The genuinely Platonic way to discuss The Just City would be to not talk about it at all after the introductory section of the post, and instead use it as the springboard for a discussion about something tangentially related. Additionally, we should go Unfogged style: the post should be short and all the action should take place in the comments, in which I will be kind of a dick to everyone (“how would this be different than the usual?” you ask!) and, more controversially, cut out the content of everyone’s replies and paste in slightly weaker arguments that suit my purposes better. But this doesn’t seem like a very good idea, even if it is a very Platonic idea.
John says, it’s proof that Republic is science fiction! Because what happens when your characters set out to build the city which that one part of Plato’s Republic describes, plausibly only for the purposes of drawing an analogy to the well-ordered soul? You get SF. And maybe you learn something about being a good person? Maybe not, though.
I’m interested in what makes a character a Mary Sue. It’s a useful term (though problematic as I will say below). Some characters really are Mary Sues to the point that the way they effortlessly overcome all obstacles becomes an obstacle to reading. I love Anne McCaffrey, but Dragonsinger, fails as a novel due to the improbably perfect, talented, totally in the right, musical genius Menolly who has NINE fire-lizards. The first book in the trilogy is excellent, making one even more annoyed. On the other hand, every fantasy novel involves wish-fulfilment at some level, or characters who overcome all odds. Harry Potter is a Mary Sue if we put things that way, and yet it’s not a helpful or interesting thing to say about the Harry Potter series. Can Socrates be thought of usefully as a Mary Sue? I would say yes. His many straw enemies make for a lot of unsatisfying triumphs.
The Just City made me consider how various characters or storylines might be or not be wish-fulfilment, and also to question myself as a reader. Am I more willing to read a book about Napoleonic naval battles that one that faces the agony of childbirth and post-partum depression? Having experienced the latter set myself I know it is terrifying, and even if we find Medea’s ‘one child to three battles’ ratio overstated I think we’ll end up with at the very least a one to one ratio of terror and looming death. Is Horatio Hornblower’s strategic genius and physical courage any less an inviting space to be inhabited by a day-dreaming reader than Walton’s Classics scholar freed from the crippling sexism of her day and set loose in the field of politics?
There isn’t an educated woman alive who hasn’t thought about her sisters in the past and then thought about the various life prospects available to them and then felt miserable. It is in all likelihood a personal character failing, combined with having read an excess of 19th-century novels, that inclines me to think of well-read early Victorian women with these pangs of pity rather than, say, lots of actual women alive right now in southern Myanmar, whom I could in principle help. Or I feel sad for Japanese noblewomen who learned poetry through the wall when their brothers were being taught on the other side. Paper walls for the unlikely win! (It’s funny to think how much easier Japanese would be to learn if they had gone all the way using ‘inferior women’s’ syllabary and not left 70% of the written language in Chinese characters. But the only way to do that sort of thing when the weaker sex is associated with phonetics is to have a benevolent despot—a philosopher-king if you will—just sort stuff out.) I realised that I’m inclined to think of the project which is part of constructing the Just City, namely the part in which women and girls are redeemed from the straitened circumstances of the past, as a kind of wish-fulfilment. But is this only because it is a pre-existing wish of mine?
Any wish-fulfilment in SF is often derided as the creation of “Mary Sues.” When this term was coined it was immediately obvious to many readers and writers that this is…strangely gendered at best and suspiciously misogynist at worst. If people throw the word around only in the context of female characters, or with the implicit notion that women in fantasy and SF are the main locus of ‘Mary-Sue-ness’, then something has gone very wrong. The term comes from one Paula Smith, who wrote a story in 1973 as a satire of Star Trek fanfic (maybe life before the internet wasn’t that different after all?!). The wikipedia entry linked above actually does a good job interrogating the notion, and also contains more than a few things liable to induce a rage stroke.
At Clippercon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. [the whole panel was composed of such authors? I think not and that this is sloppily redacted—Belle] She quoted one as saying “Every time I’ve tried to put a woman in any story I’ve ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue.” Smith also pointed out that “Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue.
Do not…include female characters…at all. Great way to solve the problem! Why not simply create male characters who seem to embody this same problem, with their invulnerability to weapons, panther-like agility, handiness with a nuke-grenade when the bugs come after you, and more! Wait, that’s most every fantasy and SF book ever, already. (“He will know your ways as one born to them.”)
We need a more appropriate monicker. I propose ‘Louis Wu’ in lieu of ‘Gary Stu’ which (along with ‘Marty Stu’) is often proposed as a more useful replacement for Mary Sue. Useful in the sense that it has a wider application. I yield to no woman in my love of Ringworld, but let’s face facts. (And Ringworld spoilers!) Louis Wu bangs his way to freedom with a woman who, though biological, is like Pris in Bladerunner—“your basic pleasure model.” And that’s before he saves everyone by dragging their ship into a hole in the ringworld punched by an errant meteor. The failure of imagination exhibited in so many classic SF novels is of a peculiar kind. You can imagine ringworlds and aliens and nano-weapons that destroy super-conductive materials to bring about the crash of hostile civilizations, but you somehow can’t get all the way to women doing space jobs? We don’t want dudes to be bored on spaceships while they do space jobs. Hmmm. Better include
women doing space jobs and also having sex if they feel like it because they have autonomy sex toys! Gnurggh [this is the noise I make when attempting to turn my face inside out in irritation, as John can tell you].
