Walton’s Republic

by John Holbo on January 28, 2016

“It was the most real thing that had ever happened.” – Jo Walton, The Just City

Thanks to Jo Walton for writing an SF novel in which people, including a pair of gods, try to realize Plato’s Republic. (I’ve only read the first Thessaly novel, The Just City. So if what follows is premature? That sort of thing happens.)

This is an experimental novel. Succeed or fail, you learn from an experiment. But even well-constructed experiments can be failures. That’s the risk.

Logically such a thing should exist. A novelization of Plato’s Republic, I mean. How can no one have written this already? But can such a damn thing be written ? Surely it will fail as a novel, somewhat, at some point. But how? Only one way to find out.

So Walton’s literary endeavor might be said to parallel Athene’s serene, mortal-bothering, bookish Utopian progress, in the novel. Like Athene, Walton doesn’t crack a smile. (There are some cracks at the end – in Athene’s exterior – but let’s leave those out. Don’t want to spoil the ending.)

There are so many points at which this novel could have descended from lofty Olympus, to jolly the reader along with Hogwarts jokes.

10-year old kids whisked off together to live in some perfect school. Check. Magical beings hiding out in the school. Check. You get sorted into houses, based on your character.

There’s nothing hidden in your Soul
The Plato Head can’t see,
So try me on and I will tell you
What you ought to be.

You might be bronze by nature,
Or iron to the core,
Appetitive creature
Always wanting more;

You might be made of silver,
No mere bronze alloy,
Seek like flowing river
Honor is thy joy;

Or you might be Gold enough,
I’m speaking of your soul
So when you are old enough
You are finally allowed to read Plato’s Republic and so get to find out what has been, allegedly … the goal!

Check. Weird old wise man running the show, lying to everyone for their own good. Divided souls, with bad stuff in there. (Plotspoilers: it turns out Harry is a horcrux.) “More butterbeer, Alkibiades?” Maybe Athene could specifically refuse to set up an owl post, so students can get letters from home, because Plato would not approve?

None of that. Even though – let’s get to it! – the initial adult population of Walton’s Republic is comprised of people pulled from all times and places, by Athene, who hears their prayers to live in Plato’s Republic. So, logically, within the frame of the fiction, we could get characters who have read Harry Potter. A master who gets whisked away to teach in the Republic right before The Deathly Hallows comes out, who doesn’t know Harry is a horcrux. (And then some other master accidentally gives that away, while both of are comparing and contrasting Hogwarts and this new, ideal thing they are building.)

Nope. Plotinus, Cicero, Ficino, Boethius, Pico della Mirandola, and Sokrates himself, no neighborhood populated by pop culture-referencing hipsters from the early 2000’s, for whom Plato’s Republic just happens to seem cooler than Brooklyn. Some classics grad student could show up, mouth hanging open, latte spilling down his t-shirt, which reads: “I only pray to gods who don’t even exist.”

Not an iPhone in the novel. There isn’t a humorous division between the masters who were former mac users and those who favored Linux. (Someone could laboriously write out on papyrus a Socratic dialogue, debating respective merits.)

On a more serious note, there isn’t a contingent of masters who want to talk Brave New World, as a point of cautionary comparison to the thing they are tasked with building. At one point Maia, one of our narrators, who hails from the 19th Century, remarks that two other masters, who hail from the 20th or later, ‘shrank from the term eugenics but would never tell me why.’ Athene doesn’t seem to have brought anyone who read Karl Popper and Plato, gave Plato the palm – hence got their Hogwarts letter – but thinks Popper makes solid points. (Maybe I need to wait for the second novel for crypto-Popperians, and other liberals, to start coming out of the marblework. The end of The Just City suggests disruption to follow.)

They have robots!

