“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,
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.’