Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sci-Fi Plato, Continued: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

"Then, if in the limitless past, those who were foremost in philosophy were forced to take charge of a city or if this is happening now in some foreign place far beyond our ken or if it will happen in the future, we are prepared to maintain our argument that, at whatever time the muse of philosophy controls a city, the constitution we've described will also exist at that time, whether it is past, present, or future.  Since it is not impossible for this to happen, we are not speaking of impossibilities.  That it is difficult for it to happen, however, we agree ourselves."  
- Socrates in Plato's Republic (499d) 
(Grube and Reeve translation)

Jo Walton's The Philosopher Kings is a direct sequel to her earlier book, The Just City, which concerns the time-traveling goddess Athena's attempt to set up the city of Plato's Republic in the distant past, all with some help from Socrates and robots!  In my review of that book, I noted that, as a science fiction fan and philosophy professor who regularly teaches Plato, the book was pretty much tailor made for me.  While the same can be said of the sequel, I have to admit I didn't enjoy it quite as much.

The main reason for this: Socrates is gone along with most of his favorite interlocutors: the robot Workers (their dialogues were my favorite part of the first book).  Without Socrates and the robots, the one isn't as much fun.  

The sequel takes place 20 years after The Just City ends.  We meet the daughter of Apollo and Simmea: Arete (her name means "excellence" or "virtue," which provides plenty of fun word play).  Arete's story is interesting, but it does turn into typical YA fare of a young girl discovering that she's "special."

Other plot points: There's a particularly gory scene involving one character killing another, about which most of the other characters are oddly nonchalant.  Thrown into all this, there are "art raids" in which the cities fight, and occasionally kill, one another to take some precious art for themselves.  A lot of the plot revolves around how these might end.

The book also shares some of the problems with its predecessor: serviceable, but somewhat stylistically flat writing and continuing missed chances for greater cultural diversity that would have added a nice layer.  While I suppose there's more "plot" to this one, a lot of that plot revolves around a somewhat meandering sea voyage that went on and on.  My taste would be for less of this so-called "action" and more Socratic dialogue!

I really loved the end of the book, which I discussed behind a spoiler cut at the end of my Goodreads review.  The spoiler is so awesome that I can hardly wait for the third book.

The Philosophy Report

The sequel jumps ahead 20 years, so the interesting elements of the first book (how to set up the Republic?) are replaced with what you might almost think of as Republic II: The Later Years.

While it's perhaps slightly less interesting for fans of Plato's original book wanting to focus on issues of gender equality and holding spouses and children in common, this creates some interesting reflections of its own: how would a city run by a group of philosophers, who are notorious for their disagreements with each other, possibly agree on enough to maintain a single city?  The answer: they wouldn't.  So in this book the city has fragmented into about a dozen cities, some of which are trying to bring about Plato's Republic in their own way, some of which are doing something else, including trying to establish Christianity 1,000 years before Christ (this brings up some interesting issues about the pros and cons of forgiveness and divine perfection vis-à-vis the Christian God and the Homeric gods and goddesses).

The idea that the philosopher-kings and philosopher-queens would harmoniously agree about everything has always seemed to me like one of the biggest problems with Plato's city.  Walton does a nice job of showing readers what that might look like.  This adds to one of the big themes of the first book about whether Plato's ideal city is a possible society (a subject about which Plato himself was probably more ambivalent than is usually recognized -- see the epigraph at the beginning of this review).

I think there's a further reflection here: utopia may not be attainable, but that doesn't mean we can't use utopian ideas to make things a little better.  As Plato shows us, utopian thinking was around long before anyone thought up the genre we now know as science fiction (not to mention the ways in which studying ancient thought is like reading science fiction).  I often think of the Republic as a work of dystopian science fiction, especially since Socrates originally aims to think of a "healthy city" rather than the "fevered city" he and his friends do end up imagining (see Republic 372a-373e).

By bringing Plato's sci-fi elements to life, Walton shows us the potential of what utopian and dystopian thinking can do for us.  Even if utopia is unattainable, and even if one person's utopia is another's dystopia (as the competing interpretations of Plato's Republic demonstrate), thinking about a society beyond the quotidian concerns and "common sense" of one's day is something worth doing.  Perhaps this is the only way things ever really change.  This is also a lesson of the "ambiguous utopias" of Ursula Le Guin and Iain M. Banks, but it's good to get some support from Plato as well.

Rating: 87/100

See also my Goodreads review, which includes discussion of the ending behind a spoiler cut.

1 comment:

  1. See a great review at Val's Random Comments: