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.)