From the category archives:

Jo Walton Seminar

Jo Walton Seminar

by Henry on February 10, 2016

Here are the posts in our seminar on Jo Walton’s books, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings (the third book, Necessity, comes out in June). This one has been fun.

If you want to link to the entire seminar, all the posts are available here.

Alternatively, here’s a list by participant (with biographies for non-Crooked Timber regulars).

The participants:

Ruthanna Emrys’s short fiction—featuring Lovecraftian social justice activists, heroic xenopsychologists, and golem librarians (not all at once)—has appeared at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Analog. Winter Tide, her first novel, will be available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal and Twitter. Under the Lemon Tree, Distracted by Chores.

Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Original Sin.

Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Gods Behaving Badly.

Sumana Harihareswara is a project management consultant and open source expert living in Queens, New York. She co-edited the 2009 speculative fiction anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments and frequently speaks and performs at WisCon and writes about tech and fiction at Geek Feminism. You can follow her on Twitter or on Identi.ca as @brainwane; her personal blog is Cogito, Ergo Sumana. Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly

John Holbo blogs at Crooked Timber. Walton’s Republic.

Neville Morley is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol and author of such significant works on classical antiquity as ‘Civil War and Succession Crisis in Roman Beekeeping’ and ‘Thucydides, History and Historicism in Wilhelm Roscher’. He blogs at The Sphinx Blog and is on Twitter at @NevilleMorley. We Philhellenists.

Ada Palmer is a historian, an author of science fiction and fantasy, and a composer. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago. Her first novel, Too Like the Lightning, Book 1 of the four volume science fiction series Terra Ignota will come out in May. It’ll blow your mind (editorial interjection by HF). Plato vs. Metaphysics, or How Very Hard it Is to Un-Learn Freud.

Leah Schneibach is a staff writer for Tor.com and the Fiction Editor of No Tokens journal. Her story, “Bracelet,“ received an Honorable Mention in Lumina’s 2013 Fiction Contest, judged by George Saunders. Her fiction has been published in Lumina and Anamesa, and her criticism has appeared on Electric Literature. She is currently working on a novel about an unhealthy relationship between a teenage stand-up comedian and a depressed math teacher. Leah is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA Program in Fiction, where she worked with Brian Morton, David Hollander, and Nelly Reifler. She was also Assistant Fiction Editor for Lumina. In previous lives she has worked with the Center for Independent Publishing, Co-Directed the Education Department for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, received an M.A. in Religious Studies from NYU, and wrote serious academic papers on Harry Potter’s place in the literary canon while earning a B.A. from New College of Florida. Thinking Through Violence in The Just City and The Philosopher Kings.

Belle Waring blogs at Crooked Timber. Socrates as Mary-Sue.

Jo Walton is a fantasy and science fiction author. Her books have won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. Her new novel in the Thessaly sequence, Necessity, comes out in June. A Dialogue with a Very Odd Bibliography.

A Dialogue With a Very Odd Bibliography

by Jo Walton on February 10, 2016

I was sweeping the sand in the palaestra one morning when Sokrates came along with Apollo, deep in talk. “Ah, Crocus,” Sokrates said when he caught sight of me. “Just the person we need to add to our conversation. Ruthanna believes that leaders should have varied experience, that this would make them more excellent. What do you think?”

“Plato says in the Republic that everyone should be immersed in one thing, that people have only one excellence,” I said. “But this has always seemed strange to me. Workers, by our very nature, are intended to work. I am a philosopher, but I am also a robot, and I have robot excellence. In addition, I have long held that there are forms of art that are more akin to philosophy than to craft, though they naturally require skill in crafting. I further believe that it does no harm to engage in other tasks, such as this raking sand, which leaves the mind free to contemplate. But I had not considered that diversity of work might actually be a benefit.” [click to continue…]

Socrates as Mary Sue

by Belle Waring on February 9, 2016

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. [click to continue…]

I have graded 300 undergraduate papers about why Plato’s Republic is stupid. Not the book itself, but the plan of Plato’s hypothetical city. Even when I offer students four, five, six different essay topics, some instinct almost always compels them to take on the plan of the city and how evil, impossible, tyrannical, nonsensical, cruel, absurd, dysfunctional, and doomed they think it would be if put into practice.  So, when I read The Just City and its sequels, I couldn’t stop thinking about that instinct, those papers, and how one of the great wishes these books grant is the wish of anyone who teaches Plato to see a more mature and developed examination of the same question.  The tragedy of student papers is that the authors have only a week between first meeting the giant mountain of mind-bending ideas that is Plato’s Republic and having to write about it.  Even the best can’t get past the first glance reaction because it is a first glance reaction.  Which is why my favorite way of going through The Just City is to review my mental list of the standard undergraduate reactions to the Republic, and look at what Jo Walton, a Plato veteran who has chewed on the same problem for years, can do. [click to continue…]

The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are two of the purest examples I’ve ever read of “a novel of ideas”. Being novels of ideas means that scenes that would be gut wrenching or stomach-churning in other books are instead only jumping off points for the real work –complex, constant thought, and the moral consideration that comes with it. I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the way scenes of rape and violence are woven into the thoughtfulness of the book. [click to continue…]

Original Sin

by Maria on February 3, 2016

The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.

He goes to his sister, Athene, who explains the idea of consent. What Apollo terms ‘equal significance’ – of the volition of gods and mortals, and implicitly of men and women – is so novel and strange to him, that he decides to become mortal to try to understand. He joins Athene’s Just City as one of its founding children.

Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic becomes a real-life experiment on the conditions needed to live an excellent life. Hundreds of children are dropped on an island out of time and raised as the philosophers who will perfect the Just City when they grow up. Meanwhile, they are educated and subtly manipulated by a group of committed Platonists plucked from throughout human history. [click to continue…]

Gods Behaving Badly

by Henry on February 2, 2016

WARNING – COPIOUS SPOILERS ABOUT BOTH BOOKS

It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading. [click to continue…]

Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly

by Sumana Harihareswara on February 1, 2016

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. [click to continue…]

We Philhellenists

by Neville Morley on January 29, 2016

Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels offer both a celebration and a critique of philhellenism, the love of ancient Greek culture, by staging it and letting the consequences play out. From the beginning, we are presented with the attractions and seductions of the classical tradition. The classical is idealised self-consciously by the generation of Masters, who are plucked out of their lives in later centuries because of their declared allegiance to the wisdom of the Greeks – contrasted with the values of their own times, whether the extremes of religious intolerance or the oppression of women. The return to the classical represents for them liberation, the rule of wisdom and reason, and the exciting possibility of realising an ideal world that had seemed beyond reach in the face of the unyielding structures of medieval belief, the chaotic violence of Renaissance Italy, or strait-laced Victorian values. They are all highly educated people who have found in ancient Greece everything lacking from their own times, and so have yearned for it all their lives. [click to continue…]

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. [click to continue…]

Under the Lemon Tree, Distracted by Chores

by Ruthanna Emrys on January 27, 2016

One of the great appeals of the Thessaly series is the implicit invitation: join us in Socratic dialogue beneath the lemon tree, arguing practical philosophy with the best company from all of history.  But I am not a philosopher king, and definitely not a Gold of the Just City. As evidence, between the first and second sentences of this paragraph, I took ten minutes to reassure a baby who’d pinched her finger in a dresser drawer. Over the past couple of days I’ve engaged in crafts and cleaning, cooking and political argument and snarky write-ups of old horror stories. [click to continue…]