Science fiction has often been described as the “literature of ideas,” so it’s no surprise that books have always been arguing with one another about those ideas. Delany’s Triton with Le Guin’s Dispossessed. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers with Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero, Haldeman’s Forever War, and Panshin’s Rite of Passage. Each book adds to the genre’s ongoing conversation, generating arguments for the next book to respond to.
Jo Walton is no stranger to this phenomenon: Her superb 2011 novel, Among Others, which won all the awards, epitomizes it. Not only is it replete with references to the science fiction and fantasy novels available to a fifteen-year-old girl in late 1970s Britain, it also shows that girl thinking about and responding to those books, and using them to help navigate a difficult childhood and the world around her. But Walton’s books also have conversations with books outside the genre: Her fantasy novel Tooth and Claw (2003) was written after she came to the realization that Trollope was much more understandable if his characters were dragons rather than people.
But the problem with ongoing conversations is that sometimes you join them too late to understand what was going on, and you’re confused because you missed the first half of the discussion. Does a book written in response to another book make any sense if you haven’t read the first book? In practice it doesn’t seem to be much of a concern: Romans à clef generally have to work even without the clef. Knowing that Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage was written in rebuttal to Starship Troopers enriches our understanding of the book, but Rite of Passage is still worth reading without that context. In a similar vein, most of us know enough about the Victorians to be able to get Tooth and Claw without having specifically read Trollope, and Among Others can be enjoyed without getting the references to Le Guin and Delany (though maybe not the references to Tolkien).
Which brings me to Walton’s latest work, a difficult-to-classify (which is par for the course for her) science fiction trilogy, two volumes of which have been published by Tor Books this year: The Just City in January and The Philosopher Kings in June. The book they’re in dialogue with is one of the granddaddies of philosophy: Plato’s Republic. Now, because I was trained as a historian of the modern era rather than the classical era, I have never read The Republic. It turns out that I didn’t have to, and neither do you, to be able to read and enjoy these books.
(Full disclosure once again: as I had to do in my review of My Real Children, I should mention here that Jo Walton is a friend.)
In The Just City, Pallas Athene — yes, the Greek goddess — decides to create the titular city to test the precepts of Plato’s Republic. To run it, she scoops three hundred masters out of time, students of Plato all. Among these are both fictional and real-life figures, the latter including Cicero, Marsillo Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola from the Renaissance, and Ellen Francis Mason, a 19th-century translator of Plato. Because they’re all scholars and classicists whose main useful skill is being able to read Plato in the original Greek, Athene brings robots from the future, called Workers, to do the labour. To populate the City and train into philosopher kings as per Plato’s precepts, the masters purchase ten thousand ten-year-olds from slavery. The children are sorted into houses and compete in the various classical disciplines — broadly categorized as gymnastics and mathematics — to pursue “excellence” and become their best selves, and in the end be sorted into one of four metals, with golds becoming philosophers and so on.
If you think this sounds like Hogwarts for classics majors, I’d have a hard time disagreeing with you. (And despite the existence of Greek gods, this story is framed in science fictional terms, what with the time travel and the robots.)
The viewpoint shifts between three characters: Maia, one of the masters, a 19th-century Englishwoman; Simmea, one of the children bought from slavers; and the god Apollo, who has incarnated himself as Pytheas, another of the children. This he did in order to explore the concepts of volition and equal significance — basically, of consent — after Daphne turned into a tree rather than have sex with him, which confuses him to no end. The issue of consent recurs repeatedly in the other points of view: Maia is raped early in the book by another master who cannot wrap his head around the idea of sexual consent; Kebes, a child from the same slave ship as Simmea, strongly objects to having been brought to the City, because however much it may have improved his situation, it was still done without his consent.
And then Socrates — here spelled Sokrates — turns up about a quarter of the way into the book and stress-tests the entire premise of the City. In his hands, and in the hands of his students Simmea and Kebes, consent becomes the crucible in which the Just City burns, and develops into the major theme of the novel. Was it wrong to buy slave children and bring them to the City without their permission, as Kebes believes? Is it wrong to abandon family ties, arrange procreation by lot and have children raised by the City so that parents don’t know their own children? Do the robotic workers have volition — are they unthinking machines, or thinking beings that have been essentially enslaved? In the end, is the Just City in fact just? Under Sokrates’s relentless questioning, culminating in a debate with Athene herself that shatters the status quo, The Just City comes vividly to life; it makes for delightful and thought-provoking reading. Robert J. Sawyer often talks about science fiction as philosophical fiction, but this is the pure product.
The Just City’s sequel, The Philosopher Kings, isn’t quite the same book, nor to be honest is it quite as successful. Sokrates isn’t there any more, for one thing, which means it’s not nearly as fun. Set twenty years later, The Philosopher Kings is more adventuresome and less of a thought experiment: It focuses less directly on philosophical issues than it does on the sequelae of the first book. The Just City has fractured into a number of warring cities, each of which has its own ideas on how to implement Plato’s Republic. When a beloved character from the first book is killed, Apollo/Pytheas, along with some of his children, embarks on a voyage around the Aegean to track down a group of dissidents, led by Kebes, who fled the Just City at the end of the first book. The Philosopher Kings evokes The Odyssey more than The Republic; in reading it I referred often to the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, iPad version, which helped me figure out where all these little islands lay.
Where the first book builds the Just City and asks whether it lives up to its name, the second book breaks it apart and asks whether there is any point to the enterprise. The City was populated by people taken from across the timeline; to avoid polluting the future, it was established on the island of Thera before it blew up in spectacular fashion some time in the second millenium BCE. But that means that the City will have neither legacy nor practical result — all the more troubling when the expedition encounters example after example of pre-Minoan settlements in grinding poverty, where people don’t have the luxury of indulging in philosophy. Should they be helped? The Philosopher Kings exists in the tensions between mutually exclusive conceptions of what should be done. Like The Just City, it invites the reader to think about ethics.
And like the first book, The Philosopher Kings ends on a precipice, provided by a helpful deus ex machina; both books show that Walton is not at all afraid to blow up the status quo she’s spent a book carefully building, or steer things in an unpredictably batty direction. I have no idea where she’s going to take things in the forthcoming third book, Necessity, or which ethical issues it will tackle, but I suspect I’ll have a hard time putting it down as well.