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Creative inspiration from philosophy

Stuck for a story idea? How about following in the footsteps of storytellers who have used philosophical and scientific theories to spark fascinating speculative fiction?

Plato’s cave and The Matrix

Buy poster at Art.comPlato imagined a number of people held prisoner in a cave for most of their lives. They faced the wall of the cave upon which shadows of animals were projected. To the prisoners, these shadows represented the only reality they were aware of. Then one of the prisoners breaks free, and turns to face the lamplight and the forms creating the shadows. For a time the light blinds him and the real animals seem less real than the shadow projections. When he becomes used to the light, however, he can see the reality of the animals. The prisoner escapes to the surface, and now is blinded by the bright sunlight. The outside world again looks alien and unreal compared to what he is used to in the cave. When his eyes become used to the light, though, he sees the truth of his situation. Now he feels compelled to return to the cave and rescue the other prisoners, but when he does so, they don’t believe his story because what he shows them seems unreal to them. After a while back in the dark trying to convince his friends, the first prisoner begins to believe he imagined the real world after all.

Plato’s allegory inspired the Warkowski brothers, who modernised it in The Matrix, finding the virtual reality concept a perfect substitute for shadow projections on the wall of a cave. Having stepped free of the illusion, their protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves), at first finds it difficult to understand that the constraints he lived with his entire life – gravity, pain – need no longer apply to one who has seen the truth of the illusion.

Socrates’ daemon and His Dark Materials

Socrates believed in a daemon as a guardian angel that he conversed with and which had a specific personality. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (Northern Lights), every human being is partnered with a daemon, an external representation of their soul.

Buy poster at Art.comThe grandfather paradox and Back to the Future

If you go back in time and murder your grandfather before he has children, will you cease to exist? But if you don’t exist, you cannot go back in time to kill your grandfather. Which means that you will exist and be able to return in time to bump off the old guy after all.

In the 1980s movie Back to the Future, Marty (Michael J Fox) ends up in the past and threatens the chance of his parents getting together. With every mistake that he makes that adds to the possibility, his picture in a family photograph he carries begins to fade out of existence.

The Butterfly Effect

The knock-on effect of something even as minute as the air currents moved by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can cause a catastrophe as huge as a hurricane by the time it reaches the other side of the world. This analogy applies to the concept that changing even the smallest thing in the past can be multiplied or distorted by every other thing that it changes.

Both The Butterfly Effect and Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder are great examples of this theory used in speculative fiction. In The Butterfly Effect, Evan (Ashton Kutcher) returns to his past self numerous times in order to prevent tragedy in the future. However, every time he changes his past actions the future results are disastrous and he has to return to try again.

In the movie version of A Sound of Thunder, a businessman (played by Ben Kingsley) has created a safari tour that allows hunters to take down a dinosaur in the past. It is perfectly controlled until one of the hunters accidentally kills a butterfly and the evolutionary chain reaction begins.

If you enjoy reading or writing speculative fiction, you may like A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories by Ray Bradbury or Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine

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