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.”

“You’re misinterpreting what Plato says,” Apollo interrupted, sitting down gracefully on the wall that ran around the palaestra. “For Plato, the one thing people ought to be doing is seeking to understand the Good. Anything else is a distraction from that. If Plato were right, if there were one true Good and it worked the way he thought, then he’d be right.”

“You’re leaping ahead to what Ada says about metaphysics,” Sokrates said. “What about this question of Ruthanna’s? Is there a benefit to a diversity of experiences?”

“But it is inherently a question about metaphysics,” Apollo insisted. “Plato was wrong, but he was asking such interesting questions and always trying to find answers. If he’d been right about the metaphysics, he’d have been right about this too.”

“Ruthanna’s question is very interesting to me,” I said.

“I like the fact it’s a question not an answer,” Sokrates said. “But I’m sick to death of philosophical women telling me they’re not philosophers. Pah. She obviously loves wisdom.”

“She’s an artist,” Apollo said, smiling his inscrutable smile.

“When I consider my earliest memories, my coming to consciousness, it does seem to me that the diversity of tasks I engaged in were part of what made me aware.” I said. “If I had been set to do one thing over and over, raking sand, or building sleepinghouses, or taking care of goats – “

“Mending latrines,” Socrates put in.

“Yes, or mending latrines. No single task repeated would have stimulated my soul to awareness and towards philosophy. So although I had not thought about this before, I believe Ruthanna is correct, at least for my own experience.”

“Perhaps,” Apollo said. “But Plato would contend that concentrating all your mind on anything but the nature of the Good would be a distraction from it. And again, if he was right about the underlying way the world worked, he’d be right.”

“Renault says that the excellence of a pankratist is the excellence of a man, and that a man who trains to make himself excessively strong so that he was not in proportion is less excellent as a man,” Sokrates said. “Might it not be the same with Plato’s ideal philosopher, if such a person could exist? Their mind would become overdeveloped in one direction, through thinking about nothing but metaphysics and the Good, even if Plato’s idea of the Good were right?”

“But Plato’s philosopher-king would also work running the City,” I said. “So that would never happen to them. I do see that without it, they might become a little unbalanced in that way. And do you think that is what Cherryh was referring to in Cyteen when she has Ariane Emory talk about the benefit she gained from working in the legislature?”

“Yes, I think so,” Sokrates said. “And you will find that elsewhere Jo has taken something very like this position herself, in writing about everyday tasks. So I think Ruthanna has a very good point, and Crocus’s argument supports it. Nobody should be forced into the kitchen, but perhaps it’s good for all of us to spend some time there.”

“It’s an easier argument to make from a position of having technological help,” I said.

“Yes, Plato was being radical and revolutionary in abolishing slavery as an institution and having that work done by people most suited to it,” Apollo said. “It’s easy for people who have technological help to forget that those necessary things took up so much time.”

Maia joined us and sat down beside Apollo on the wall. “You can’t blame Plato for wanting to free women from the domestic,” she said, sharply. “It’s always us that work falls to. And maybe Ruthanna finds the chores fulfilling – but she has that choice. She can choose whether to be a philosopher or not. The women in my time, and in Plato’s time, could not. They were stuck with it, and it didn’t matter if it gave them a vital flexibility or not, because nobody was going to call on them for anything else. Even in Ruthanna’s time it’s mostly women who got called on to do those things, the baby tending and the errand running in between everything else. I don’t see any men making that argument.”

“But if they suffered from not having the same opportunities, then they might not be aware of the benefits,” Sokrates said.

Men suffered from not having opportunities?” Maia asked, her voice heavy with irony.  “And who was it who thought I was too feminist? John? He should look at the work of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, and especially Charlotte M. Yonge. I believe Jo has written that she read the character Ethel May in Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Daisy Chain and felt filled with longing to rescue her from that book and put her in one where she could have the life she deserved. Look at the writing of Victorian women and come back and tell me I’m too feminist. Read _Middlemarch_ for goodness sake.”

