In this post I’ll discuss some ways in which Walton’s Thessaly series is transformative and some ways in which it’s feminist, and some thoughts on how those choices reinforce each other.
To start with, clearly, Thessaly is transformative in that it concentrates on reusing and commenting on a text someone else made. As Walton says:
Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler.
I’m currently obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical which, like Thessaly, takes old text — often taught in history or philosophy or political science classes — and infuses it with emotion and suspense. But, where Hamilton only has a few songs focusing on the process of group decision-making and problems that crop up in the implementation, Walton pays consistent attention to those details. This approach also shows up in Walton’s “Relentlessly Mundane”, which you can read as a Narnia fanfic with the serial numbers very rubbed off, or as a general commentary on YA portal fantasies. Paying attention to the concrete details within utopias and after quests, Walton un-deletes the deleted scenes from other stories.
All fiction is intertextual, of course, influenced by and referencing previous works on various levels. But Thessaly is at heart about fans who make their fandom real. It joins Walton’s Among Others and a few other series — Jim Hines’s Libriomancer and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next — in depicting a world where fandom is literally magic. (Does it turn out better than the “Casino Royale” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation? I think so, but I haven’t read the third book yet…)
Thessaly also engages with feminism in several ways. Most obviously, it focuses on women as characters and women’s viewpoints, and the specific constraints and problems that women disproportionately face (e.g., dealing with menstruation, sexual assault, and post-partum depression). We see competent people of several gender identities trying to do the right thing in unprecedented circumstances; I particularly admired Simmea for this. And Walton sketches what it might look like for an educational institution to try very hard, many times succeeding, at equally valuing women and men.
I come to Thessaly as an alumna of the experimental education community Recurse Center, which is institutionally committed to fighting sexism, and I love how Thessaly evokes the feeling I got there; it’s a place where, when you’re working on learning a new skill, you can choose to forget about gender for a while.
Sometimes! Because sometimes you run into someone like Ikaros or Kebes. Like Immortan Joe, Kylo Ren, and similar recent villains, the unsympathetic characters in Thessaly act entitled, especially to women’s bodies.
But Apollo wants to stop doing that, and in The Just City, Walton aims to describe how that journey works. An interviewer asked her “Why have Apollo learn about ‘equal significance and volition’?” to which Walton responded by discussing another work that inspired her, Bernini’s statue of Daphne and Apollo:
I’ve always been very fond of Apollo, he’s the patron god of poets and writers, and one of the things I thought looking at that statue was “He’s always been so nice to me” in the exact way that people do when they find out that their friends have done awful things, and that was very uncomfortable too.
I find it noteworthy that Walton aims to understand and depict what happens when we don’t accord each other equal significance and volition, and to avoid condemning Apollo. He works to redeem himself, and the reader is invited to root for that transformation, rather than cast a jaundiced eye upon the possibility of his redemption. In my experience, we code the “benefit of the doubt” sort of approach as feminine, and code a more uncompromising, adversarial, retaliatory response as masculine; in Thessaly, we see the virtues of the former more than the latter, I’d say.
But in Thessaly we do see the stigmatizing of feminine-coded interests, we see people dismissing and minimizing the evil of assault, we see the unwarranted deference paid more to men than to women, and so on. That is to say, we see Walton point the dynamic out, rather than it being unnoticed background radiation.
And here’s where I get to a few ways that Thessaly’s feminism and its concentration on transforming other works reinforce each other. There is a standard feminist/queer theory rationale around transformative works that applies here — we who usually don’t see ourselves represented in texts made by and for the dominant groups insert ourselves into the discourse, make new texts for ourselves. We racebend, we slash, and so on.
Transformative work is also a way to understand and argue about the work referenced — for example, “The First Time” is a piece of fanfic that criticizes the dominant whiteness in Star Trek. In her Strange Horizons interview, Walton discusses her interest in using Thessaly to counter dominant rape culture narratives especially in previous adaptations of Greek myths; she realized that approximately all the depictions she’d ever seen before had been made with the male gaze in mind. We can get very defensive when hearing explicit political criticism of art we love, and Thessaly’s an example of how to use an engaging counternarrative to get past those defenses and make the argument implicitly.
And of course you, the reader, always transform the work into your own reading, memory, and use of it. Thessaly enriches your reading of utopian philosophy, using feminist insights to lovingly interrogate and improve the ongoing discourse, limning key dilemmas. How do you care enough, and empathize with the downtrodden, without burning out, or selling out, or finding that you’ve turned your crusade into the next tyranny? How do you keep yourself always on the side of the underdog, but avoid the Kebes-style destructive desire to simply replace the top dog with yourself?