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June 13, 2011 12:50 PM   Subscribe

What is the most thought-provoking speculative fiction you've read on the subject of human consciousness and thought?
posted by Bookhouse to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Ted Chiang's Understand blew my fuckin' mind just last week.
posted by notsnot at 1:09 PM on June 13, 2011 [24 favorites]

Ted Chang was the first author that popped into my head while reading this question - his short stories Understand and Story of Your Life. Similar to Understand there's Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

On preview, I see I was beaten by notsnot.
posted by Gori Girl at 1:11 PM on June 13, 2011

Rushing in to be the first to suggest pretty much anything by Philip K. Dick.

I don't know if you like comics but Alan Moore and Grant Morrison both have some pretty amazing works on the subject. Again, just about anything.
posted by gerryblog at 1:18 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might like He, She, and It by Marge Piercy.
posted by 4ster at 1:19 PM on June 13, 2011

Connie Willis' Passage might suit.
posted by rtha at 1:22 PM on June 13, 2011

Greg Egan's Permutation City.
posted by orthogonality at 1:25 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another hat in the Chiang-ring; "Understand" is, indeed, mindblowing.

Gregory Benford's short story "A Tapestry of Thought" is more straight-up science fiction, but a good one.
posted by griphus at 1:42 PM on June 13, 2011

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

(still chipping away at it)
posted by jon1270 at 1:53 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

To be clear, the above isn't intended to be fiction so maybe that's a bad suggestion.
posted by jon1270 at 1:53 PM on June 13, 2011

Great Apes by Will Self. Focuses more on human culture than consciousness, but the two are related.
posted by yarly at 2:03 PM on June 13, 2011

Bookhouse: Greg Egan's single-author anthology Axiomatic is likely something which fits the bill. Others have recommended his novels but I think the anthology is more in line with your question.
posted by Justinian at 2:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, while more of a near-future thriller and not quite up to Egan's level, R. Scott Baker's Neuropath is extremely disturbing and thought-provoking. It would argue that "thought-provoking" is a meaningless phrase, in fact. The disturbing part is that I probably agree even while feeling like I have thoughts being provoked.
posted by Justinian at 2:09 PM on June 13, 2011

Thanks for the suggestions so far. I just finished Understand and yes, that's what I'm looking for. Throwing some of the other suggestions into the Amazon cart.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:19 PM on June 13, 2011

Roger MacBride Allen's The Modular Man is a pretty interesting legal wrangling over where consciousness begins and ends.

The book Blindsight by Peter Watts is a first-contact story that goes way into what consciousness is even for as a survival trait.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 2:21 PM on June 13, 2011

Blindsight by Peter Watts.

This recommendation is apparently becoming a Mefi cliche (I've certainly been doing my part). Nonetheless, it's excellent. Weaves together many ideas from philosophy of mind and abnormal psych. It's possibly the most impressive example of sci-fi as a literature of ideas. It's short on gee-whiz and long on insight and horror.

"Understand" is a good yarn but I don't think it says that much, and it's hand-wavey in the places where it should be most lucid. By contrast Blindsight stands out for its rigor. It makes out its theses with particularity and isn't shy about getting to the heart of things; all of this at no cost to the sense of wonder.
posted by grobstein at 2:24 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you liked "Understand," you should check out the post I did on Chiang last year rounding up all his short stories. He deals with consciousness a lot -- some other good ones of his on the topic are "Exhalation," which uses a clockwork scientist's self-dissection as a metaphor for entropy and the mind, and "Story of Your Life," which looks at the impact of language on the perception of time.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:26 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ken Liu's Algorithms for Love is about a woman who designs very intelligent autonomous dolls.
posted by segfault at 2:30 PM on June 13, 2011

more greg egan: Reasons to be Cheerful.
posted by jeffj at 2:54 PM on June 13, 2011

Greg Bear's Queen of Angels.
posted by Zonker at 2:55 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is Robert J. Sawyer's bread and butter. Off the top of my head: The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Mindscan, and the recently concluded trilogy of Wake, Watch and Wonder all revolve around pretty high-concept ideas of consciousness and artificial intelligence (especially as contrasted with "natural" minds). Plus he'll fulfill your Canadian content requirements for months. :)
posted by Zozo at 3:24 PM on June 13, 2011

Nthing Greg Egan--I'll add Closer and TAP.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:41 PM on June 13, 2011

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.
posted by Daily Alice at 3:47 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Douglas Hofstadter's The Mind's I is a good collection of essays and short stories.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:03 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Which reminds me....I gotta read that book again. My favorite of TS.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 5:14 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just finished the awesome book "The End of Mr Y", by Scarlett Thomas, and it's about a lot (a lot!) of things, including thought and consciousness. It's been mentioned here before.
posted by Gorgik at 9:51 PM on June 13, 2011

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Might not be exactly what you're looking for but I thought I'd throw it in the mix.
posted by northxnorthwest at 1:22 AM on June 14, 2011

His Master's Voice by Stanisław Lem.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:46 AM on June 14, 2011

There's a few extracts and shorts mixed with some essays on consciousness in The Mind's I by Hofstadter and Dennet. Might lead you to other things too.
posted by pmcp at 7:22 AM on June 14, 2011

Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World might fit.
posted by missix at 10:53 AM on June 14, 2011

Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers.
posted by barjo at 11:20 AM on June 14, 2011

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