“It wasn’t you that John and Belle complained about so much as Simmea,” I said. “John said Simmea spent eleven years in a sexist society and four in one trying very hard to be equal before that time when Pytheas said something unfortunate to Klymene, and that she and Klymene had internalised equality too much.”

“Poor Klymene,” Maia said. “Those girls were our success. My success. They’re what we wanted. I know ten year olds aren’t blank slates, but that was something where we were trying very hard.”

“John thinks they got there too fast,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“He thinks they’re too modern. Do you think they’re too much like twenty-first century women?” Sokrates asked.

“So much the better for the twenty-first century!” Maia sniffed. “Is that where Ruthanna comes from? Did she say she has a wife? Wonderful! You don’t see many women from that time in the Republic, do you? Does that suggest anything to you?”

“The decline of Classics?” Apollo suggested.

“I have worried that it means the decline of excellence,” I said. “If people aren’t reading Plato, what have they put in his place? Locke and that horrible Hobbes? Or are they pursuing profit to the exclusion of all else?”

“Ada says the Enlightenment has won,” Maia said. “And everyone has internalised feminism and liberty.”

“But she says they still have a long way to go and that they can be blind to other things,” Sokrates said. “But what was that about the decline of Classics? Is that what Neville is talking about?”

“No, Neville is addressing the extent to which what we think of as the Classical world is imaginary, a contruct,” Apollo said. “Which it is, of course. It has been rediscovered and reimagined over and over. And the books are getting to play with a whole set of layerings of imaginations of it. In some ways it’s a way to do the classical world without the problematic aspects of it.”

“Without the problematic aspects?” Sokrates asked. “What about the classes and the festivals of Hera and…”

“Not without the problematic aspects of Plato, without the problematic aspects of the ancient world. Slavery, and dirt and germs. This is an ancient world with showers!”

“The showers are splendid,” Maia said.

“You wouldn’t have liked the dirt in my Athens either, or the disease, or the poverty,” Sokrates said.

“So there are a whole bunch of reimaginings, from the Hellenistic period onward, and most especially the Renaissance, but also nineteenth century classicism – you and your father, Maia.. Neville’s right, it’s philhellenism of a very particular kind.” Apollo grinned. “I have friends everywhere. But more in some times than others. And he’s got a very good point that this did make it a tiny bit more universal. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with being interested in European history and European thought. But this was a recontextualisation. All those people who loved the dream, all those philosophers trying to imagine it.”

“Half the Masters weren’t really philosophers,” Maia said.

“The book did say that clearly – lots of them were classics majors and Platonic mystics,” Apollo said.

“That’s Neville’s point again,” Sokrates said. “Philhellenism.”

“But in the cities, over time, we were interrogating Plato in various different ways,” Maia said. “We didn’t just have one answer, by the end anyway.”

“I didn’t really understand Neville’s post,” I admitted. “It wasn’t a dialogue and it wasn’t asking questions. I agreed with a lot of it, but what can I say but an affirmation?”

“The books are a criticism of the classical world as well,” Apollo said.

“Yes, but it’s a criticism from somebody who clearly loves it, even if she can see it’s not perfect,” Sokrates said. “And you can say the same for her treatment of Plato for that matter.”

“Jo has said that to pastiche something properly you have to love it, you have to see what’s good about it,” Apollo said. “Are we moving on to Sumana’s post?”

Sokrates shrugged. “It looks as if we are. The books are a transformative text because they engage with Plato, and put in the parts other things don’t.”

“Fixing the latrines,” I said.

“Exactly, yes, that ultimate question of the good life.”

“And women, and people who aren’t white, and aren’t beautiful, and aren’t perfect, and old people, and people suffering post-partum depression, and pre-menstrual syndrome, and people who do things wrong and learn better,” Maia said.