Athene brings them from the future to do the heavy-lifting, farming and so forth. But none of these masters much cares about, “the boring part of history … The bit where nothing happened except people inventing things.” Technology. That’s for muggles. “The committee on technology was almost entirely composed of young women, with only one man, the Dominican, whose name was now Ikaros. Somehow, imperceptibly, because of this, technology came to be seen among the masters as feminine and unimportant.” Accordingly, there is a lack of interest in how these vital robot workers work. Well, until Sokrates starts engaging the robots in dialectic. (I don’t want to spoil it for you, how that goes.)

Let me get to the point. Yes, Walton could have written a nerd culture spoof of Plato’s Republic (maybe on the lines of Scott Meyer’s Off To Be The Wizard) but didn’t. And, while that could have been fun and entertaining, it’s also good to have played it with a straighter face.

What’s the point of doing so?

Let’s start here: of course there’s technology! This city is a device, a machine, for experimentally realizing the technē of justice, the better to conceive of its logos. How can Plato’s Republic fail to be technological, ergo science fictional? Ergo, how can a novelization of it fail to be a science fiction novel? It can’t. QED.

I teach Philosophy and Science Fiction and, on the first day of class, I give the kids a survey: long list of works that they must quickly classify as SF, not, or maybe. Here’s the most recent version. My course covers short stories, plus Frankenstein, but the survey is mostly film, tv and video games, because that’s what kids mostly know. But I included, among other classic curiosities, Plato’s Republic, The Book of Genesis, The Ramayana, Journey To The West, The Divine Comedy. The results are interesting. Here are the latest batch of results, ranked by SF-ness; and by uncertainty about SF-ness.

Plato’s Republic clocks in at a pathetic .28 for SF-ness, according to my students. (It’s tied with Teletubbies and Twilight. It was narrowly beaten out by Arthur Christmas and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?) The students aren’t even all that uncertain about excluding it. It’s SF-uncertainty index is .16. (Again, it’s tied with Teletubbies. Which, if you think about it, is kind of perfect. I mean: the Noo-Noo. Maybe, for her next act, Jo Walton can novelize Teletubbies. My notion has always been that a film treatment should be a Wes Anderson remake of The Prisoner. Sort of. Aspect ratio jokes, for the belly films-within-the-film, with Gwyneth Paltrow as Po, Owen Wilson as Tinky Winky. Tylda Swinton as the Sun-Baby. But you could, alternatively, have it turn out the Noo-Noo, played by Bill Murray, hates-hates cleaning Tubby Toast and Tustard. It has always wanted to be an artist. Now who will clean up the Toast and Tustard? But I digress.)

I’m trying to get around to stating why it’s good Jo Walton doesn’t really joke, like I always do. The conceptual space she is exploring – social-cultural technē that isn’t gadgetry or occasioned by some natural science event-as-novum (in Suvin’s sense) – is interesting. Seeing a serious SF novel, from which gadgetry has been subtracted, is most clarifying.

But they have robots!

Yes, but the fact that the robots mean so little, at least at first, just proves the point. Exception that proves the rule.

But it’s all based on time-travel!

Yes, and there are very SF-y discussions about the limits of that, even for the gods. But time-travel isn’t the point of building the Just City. The Just City is the point of employing time-travel.

I usually try to communicate the potential of this rarified, gadget-free SF space to my students in terms of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. It’s one of my favorite novels, and reading Walton sent me back to it for a considerate re-read. It’s an SF novel, I say, set in some vague, semi-hemi-demi-post-apocalyptic future, in which a quite impossible technology/discipline – the game – is ordering life. It’s also thoroughly medieval. It’s also a comic novel. But the comic tongue in Hesse’s cheek wouldn’t melt butter. I guess that’s a good gauge of the temperature of Walton’s novel as well. There’s no way a novel about actual honest-to-gosh Athene building Plato’s Republic with robots from the future isn’t comic. But she plays it pretty straight, Walton does.

And now, for teaching purposes, I have a better proof that Plato’s Republic is SF. Walton’s The Just City is. (It’s got robots and time-travel, little though they matter!) Ergo, Plato is. So: thanks for that.

