November 22, 2017

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Walton's Platonic sci-fi trilogy terrific

It’s probably safe to say if Jo Walton hadn’t written Necessity and its two preceding volumes, nothing even remotely similar would exist. And that would be a terrible shame. The award-winning Welsh-Canadian writer is known for her refusal to write inside genre lines, and nowhere is that more evident than in her just-completed trilogy.

In the first book, The Just City, the Greek goddess of wisdom Athene plucked hundreds of classical scholars and philosophers from throughout history to set up a city modelled on Plato’s Republic. The seminal work of political philosophy imagined a perfect society wherein citizens would all strive to reach their greatest potential, the greatest among them to rule benevolently as philosopher kings. Plato sought an end to tyrants, sycophants and incompetents in civic life, and imagined a true meritocracy for the common good.

A philosophical thought experiment and an actual, functioning city are two different things. By the end of the second book, The Philosopher Kings, the original city had fragmented into dozens of competing versions before its denizens were divinely transported to an alien planet in the far future.

In Necessity, the cities now boast third and fourth generations of citizens who have never experienced life outside Plato, their world. They are used to the fact that aliens live among them, that the many robots originally transported from a future time to take the place of human slaves are in fact capable of sentience and therefore also entitled to opt for citizenship. And of course the existence of gods is also an irrefutable notion, given that Apollo himself is a citizen.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2016 (389 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s probably safe to say if Jo Walton hadn’t written Necessity and its two preceding volumes, nothing even remotely similar would exist. And that would be a terrible shame. The award-winning Welsh-Canadian writer is known for her refusal to write inside genre lines, and nowhere is that more evident than in her just-completed trilogy.

In the first book, The Just City, the Greek goddess of wisdom Athene plucked hundreds of classical scholars and philosophers from throughout history to set up a city modelled on Plato’s Republic. The seminal work of political philosophy imagined a perfect society wherein citizens would all strive to reach their greatest potential, the greatest among them to rule benevolently as philosopher kings. Plato sought an end to tyrants, sycophants and incompetents in civic life, and imagined a true meritocracy for the common good.

A philosophical thought experiment and an actual, functioning city are two different things. By the end of the second book, The Philosopher Kings, the original city had fragmented into dozens of competing versions before its denizens were divinely transported to an alien planet in the far future.

In Necessity, the cities now boast third and fourth generations of citizens who have never experienced life outside Plato, their world. They are used to the fact that aliens live among them, that the many robots originally transported from a future time to take the place of human slaves are in fact capable of sentience and therefore also entitled to opt for citizenship. And of course the existence of gods is also an irrefutable notion, given that Apollo himself is a citizen.

A common element of many of the great works of science fiction is the ability to grapple with big ideas. When this is done thoughtfully and deeply enough, a work might be described as philosophical science fiction. But this has never been so literally true as with Walton’s recent novels. Her memorable characters include famous Renaissance philosophers, newly sentient artificial intelligences, alien beings, and even alien gods, all seeking truth and meaning.

A robot wants to know: Does attaining consciousness also mean he has a soul? The god Apollo wants to know (because Zeus has not told him): What is the purpose of the universe? And everyone, human, alien and otherwise, wants to know the best way to live life, Platonically or otherwise — and, if the former, to know which interpretation of Plato is the correct one.

When people read Plato in English translation, they may not be aware that the translator is also making critical choices in word use and interpretation. One such example in Plato’s Republic revolves around a key concept described in Greek as arete, most often translated as virtue. This has a monastic tinge to it: Platonic life argued in terms of piety and scripture. But Walton favours the less popular but perhaps more appropriate translation of arete as excellence, and the connotations are entirely different.

This is important, as it shows Walton has done her homework — she hasn’t just read Plato, she’s read the commentary on Plato, the alternative translations of Plato, and the commentary on these translations of Plato. She knows the scholarship and has scholarly opinions, and that’s important because a book of ideas would fail if the author didn’t understand them.

It’s easy to name-drop Homer, Tacitus and Virgil, less so to synthesize history, mythology and philosophy into a fictional cross-genre narrative featuring many well-known historical figures without misrepresenting their work or personalities. If Walton had actually learned Latin and ancient Greek as part of her research for these novels, it would not be shocking.

Her readers have a less painful option: picking up these thoughtful, enjoyable and entirely original books, and maybe even getting a little bit smarter in the process.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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