“And people who are robots, and gods,” I said. “Did you like what Sumana said about feminism?”

“Yes, I did,” Maia said. “I’m in strong agreement with that.”

“I liked everything Sumana said except the bit about Bernini,” Apollo said. “The problem with being a god is that everything you do becomes art, sometimes glorious wonderful art that it makes you squirm to look at.”

“So about Henry’s post,“ Sokrates said.

“The bit about the negative capability of art to present arguments echoes something I said in _Necessity_,” I said.

“We’re not supposed to discuss _Necessity_,” Apollo said.

“Why not?” Sokrates asked, surprised. “It’s finished now!”

“Yes, but it won’t be published until June.”

“What nonsense! I refuse to spoil my arguments for a piece of commercial timing nonsense like that, when the argument will still be there long after the book is out!” Sokrates looked quite indignant.

“But in the moment people are reading it, it won’t be,” Maia said. “Like novels published in installments in my day.”

“It will unavoidably spoil people’s first experience, and that’s a bad thing,” Apollo said. “As for that only applying to a particular moment in time, well, I live my whole life like that.”

“I will try to avoid spoilers,” I said.

“I won’t,” Sokrates said, pacing to and fro. “It’s ridiculous.”

Apollo raised an eyebrow. “Did you like being a fly that much?”

“You wouldn’t,” Sokrates said, confidently. “You – “ He stopped, looking curiously at Apollo. “You would? Well, considering what you did to Kebes… you really do care about art. I won’t gratuitously spoil anything, is that good enough?”

Apollo nodded.

“Art and the gods,” I said. “It is an important question.”

“Jo has written a poem saying that the proper argument in response to Plato’s question – and it is a question – about art in the Republic is Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories and the concept of subcreation,” Apollo said.

“A poem?” Sokrates asked, turning on his heel.

“Yes, a sonnet,” Apollo said.

“The form doesn’t matter. But nobody since Parmenides has tried philosophy in verse.”

“What about Lucretius?” Maia put in.

“I’m still waiting for somebody to translate Lucretius into Greek,” Sokrates said. “But never mind. The point is, doing it in poetry is already in itself an attempt to refute Plato’s ideas on art.”

I wanted to say that I have done philosophy in sculpture, but I didn’t want to give spoilers for Necessity, and risk Apollo’s wrath, so I remained silent on that point.

“Henry asks about gods improving,” Maia said. “You can, can’t you?”

“There is no end point to excellence, where you have it and you can stop,” Apollo said. “I said that to Sokrates and Simmea in the garden in Thessaly. And Ada explains that very well, if we can skip on to the section about metaphysics.”

“Wait, we’ll get to it in due course,” Maia said.

“Apollo and Athene have character development arcs across all three books,” Sokrates said, with a glint in his eyes. “As for Athene’s purpose in founding the city –“

“Oh don’t tell them!” Maia said. “Don’t be like the people who shouted out that Little Nell was dead!”

“Humph,” Sokrates said, but he subsided.

“Can we say that characters of more classes get points of view in _Necessity_?” I asked.

“And you do,” Maia said, looking at me affectionately.

“But I am a gold.” I pointed proudly to the gold bee painted high on one of my arms.

“Of course you are,” Sokrates said. “Though I still agree with Ruthanna that the whole classification thing is fundamentally wrongheaded.”

“So the gods do change,” I said.

“And what about Apollo developing morally?” Sokrates asked.

“Heinlein said there were only three stories, and one of them was Man Learns Lesson,” Apollo said. “God learns lesson is less popular, but certainly interesting, don’t you think? If you look at Ovid it’s one long list of gods behaving badly. If you look at Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne you have to wonder about what happened in the next instant.”

“After you got smacked in the groin by a branch?” Maia said, failing to suppress a grin.

“After that, yes,” Apollo said, not smiling. “It would be very boring to have a main character, a point of view character, who couldn’t learn or change! And of course, once you get into the story of a god in mortal form and what he might learn, you have an implicit critique of Christianity.”