Now, a couple more points. First, a criticism, then a compliment.

I think Walton strikes an anachronistic note with her female protagonists’ feminist championship of ‘equal significance’ and the need to respect every individual’s right to say ‘no’. Apollo goes to the considerable trouble of being born and growing up a mortal boy – “The womb was peaceful. I composed a lot of poetry.” – in large part so he can get some much-needed PC sensitivity training in the importance of not date-raping. In part I think this is flat-out brilliant. I’ll get to that in a moment. (The problem isn’t PC, per se, Zeus forbid. No one for whom PC is a deal-breaker has any business reading a novel based on Plato’s Republic, after all.) The problem is that Maia (one of the masters) and, more so, Simmea (one of the children/students) have moral sensibilities that are too much like those of progressive, 21st Century Americans. It doesn’t ring true, especially after Walton went to the trouble of keeping all the Harry Potter-reading hipsters out, so that the feel is otherwise consistently Plotinean-Ficinoyan-Ciceronian. Let me focus on the scene in which Simmea almost doesn’t forgive Pytheas (aka Apollo in disguise) for telling Klymene she shouldn’t feel bad for having run from the wild boar, because she’s ‘only a girl’.

“And by saying what you said you insult all women — you insult me!”

He [Pytheas] nodded, getting up again. “It was a really stupid thing to say. Do you think there’s any point apologising?”

“Not yet. She’s too upset … I still don’t know if you understand!”

“That everyone is of equal significance and that the differences between individuals are more important than the differences between broad classes? Oh yes, I’m coming to understand that really well.”

Getting so bothered by someone telling a girl she’s ‘only a girl’ seems like an American thing to do. Simmea is, by birth an ancient Alexandrian Copt (that is, a native Egyptian, but Greek-speaking.) By adoption, she is a Platonist, citizen of the Just City. Plato is a feminist, especially in Republic. But he would not be offended, to put it mildly, by the suggestion that broad class differences are very significant. He just doesn’t think the line between men and women – a biological line, not a soul line – is one of those significant cleavages. Walton knows this, of course, and she is playing on it. A few lines on.

“The masters say we are all equally valuable,” I [Simmea] said.
“But they don’t act as if it’s true.” Pytheas frowned.

So that’s alright, but only up to a point. Walton is setting us up to see problems with this brilliant gold-silver-bronze scheme. (What else could a novel about Plato’s Republic possibly be about?) But having Simmea have such moral sensitivity to slights to females, as a class, seems too liberal-modern. (If you don’t think I’m right that she seems American, at least grant me that hers seems to be a modern moral mind. It really shouldn’t be one.) She should tell Pytheas, calmly, that she knows lots of people think that way, but she doesn’t think he’s right just to assume the generalization holds true. Why not engage him in Socratic debate on the point? It shouldn’t seem like an intolerable taboo for Pytheas to have said it. And note: even if Simmea is weird that way, Klymene has the same instincts. She doesn’t mind being called, personally, a coward. She is furious that Pytheas so easily and carelessly generalizes that girls lack physical courage, relatively, as a class.

I sense the same anachronism, but less so, with Maia, our frustrated Victorian bibliophile-turned Platonic master. In her notes to the novel, Walton mentions Ellen Francis Mason, “a nineteenth century translator of Plato, whose life is like a type-example of how difficult it was for women to lead a life of the mind.” I plead ignorance. If it turns out this real woman was rather like Walton’s Maia, then my complaints about anachronism are refuted, hence retracted, with sincere apologies.

I should add: it might seem like this problem, if it is one, is pretty serious, since Maia and Simmea, between them, do most of the narrating. But mostly I like their voices. I like that they talk like maybe they are living in Plato’s Just City. Or trying to. It’s just a couple points where it seems to me Walton’s foot slips. Or, rather, slides too quick where she’s going. Nothing wrong with having Maia and Simmea arrive at these modern points of view, on the basis of everything that happens, and what they come to think and feel about it. But they seem to start too near that finish-line.

