Rationalist Fiction

Followup to: Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Fiction
Reply to: On Juvenile Fiction

MBlume asked us to remember what childhood stories might have influenced us toward rationality; and this was given such excellent answers as Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. So now I’d like to ask a related question, expanding the purview to all novels (adult or child, SF&F or literary): Where can we find explicitly rationalist fiction?

Now of course there are a great many characters who claim to be using logic. The whole genre of mystery stories with seemingly logical detectives, starting from Sherlock Holmes, would stand in witness of that.

But when you look at what Sherlock Holmes does—you can’t go out and do it at home. Sherlock Holmes is not really operating by any sort of reproducible method. He is operating by magically finding the right clues and carrying out magically correct complicated chains of deduction. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that reading Sherlock Holmes does not inspire you to go and do likewise. Holmes is a mutant superhero. And even if you did try to imitate him, it would never work in real life.

Contrast to A. E. van Vogt’s Null-A novels, starting with The World of Null-A. Now let it first be admitted that Van Vogt had a number of flaws as an author. With that said, it is probably a historical fact about my causal origins, that the Null-A books had an impact on my mind that I didn’t even realize until years later. It’s not the sort of book that I read over and over again, I read it and then put it down, but -

- but this is where I was first exposed to such concepts as “The map is not the territory” and “rose1 is not rose2″.

Null-A stands for “Non-Aristotelian”, and the premise of the ficton is that studying Korzybski’s General Semantics makes you a superhero. Let’s not really go into that part. But in the Null-A ficton:

1) The protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, is not a mutant. He has studied rationality techniques that have been systematized and are used by other members of his society, not just him.

2) Van Vogt tells us what (some of) these principles are, rather than leaving them mysteriously blank—we can’t be Gilbert Gosseyn, but we can at least use some of this stuff.

3) Van Vogt conveys the experience, shows Gosseyn in action using the principles, rather than leaving them to triumphant explanation afterward. We are put into Gosseyn’s shoes at the moment of his e.g. making a conscious distinction between two different things referred to by the same name.

This is a high standard to meet.

But Marc Stiegler’s David’s Sling (quoted in e.g. this post) meets this same standard: The Zetetics derive their abilities from training in a systematized tradition; we get to see the actual principles the Zetetics are using, and they’re ones we could try to apply in real life; and we’re put into their shoes at the moments of their use.

I mention this to show that it isn’t only van Vogt who’s ever done this.


...those two examples actually exhaust my knowledge of the science fiction and fantasy literature, so far as I can remember.

It really is a very high standard we’re setting here. To realistically show your characters using an interesting technique of rationality, you have to know an interesting technique of rationality. Van Vogt was inspired by Korzybski, who—I discovered when I looked this up, just now—actually invented the phrase “The map is not the territory”. Marc Stiegler was inspired by, among other sources, Eric Drexler and Robin Hanson. (Stiegler has another novel called Earthweb about using prediction markets to defend the Earth from invading aliens, which was my introduction to the concept of prediction markets.)

If I relax the standard to focus mainly on item (3), fiction that transmits a powerful experience of using rationality, then I could add in Greg Egan’s Distress, some of Lawrence Watt-Evans’s strange little novels, the travails of Salvor Hardin in the first Foundation novel, and probably any number of others.

But what I’m really interested in is whether there’s any full-blown Rationalist Fiction that I’ve missed—or maybe just haven’t remembered. Failing that, I’m interested in stories that merely do a good job of conveying a rationalist experience. (Please specify which of these cases is true, if you make a recommendation.)