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Review: The Philosopher at the End of The Universe By Mark Rowlands

The Philosopher at the End of the UniverseI used to have this deal. I like to keep myself well anchored outside of the world of genre by reading widely – I also enjoy variety – and so I used to read at least one non-fiction book a month. I haven’t done this in ages but for various reasons I thought I’d start again.

Anyway, that’s how I came to be reading The Philosopher at the End of The Universe. A light introduction to the broad themes of modern day philosophy using science fiction films to illustrate the main arguments.

It’s a pretty broad canvas that Rowlands takes the reader on, from the nature of reality, through why you should be moral, to do you in fact really exist and can you actually be held responsible for your own actions. There’s a fair range of movies in the discussion including Total Recall, Terminator, Lord of The Rings (in the latest edition), Aliens, Blade Runner and Minority Report.

The book’s premise is a good one. Science fiction often deals with philosophical themes and arguments even with such sugar-coated films as Star Wars or steroid enhanced, fight fests like Total Recall. The prose style is clean and has a welcome smattering of humour although some of it not as funny as perhaps the author intended.

I did feel some of the essays – particularly the one on personal identity – failed to follow up properly on the theories covered – I found myself going “Yes but…” a lot. Also, none of the science anecdotes were followed up with any reference or further reading recommendations – a shame but I guess ready access to the internet could overcome this.

The most recent essay on The Lord of The Rings was actually the weakest essay. It was added as a way of bringing the book up to date and of talking about cultural relativism. I know the Lord of the Rings is a recent film hit but really there is no context where The Lord of the Rings could be called a science fiction film. It’s a fantasy film. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but Star Trek has a really good example of cultural relativism in its treatment of the Klingons over the arc of the films and through a single example in Star Trek VI.

And I’m sure even better more hardcore SF examples can be found with a bit of digging.

The book was a worthwhile read. I think if you’ve never read any philosophy and are seeking a light introduction then this is an entertaining walk through the major themes. However, you’re liable to get a bit frustrated if you’ve done any kind of prior reading in this area.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag on this one. I think it probably achieves its aim but it irritated the hell out of me in the process. Then again I did read to the end – not something I do for all non-fiction.

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