Now, one part I especially appreciated.

The novel is kind of rape-y. No, I don’t mean it like that! I mean that some people aren’t going to find this a fun read, because there is quite a bit of sexual violence. “Walton expertly observes the cracks between Platonic ideal and messy reality, but she relies heavily and uncomfortably on sexual violence and its aftermath as vehicles for exploring concepts of consent and free will.” What I liked was how really perfectly and deliberately she sets up the vehicle, rolls it into slow but steady, then accelerating motion. Heavily and uncomfortably. That’s fine.

“She turned into a tree. It was a Mystery.” That’s a great opening. That is, the novel opens with Apollo sincerely puzzled by Daphne’s choice of defensive responses to date-rape.

It was just the chase-and-be-chased game! What was the big deal? He’s Apollo, after all. “It’s the chase that thrills me, the chase after knowledge as much as the chase after an animal or a nymph.” So now he wants to know. And, long story short, he ends up getting born a human and growing in the Just City, to learn ‘equal significance’, hence why Daphne might have chosen to turn into a tree.

This is tangential to Plato, apparently, insofar as the Just City is there to teach that ‘justice’ means justice, not that ‘no’ means no. But it works because, weird as it sounds, the issue about Plato’s Republic kind of turns into a thought-experiment concerning the ethics of divine rape.

It’s been a while since any of us took ‘might as well lie back and enjoy it,’ as anything remotely approaching sound ethical advice for dealing with rape. (If you don’t agree that it is inappropriate to say that, we will have to agree to disagree, you and I.) But, to be fair, ‘what if it’s Apollo who is raping you?’ is kind of a weird special case that doesn’t come up very often. The sex is, stipulatively, good. I take it. None of that Zeus rough-stuff. Apollo doesn’t do bad sex, by divine nature. Your son is guaranteed to be a hero. Is it rational to turn yourself into a tree, rather than being raped, if you know it means good sex, and a great kid?

I’m not suggesting adding this to the list of thought-experiments we roll out in Philo 101 every semester, next to that poor guy tied to the trolley tracks. But it works as a frame for the Plato stuff because, in a sense, the question about whether it’s right to build the Republic, if we could, boils down to this: is lack of individual consent a true deal-breaker, if it’s bound to be good – divine even! – and you get great kids out of it?

What is Athene’s motive in dragging all those robots from the future to help build this thing? Does she love justice so much? What is Plato’s motive, dreaming it up? He loves knowledge. He is a votary of Apollo, just as Sokrates says he is in this novel. But that is consistent with something Nietzsche once noted. Often “it is not really truth that is sought but the seeking itself, and the main pleasure consists in the cunning tracking, encircling, and correct killing.” If it is so, how does good old chase-and-be-chased figure in the ethics of the construction of the Just City, even at the purely conceptual level?

I’m just saying: I think the rape-y bits were very appropriately and deliberately and ingeniously figured in. I give that one full marks for perfect form.

One last thing: I really enjoyed The Just City. I didn’t just find it interesting, because, as a philosopher, I derive profession-conceptual advantage from seeing this corner of thought-experimental landscape built up in an urban style. I just finished writing my own book on Plato. New edition of old book. (Belle did the translations!) Buy it! Leave non-libelous Amazon reviews. At least consider reading it. At least look at the pictures. But I don’t want to try to steal limelight from our guest. My point is: writing books is awfully hard work. And, just as someone who works in a slaughterhouse might not be in the mood for a steak dinner, that very night, someone who just wrote a book about Plato might not be in the mood for a novelization of Plato’s Republic. You get gorged (as Socrates remarks at the end of Republic, Book I.) Yet I really truly enjoyed the read very much – although it was a bit slow maybe just around the 3/4 mark. Then it picked up again.

