Thursday, September 22, 2016

Sci-Fi Plato, Part Three: Necessity by Jo Walton



As a science fiction fan and philosophy professor who teaches Plato's Republic every year, Jo Walton's Thessaly series is right up my alley (see my reviews of The Just City and The Philosopher Kings here and here ...).  The Just City made my list of Philosophical SF Recommendations.  I was lucky enough to meet Walton at a book signing recently when I attended the 74th Worldcon.  I told her that as a philosopher I approve of a series that involves a time-travelling goddess setting up Plato's Republic with some help from Socrates ... and robots!  She was amused.

I continued to love the philosophical aspects of this third book in the series (especially with Crocus the robot!).  While I really liked the ending, I found a lot of the plot of this one to be a bit meandering and sometimes difficult to follow.



The Philosophy Report

The philosophical questions here come up around Crocus the robot philosopher and around concepts of time and determinism (or Necessity as the case may be).  The latter questions are interesting enough (although they are elaborated a bit too mythologically and hazily for my tastes).  The questions surrounding Crocus are most interesting.

These mostly come up in Crocus's excellent POV chapters, which totally made the book for me.  Can a robot be a philosopher?  Do robots have souls? (In this universe it is established by the gods that humans have souls, so this is a somewhat more pointed question than it is here in the real world where matters concerning souls are equally unclear for everyone, especially if you ask Buddhist philosophers!).  Would Plato's Republic work as a city if all the citizens were robots?  Is it our human emotions and sexual desires that make Plato's perfectly rational city elusive for us?

Walton raised a lot of excellent questions about the idea of the Republic in the first book, especially when it came to issues of gender and sexuality.  The second book was more focused on whether philosophers, even those fully trained in the city, would agree enough to maintain a single city (spoiler: no).  Walton does a great job of dramatizing some of the more serious critiques of Plato's Republic.  She also raises the issue of whether Plato's proposal is meant as a serious political theory (I tend to say it's not).



Planet Plato!

This third book is a bit less focused on whether the Republic is feasible.  It takes place decades after the previous installment when all the cities are more-or-less stable and ... well, I guess I'll have to write the rest of this review with a heavy spoiler alert!




SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!  .

.. okay, spoiler alert in full effect!

...

Don't say I didn't warn you!


... this one takes place after Zeus has angrily banished the Platonic cities far into the future to a distant exoplanet called, well, Plato.  There the humans meet two alien species, one of which, the Saeli, has some individuals interested in becoming citizens in the human cities.  Even cooler, there is a ship of Earth humans from the 26th century about to arrive!

So you think the book is going to be about the aliens and meeting the Earth humans.  Fun times!

But wait!  Then Apollo dies in his human form and becomes a full god again only to discover that his sister, Athene, the one who started this whole crazy experiment, has gone missing in time, presumably somewhere into timeless, formless Chaos.

What follows for a good chunk of the book is a weird, meandering quest to find Athene with clues scattered throughout time, a lot of which I found a bit confusing.  Whether this was the reader's fault for not paying close enough attention or the author's fault for not being clear enough, I can't say.

The best news in all this is that we find out where Athene banished Socrates after she turned him into a gadfly (a hilarious joke for those who've read Plato's Apology).  He's been transported back in time millions of years ago where he's hanging out with dinosaurs!  Apollo turns Socrates back into a human and they eventually return to the planet Plato back in the future, where Socrates is reunited with his dear friend Crocus and ends up in a "pod," a sort of group marriage with an alien demigod and three younger citizens.  Oh, there's also an alien trickster god who for awhile is pretending to be Hermes.

One of my criticisms of the earlier books is that I think Walton missed a good chance for cultural diversity.  In this one the space humans are supposed to be speaking English and Korean (but we never meet them).  We get an alien god and hints at alien pantheons, but no human gods besides Greek or Christian ones ... not a single Hindu, Yoruba, Norse, Dakota, etc. deity to be found, which is a shame really.  That could have been a lot of fun.

Eventually it all gets wrapped up and Zeus lets them off easy, because Athene was just trying to learn and pursue excellence, which it turns out, is what Zeus condones as the meaning of life (maybe this is where Aristotle got the idea in Nicomachean Ethics!).

Wait a minute, what about those space humans?  They're mentioned in Crocus's last POV chapter, where it turns out they're almost as un-excellent, greedy, bigoted against robots, and unappreciative of equal significance as we 21st century humans.  They only appear in the final pages where the whole series ends ... well, not on a cliff hanger, exactly.

Apollo tells us that nothing really ever ends, least of all for immortals like him.  I was slightly annoyed throughout the book not to get the story of contact with the space humans, but the more I think about how dramatically and thematically excellent the ending is, I'm actually inclined to forgive what initially seemed like narrative suicide.

I admit to getting a bit misty-eyed after all when I read the final lines, which are a perfect end to this series:
"I ended the first volume with a moral, and the second with a deus ex machina.  This third and final volume ends with hope, always the last thing to come out of any box" (p. 331).

Rating: 88/100

(See also my Goodreads review).

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