In The Just City, quite a number of my favorite subjects for daydreams get a look in. What would we be able to get if we could rush into the Library of Alexandria a day before the fire? (ALL THE THINGS.) How would ancient scholars of Plato react when confronted in a visceral way with the gender equality proposed in Republic? (NOT WELL. That no one can convince Cicero to change any diapers seems veeeryy realistic to me.) Wait, how would dudes born before 1950 react? Also not well, is how. And within the frame of the story’s would-be-Platonic city, how would people react to the noble lie, or to having their infants torn from their hands as soon as they gave birth? (Honestly I am almost surprised that everyone didn’t revolt right then.)
And this is what I thought when I began to read The Just City: what will be interesting about this is how the disaster comes about. Because attempting to create an actual polis using Plato’s Republic as a guide is pretty much the worst idea ever. I won’t entirely spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t read the book yet. It is fitting that even with many changes, running the experiment “how will those in power react to Socrates’ incessant interrogation?” yields the same results as the one in Athens. Getting stung by gadflies hurts, nor is actually beneficial to those getting stung, pace Plato. (I assume they are exactly like horseflies, no? European readers who have been stung by both, please enlighten us.)
On the whole I think Walton did a very good job with the thought-experiment-cum-novel. I liked the way the multiple narrators allowed us to see things from the children’s perspective and then also from that of the adults. Thus we learned (eventually) that anarchy prevailed for a while as the badly-outnumbered adults tried to tend to an army of ten-year-olds, something that wasn’t apparent to the children. I think Socrates could have done more damage in his final argument than he did. I appreciated the way that the combination of people with varying sexual mores produced a depressing and plausible result: that women might judge it best to keep rape quiet and not rock the boat. One thing which derailed my reading at times was a too-thoroughgoing feminism among the children of the city (John talks about this also). These children were slaves or peasant farmers or whatever before coming to the city, and had plenty of time to imbibe all the sexism in the world. Further, the vast majority of the adults come from times with deeply entrenched sexism. That one or two exceptional girls might ‘get it’ right off the bat seems fine, but that all would seemed strained. The thing which I found most difficult to imagine was the teenage heroine Simmea deciding not to have sex with Apollo. Having chosen to live a life and learn from experience, he is human, but he’s perfect and beautiful and numinous. Simmea’s first pregnancy nearly killed her, so it’s not hard to imagine shying away from the certainty of another pregnancy (since he’s a god she’ll definitely conceive, and be the mother of a hero). The thing is that she’s very likely to get knocked up the following day, on which she’ll be assigned a sex partner by lot (or so she thinks) so that she can fulfil her reproductive duty to the city. Further, she has been in love with Apollo since forever, and she knows that he genuinely loves her for the person she is, and for the mind within her body—- not for her physical self, which she knows to be unprepossessing.
What follows is an excellent example of my poor judgment. One day, when I was eleven, I was wandering in the alley behind my grandmother’s house in Georgetown, in D.C. I remember it quite vividly; hot but not yet oppressively so, and smelling of tar and the clots of mulberries staining the concrete all at one end of the alley. Tempting yet insipid, is really all you can say about mulberries. I would go to the trouble of climbing the chain-link fence by the tree, even though mulberries taste like you’re being haunted by a now-dead blackberry. The sky was very blue, so not summer yet. I thought to myself how I wished the Greek gods were real (fine so far!) but particularly that it would be very satisfying if Apollo were to notice me at that moment. My daughters actually laughed at what a terrible idea this was. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t read enough stories to know what happens to mortals when they get involved with the gods in any fashion, howsoever obliquely! The humans get wrecked up, is what. If you’re lucky you’ll be flayed alive like Marsyas and it’ll be over in a hurry, but you might end up suffering the torments of the damned in a religion where there isn’t even a non-Hell area to advance to after death! But what will children do besides daydream? And that even about sexual power, which we might feel ambivalent about. Certainly adults fantasize all the time, especially about sexual power. Reading this book made me ask myself, am I more willing to read Oh John Ringo, No! write a detailed account of creating a tribal nation than I am an account of how post-partum depression can be dealt with in the ancient world? Do I consider military SF to be non-Louis Wu-ish? If I think that I’m dumb and wrong, clearly. Has internalized sexism made me regard some kinds of imaginary world-building as less legitimate than others, more feminine than others? A book about a philosophical city may not seem a likely place for this to arise, and yet I needed to think about the areas I found less satisfactory and then ask, is this something about the novel, or about me?
I’ll close by noting something I had intended to talk more about. “Socrates” would serve just as well as “Louis Wu,” if you think about it. Socrates is a giant Mary Sue philosopher character for Plato. Lucky in his choice of interlocutors, pleasantly unsurprised when he elicits geometry from slave boys, the object of unreturned sexual affection from the hottest guy in Athens, an initiate into a variety of mysteries he can only allude to because reasons…like I say, he’s a dream come true. A dream Plato can conveniently claim came true in such a way as to validate everything Plato believes? Like many a young philosopher I turned away from philosophy as an undergraduate just because Socrates was so damn annoying. He’s Louis Wu, I’m telling you.