Anyway, my Plato book, like Walton’s, is very weird, even as Plato books go. Mine is weird because it tips way over to the comic side – the opposite direction from where Walton is going, playing it straight, as she does. I just want to say I’m glad to get to talk to someone who has surely had the experience I have had so many times: sitting up in the middle of the night, asking ‘what the hell kind of thing do I think I’m writing about Plato? I must be insane.’

{ 22 comments }

1

Brad DeLong 01.28.16 at 2:50 pm

Re: “What is Athene’s motive in dragging all those robots from the future to help build this thing?”

Aristoteles son of Nikomakhos of Stagira:

“Let us first speak of master and slave, looking to the needs of practical life…. [Some] affirm that the rule of a master over slaves is contrary to nature…. Property is a part of the household… no man can live well, or indeed live at all, unless he be provided with necessaries…. [T]he workers must have their own proper instruments… of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man, a living instrument….

“If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the [automated] statues of Daedalus, or the [self-propelled catering carts] of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods”; if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves…

“But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right?… There is no difficulty in answering this question… that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule…

2

NickS 01.28.16 at 4:53 pm

I haven’t read Just City, though I’m enjoying the discussion. But, on this: “Logically such a thing should exist. A novelization of Plato’s Republic, I mean. How can no one have written this already? “

I’ve made the argument that Sherri Tepper’s A Gate To Woman’s Country could be read as a novelization of Plato’s Republic. It’s been too long for me to remember all of the parallels between the two but, essentially, it’s about a small city, run by a tight group of philosopher-queens, who have created a mythology for everybody else to explain their rules and community. They have access to high-technology but they live in a deliberately low-tech and austere way (to avoid creating jealousy among their neighbors).

It isn’t a novelization of Plato’s moral philosophy, but it does seem it creates something which is close to the political philosophy that he describes.

3

NickS 01.28.16 at 4:55 pm

(Correction: Sheri Tepper. I added an “r”.)

4

Jo Walton 01.28.16 at 5:38 pm

NickS: And they are practicing eugenics, and performing classical drama, even if they’re breeding for docility not excellence. And the power is with people over fifty who lie to everyone else about what’s going on. So there are a number of parallels. But families are one of the central things about The Gate to Women’s Country, mothers and children. Also it’s got horrible gender essentialism. Indeed, it’s much more sexist than Plato is. I wouldn’t call it an attempt at enacting the Republic, but I’d say that the Republic is certainly part of the DNA of Tepper’s dystopia — though a very Popperian version of it. (Here’s my Tor.com post on GtWC, if you’re interested.)

5

Richard M 01.28.16 at 5:50 pm

It seems to me that, apart from anything else, the metaphysics of the Just City universe makes eugenics impractical. As explained by Apollo, who should know, excellence is imbued in the immortal soul by living an excellent life.

The last thing you want to do with souls lacking in excellence is to treat them to a short and unpleasant life. Because when they are reborn, they won’t be any better, and it seems plausible they would be worse.

6

NickS 01.28.16 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for indulging my tangent, and for the link to the column.

I’d agree with your description that, “I wouldn’t call it an attempt at enacting the Republic, but I’d say that the Republic is certainly part of the DNA of Tepper’s dystopia.” Part of what was interesting for me, once I started thinking about the parallels, was trying to decide whether that was intentional, or just that she ended up interpreting various genre conventions in ways that ended up resembling the Republic — which, I suppose, is supporting evidence for classifying the Republic as SF.

7

LizardBreath 01.28.16 at 7:27 pm

But having Simmea have such moral sensitivity to slights to females, as a class, seems too liberal-modern. (If you don’t think I’m right that she seems American, at least grant me that hers seems to be a modern moral mind. It really shouldn’t be one.) She should tell Pytheas, calmly, that she knows lots of people think that way, but she doesn’t think he’s right just to assume the generalization holds true. Why not engage him in Socratic debate on the point? It shouldn’t seem like an intolerable taboo for Pytheas to have said it. And note: even if Simmea is weird that way, Klymene has the same instincts. She doesn’t mind being called, personally, a coward. She is furious that Pytheas so easily and carelessly generalizes that girls lack physical courage, relatively, as a class.