“Maria says it’s a-Christian.” Sokrates said. “And some people have said it’s anti-Christian. But it seems to me that it’s more treating Christianity like one more interesting ingredient in a historical mix. Maybe that looks odd to people who are accustomed to it being given special treatment.”

“Can we talk about metaphysics yet?” Apollo asked.

“Are we agreed that art is an important part of the good life?” I asked.

“As much as we are agreed about anything,” Sokrates said.

“Maria wants to talk about volition and equal significance,” I said, starting to rake the sand again where Sokrates had churned it up with his pacing.

“And she doesn’t like Plato,” Maia said. “We were doing our best. All right, it wasn’t perfectly just in every way.”

“As I pointed out in the Last Debate,” Sokrates said.

“Yes, as you pointed out at length in the Last Debate. But there aren’t only two choices, utopia or dystopia, perfect or terrible. Everything human is compromised, a mix. Some things didn’t work out so well, true, but other things were wonderful. And I don’t think Simmea suffered post-partum depression because the baby was taken away. Lots of women have it in all times and places, and have to care for their babies too. It’s a physical illness. Belle knows that.”

“Maria’s correct that it wasn’t just and you were manipulating the children,” Sokrates said.

“But if was for their own good,” Maia protested. “Plato was trying to free women from constant childbearing and motherhood to let them live the life of the mind.”

“But they were forced to have children,” I said.

“Well unless it was going to be just one generation, children had to come from somewhere,” Maia said.

“Simmea used to say they should have collected up the abandoned babies of antiquity,” Apollo said. He was staring out over the sand, eyes fixed on nothing. “We could have done that. They were left out, exposed. We could have gathered them all up and brought them to Kallisti.”

Maia winced. “It’s funny how people seem to mind rape so much more than exposure. Infanticide.  Such a horrible thing.”

“Couldn’t we still do that?” I asked. “Could you collect all those exposed babies now and bring them here? You collected all the lost art. Could you get all the lost children too?”

“Yes, maybe. Or I have another project in mind where I might do that. Infants have been abandoned all over the world, in many different cultures. Certainly the Greeks believed the gods might rescue them. And it’s true. We could.”

“This isn’t in Necessity?” Maia asked.

“No, I just thought of it,” I assured her. “It’s maybe a bit like John Varley’s “Air Raid”.”

“We’re supposed to be responding to these essays, not having new ideas,” Maia said to me, reproachfully, but she was smiling so I understood that it was meant as teasing.

“Wanting to rescue them for another project is an example of Henry’s point and the kind of way Apollo has changed,” I said.

“And of Maria’s point that people are more important than systems?” Sokrates asked.

“Maybe,” Apollo said. “But systems matter too. Maria lives in a world where people ask what’s the value of studying philosophy.”

“I ask that too,” Sokrates protested.

“You ask that in a way that’s intended to lead to more philosophy, more questions. They ask it in a way that’s intended to discover the monetary value, how much more somebody would be able to earn from studying it. When you live in a world where many people act as if profit is more important than people, or excellence, or art, or anything human at all, then Plato’s alternatives start to look interesting again.”

“You mean the Sophists won?” Sokrates looked disgusted.

“No, it’s worse than that, they don’t consider the monetary value of learning virtue, they don’t consider that anything except money has worth. They don’t even pay lip service to excellence most of the time. Many of them believe that money is a measure of human worth, and that people without it are morally lacking.”

“There were some people like that in my time,” Maia said.

“Well, it’s got worse,” Apollo said, grimly. “Using Plato’s odder ideas ia a way of critiquing those things too.”

“And what you said before, about needing to love something to critique it properly,” I said. “I’m not sure I agree, but it’s certainly an interesting point.”

“Maria wanted more of Kebes’s point of view,” Sokrates said, looking at Apollo. “I’m not trying to spoil Necessity, but we should talk about that.”

