The Story of the Series
Why create this series, you might ask? That's a great question. . . and there's a story to be told. . .
Towards the end of 2015, while discussing partnering on a monthly talk series with the Brookfield public library, I proposed a set of lectures and discussions on a topic I've long been interested in - philosophical themes in classic science fiction and fantasy. The idea was enthusiastically received, and we started planning out the first year of the talk series, starting with January 2016 and running through December of that year.
From the first lecture on, we have been quite fortunate in its reception. We really have two main audiences. The first consists of people local to the greater Milwaukee area who drive out to the library to attend and participate in the talks. Those are the audience who you hear but don't see in the videos, and many of them are regulars who make an effort to read and join in each month. The second audience is the much larger number of people worldwide who watch the videos after I post them, sometimes commenting on them as well. Both the local in-person and the worldwide virtual audiences have been quite engaged not only with the books we're reading, but in the discussions that make up this series. In fact, they consistently ask for more!
One of my main motives for suggesting this series was that it would provide me a pretext for routinely indulging myself in a bit of "guilty pleasure" reading. Most of the reading that I get to do - given my heavy workload - is within my main field, philosophy. Working on a talk series like this lets me instead focus on authors and literature that I do greatly enjoy, but often don't make the time to read. These included Phillip K. Dick, J.R.R. Tolkein, A.A Van Vogt, and George R.R. Martin.
I had two other reasons as well. One of them is that providing the series would also allow me to revisit authors I had not read - but remembered enjoying - for many years. Some of these - like Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Mervyn Peake, I had last read during my college years, more than two decades ago.
The other main reason for proposing the series was that I thought many other people would likely find it to be a stimulating set of discussions. That did turn out to be the case, and that does provide me significant motivation for continuing it - the fact that other people enjoy these conversations about classic speculative fiction, narrative worlds, and philosophical themes. It's a lot of work on my part, but I'm quite happy to do it, since it clearly is of interest to many people locally and worldwide.
How did we settle on these three main dimensions that run through each of the talks, and through the series as a whole? When you watch the video of the very first session, you'll hear me answering that question in great detail. But for the moment, here are some of the general ideas.
Why speculative fiction? It's a broader term, really an umbrella, under which a number of different genres can be found. These do include the science fiction and fantasy genres that the first lecture particularly focuses upon. But speculative fiction also includes horror and "weird" tales, utopian and dystopian literature, alternate histories, superhero stories, cyberpunk, and several other genres as well. So that fit this series - and many of the authors - a bit better than simply "scifi and fantasy".
Why worlds? Great fiction authors generate rich narrative worlds that draw us in and evoke a desire for additional exploration on our parts. What are the rules that govern these worlds? How does the author develop them? Is there some larger moral or metaphysical vision lying behind the narrative universe? What changes and what remains the same? These are literary questions, but they also fall within the province of the philosopher.
Why philosophical themes? Well, precisely because they are there, in these great works of speculative fiction. Sometimes, you will find explicit references to philosophers, their books, and their ideas woven into the stories. At other times, the connection clearly intended by the author calls to be drawn out. Authors themselves are often within the partial grip of a broadly philosophical doctrine, movement, or problem, sometimes without realizing it. And sometimes, it just clarifies things to point out where something we see in the story fits in well with some classical or contemporary philosophical theme.
The last thing I'll say at this point is about the fact that we are now in our seventh year of the series. It was such an initial success that we were asked back to continue it at the Brookfield Library, and viewers have been asking for more as well. When Covid-19 closed down the libraries, after a break of several months, we moved the series online. That's the setting that we have remained in though the present. We plan to remain in this online setting for the foreseable future