This actually didn’t bother me, and I’m usually hypersensitive to that sort of moral/emotional anachronism. (I’m not going to argue with you that all the narrators sound more like modern Americans than they would in an ideal world; while Walton’s very good, that’s unavoidable.)

But in this case, Plato is a feminist — women are not supposed to be systematically lesser than men. And Simmea and Klymene have been yanked out of their home contexts, which were certainly not feminist, and where Simmea at least got raped a bunch, and been indoctrinated for a couple of years into Plato’s thinking on this point. They’re generally gung-ho converts to the theories underlying the Just City generally, and might be expected to be particularly attached to the elements of those theories that specifically mean they’re better off and more important than they were in their prior circumstances.

Furthermore, this can be expected to be a somewhat touchy issue, because all or almost all of their instructors are faking it — they’re formally adherent to Plato’s thinking, and are going to paying lip service to it, but as shows up in other contexts, they’re not all the way on board.

So Simmea and Klymene could very reasonably be expected to be zealously feminist about this sort of thing, both because they’ve been taught that it’s right, and because it assures them of a level of status that is more than they had at home, but isn’t reliably respected even by their current teachers and peers.

8

Janet Lafler 01.28.16 at 7:28 pm

NickS: I’m not sure about Tepper, but I’d be willing to bet that many of the current crop of dystopias incorporate elements of the Republic without knowing it. In fact, getting back to the OP’s comments about Brave New World and Popper, it’s striking that by mid-20th-century the conventions of dystopia include rule by elders, eugenics, a system of castes or classes, and re-engineering or elimination of families.

9

Neville Morley 01.28.16 at 9:09 pm

@Brad De Long #1: yes, I was wondering about that passage, via Marx’s sarcastic gloss on it (someone else will surely remember the precise quote, but it’s words to the effect of “who’d have imagined that we’d get self-acting spindles not to shorten the working day but to lengthen it so that a few people can become most eminent shoe-black manufacturers”) – but didn’t feel that it got developed in the novel as much as it might have been – and then by the second book most of the robots have simply gone.

10

Brad DeLong 01.28.16 at 9:58 pm

Karl Marx (1867): _Capital_ vol. I, ch 15, §3B “The Prolongation of the Working Day” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm:

>”If,” dreamed Aristotle, the greatest thinker of antiquity:

>>If every tool, when summoned, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it, just as the creations of Daedalus moved of themselves, or the tripods of Hephaestos went of their own accord to their sacred work, if the weavers’ shuttles were to weave of themselves, then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers, or of slaves for the lords.

>And Antipatros, a Greek poet of the time of Cicero, hailed the invention of the water-wheel for grinding corn, an invention that is the elementary form of all machinery, as the giver of freedom to female slaves, and the bringer back of the golden age.

>Oh! those heathens! They understood, as the learned Bastiat, and before him the still wiser MacCulloch have discovered, nothing of Political Economy and Christianity. They did not, for example, comprehend that machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working-day. They perhaps excused the slavery of one on the ground that it was a means to the full development of another. But to preach slavery of the masses, in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus, might become “eminent spinners,” “extensive sausage-makers,” and “influential shoe-black dealers,” to do this, they lacked the bump of Christianity.

11

Brad DeLong 01.28.16 at 10:25 pm

And I should bring Paul Krugman onstage:

Paul Krugman: Trekonomics Panel at New York Comic Con:

>Do we accept the premise of a post-scarcity society?… In Star Trek they have a replicator that can make any thing you want. But it can make any *thing* you want. Even now, we spend only 30% of our income on goods. We spend the rest–70%–services….

>We can imagine a world where all services are provided as well. We have robots or something to do the services. But in order to do the full range of stuff we want they have to be very intelligent. In which case, aren’t those then people? The actual issue is: A world where you have servitors of some kind who will give you everything you want is a world where it’s very hard to tell the difference between servitors and slaves. So I think there’s–arguably–a dark side to the abundance theory.

