post-colonialism, euthanasia, feminism, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and more. All good for making you think (when not shouting at the screen).