12

Jo Walton 01.28.16 at 10:35 pm

Brad: You’re going to love Necessity.

13

Brad DeLong 01.28.16 at 10:42 pm

Preordered…

14

John Holbo 01.28.16 at 11:15 pm

Good morning, everyone. Hi, Brad. Good point about the Aristotle quote. Should have caught that myself. Glad to meet you, Jo.

I’ll just address Lizardbreath’s criticism of my criticism. But just briefly, since it’s nothing I want to fight about. (If I feel the character is a bit too modern and you don’t, but usually are sensitive to that sort of thing, maybe it’s right on the line.) My view, per the post is: if Simmea (and Klymene) are good Platonists they should think 1) women aren’t inferior as a class but 2) it’s open to speculation which class lines do make for inferiority. Since 2), then disagreeing with 1), as Apollo evidently does, should not seem like violation of some moral taboo. The hypothesis that all men are gold and all women are merely bronze (and robots should do the silver work, or whatever) should be just one of those fun things Platonists argue about.

I feel a bit bad arguing about it with the author herself present, actually. It’s not like she is going to rewrite the novel to my spec. So it’s like being Socratic about spilled milk, if I’m right. But I do think that Jo’s (if I may call her Jo) choice to exclude a certain class of modern minds from her experimental Republic is interesting and worth thinking through. No Harry Potter fans. I joke about that, but that’s a serious decision, since there could have been Harry Potter fans. We get a mix of moral mind-types from all ages, but not so much from our own. We see the Victorian crossed with the ancient Greek. But we don’t see explicit engagement with 20th century-style critiques of Plato. Eugenics is a really bad idea!

But what am I talking about? I haven’t even read the 2nd novel in the series. Modern life is too busy. I’ll get on it.

15

LizardBreath 01.28.16 at 11:34 pm

Since 2), then disagreeing with 1), as Apollo evidently does, should not seem like violation of some moral taboo. The hypothesis that all men are gold and all women are merely bronze (and robots should do the silver work, or whatever) should be just one of those fun things Platonists argue about.

Maybe not a violation of a moral taboo, but something that they’re in a position to take personally, was my point. That is, they’ve got the doctrine they’ve been taught (women are equal) on their side, and they have personal status (as equal citizens of the Just City) at stake and under attack. That seems like a situation where self-righteousness about feminism is pretty well explained, rather than an implausible anachronism.

I mean, the whole situation (being pulled out of a pre-modern slave market and brought to Plato’s Republic) is so wildly counterfactual that it’s hard to solidly defend in any direction what a realistic set of psychological reactions would be. But the line of thought/feeling that gets you to Simmea’s reaction seems pretty clear to me.

16

Jo Walton 01.29.16 at 12:01 am

John: I think writing about modern people in that situation is much less interesting than writing about the people I chose to write about in it. Not only are most of the novels on the shelf about modern people, but there are a zillion portal fantasies and utopias about modern people wandering about in other worlds. It seemed relatively boring — it’s the standard normal usual way of doing it.

17

Mdc 01.29.16 at 12:26 am

“The hypothesis that all men are gold and all women are merely bronze (and robots should do the silver work, or whatever) should be just one of those fun things Platonists argue about.”

Haven’t read the book, so feel free to ignore: but don’t the Platonists know that the whole story is a noble lie?

18

John Holbo 01.29.16 at 12:44 am

“but don’t the Platonists know that the whole story is a noble lie?”

Not until they’re 50! (I hope none of the young ones are reading this thread. It will ruin the surprise for them!)

“I think writing about modern people in that situation is much less interesting than writing about the people I chose to write about in it. Not only are most of the novels on the shelf about modern people, but there are a zillion portal fantasies and utopias about modern people wandering about in other worlds.”

I agree that it’s been done – both well and to death – and that you are doing something else, something relatively unusual. In such a crowded field, unusual is good. I meant the comparison with “The Glass Bead Game” as very high praise. Your book is very like that one, and that’s a good thing.

Just chasing the thread a bit: your novel is useful as a device for highlighting the ubiquity of the other approach. I was just talking to my daughter the other night about what makes “Adventure Time” so great and we agreed that it’s because you have a bunch of heroes and princesses and wizards and monsters and they are all basically modern kids at heart. They talk like tabletop gaming nerds, or goofy preteen girls or whatever. It’s fantastic. And this sort of thing has really been going on all over the place for quite a while. I mention “Off To Be The Wizard” in the post (heir to “Connecticut Yankee”). There’s also Terry Pratchett’s “Small Gods”. Plato – Socrates – but sort of done so that it feels very modern at heart. You really did something different. You didn’t let the gravitational pull of this other, often fine approach, suck you into that other thing.

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ZM 01.29.16 at 12:55 am

I’ve just started reading the first book, but being on holidays should finish it today.

Not being that far into it though, I think that Simmea is an interesting character, because she is the first one introduced, after the first chapter on which starts with, as John Holbo mentions, Apollo not understanding why Daphne turns into a tree, and his decision to become a mortal in order to understand this.

Of course, Apollo’s choice of a form of mortality to allow him to understand what it is to be human is somewhat ill chosen, being Athene’s construction of The Republic in Atlantis before it sinks. We are already introduced to Athene’s wariness of being human “Open. Love. Fear.”

The next chapter we are introduced to Simmea, who was called Lucia by her parents after the Saint, but renamed after the philosopher.

And here Athene has been no better in understanding “equal significance” than Apollo who asked her why Daphne turned into a tree.

Sinnea relates something she heard the people who captured her say, and this relates to what Lizardbreath was saying, as here she is in two minds of whether she may have been happier in the less equal society she was born in, than the one she was taken to:

“I had heard the men who raided my village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me. True, I would never have learned philosophy, and perhaps I would have died bearing children to some peasant farmer. But who can say that might not have been the path to happiness? We cannot change what has happened. We go on from where we stand. Not even necessity knows all ends.

I was eleven. I had rarely left the farm. Then the pirates came. My father and brothers were killed immediately. My mother was raped before my eyes and then led off to a different ship. I have never known what happened to her. I spent weeks chained and vomiting on the ship they threw me onto. I was given the minimum of bad food and water to keep me alive, and suffered many indignities. I saw a woman who tried to escape raped and then flogged to death.”

Athene “stared off at the clouds and the islands. “Being a mortal makes you vulnerable. Open. Love. Fear. I’m not sure about that.”

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Neville Morley 01.29.16 at 6:46 am

Agreed that the absence of Popper readers and Harry Potter fans is interesting – but it’s entirely consistent with the intenal logic of the book: to be chosen as a Master, you have to have made a sincere prayer to Athene to join the Republic. How many Popperians are likely to do that? Presumably a really dedicated Potterian prays to the Sorting Hat to be accepted into Gryffindor, with no less hope (i.e. none) of an answer…

“The Just City is the point of employing time travel.” I’m not sure about that. The City *could* have been founded differently: at a single time, with an alternative set of contrivances (deranged Platonic billionaire, children rescued from war zones, isolated Pacific island and robots). Reserving judgement on whether it’s really *all about* time travel – or rather, all about issues of determinism, contingency and necessity – until Necessity, but even on the evidence of the first book (unfair to invoke the second if you haven’t read it) I would say that it is a theme of interest and not just part of the set-up.

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ajay 01.29.16 at 10:58 am

There’s a series of detective novels by Paul Johnston set in a near-future Edinburgh which has split off from the rest of Britain and is being governed by a Council of Guardians along Plato’s Republic lines. “Body Politic” is the first one.

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Janet 02.02.16 at 12:02 am

A point of correction: Ellen Frances Mason is mentioned in the notes as the model for Aristomache, not Maia.

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