“Kebes’s point of view would be boring,” Apollo said. We all looked at him. I even stopped raking the sand. “What? I’m not saying that because I can’t stand him, though it’s true that I can’t. Look, let’s talk about utopias and dystopias and ways of telling stories for a minute. There are standard boring ways of doing them. The standard way of writing a utopia is that somebody visits from elswehere and gets a tour, and the natives explain how much better everything is than back at home, one thing at a time. Graves’s Seven Days in New Crete, the bit in Gulliver’s Travels, Ecotopia – there’s bunches of them. There are no stories in utopia, because the world is a character and has to change, and if the world is perfect then it can’t. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is interesting here, and Robinson’s Pacific Edge. With dystopias, the standard thing is to either have a point-of-view character who hates it, or one who has been putting up with it and discovers they hate it. We, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale. Then in some dystopian fiction, they try to change it and succeed – see all those teen dystopias that are so popular at the moment the Thessaly books are bring written in. But these are standard and normal and terribly dull. If we’d had Kebes’s point of view it would have been exactly like that, how much he hated everything and how it sucked. His conversation was bad enough. He would have been the normal way to write about it, if it was dystopia. But instead, it was ambiguous, more complicated than that. It was much more interesting to show it from my point of view, and Simmea’s.”

“And mine,” Maia said.

“Yes, because that way it could say things about power, and contrasts of power.” Apollo spread his hands. “That’s what I meant.”

“But you did hate him,” I said.

“Yes. I did. And Maria did notice that what I had to do with Klymene was about as close you can get to a man being raped by a woman,” Apollo said.

“It’s not the same!” Maia said, loudly.

“It’s closer than you like to think, and you have to accept responsibility for that,” Sokrates said.

Maia nodded and looked down.

“Leah’s post talks about rape and violence, and John also mentions it positively,” I said. “How it’s thematic.”

“Lots of books have rape in, and again, there are a couple of standard ways of dealing with it,” Apollo said. “One is the male gaze, rape as titillation.”

“Ick,” Maia said.

“Before you go on, there is one thing I wanted to say that relates to all of this, and might as well go here as anywhere,” Sokrates said. “In Greece, young men were objects of desire, just as much as women were. So all men went through a stage of bring that, being the prey and not the predator if you want to look at it that way. Ficino tells me that it was like that in his Florence too, that young men were part of what is gazed at, not part of what does the gazing if you understand me. So I think that gives men from those societies, including Plato, men who had experienced that when young, a different perspective on sexuality and power from people whose societies do not sexualise young men in that way, who have not had that experience that’s more frequently only a female experience in other societies.”

“I don’t really understand eros at all,” I said, apologetically.

“That’s an interesting thought,” Maia said. “But there’s no male rape examined in the book.”

“You see it in art though, all those Ganymedes. Sex and power and sexuality,” Apollo said. “So as well as that way of portraying it. Then the other one, from the other side, is that it’s the worst thing that can possibly happen to a woman, and it ruins her life, and she will always be a victim, like Leah says, then the story would be about recovery.”

“That’s putting everyone into a box where they can only have one kind of reaction,” Maia said. “That’s a kind of erasure of people who have had the experience and recovered. It did change me, but it wasn’t my defining experience. It was a betrayal. But there are worse things. The infanticide, as I mentioned, when I had to leave the baby crying on the mountain. And after my father died. That year with nothing to read and nobody to talk to and no real prospect of any improvement was worse.”

“All books are about ideas,” I said, trying to change the subject comfortingly.

“Yes, they are,” Maia said, passionately, wiping her eyes. “Let’s talk about that!”

“I think we have to talk about Kebes first.”

“We talked about him!” Apollo said. “I think what Leah said is exactly right, and there’s nothing more to say. Except maybe about breaking the metre.”

“The metre?” Sokrates asked.

“The pattern,” I said, understanding what Apollo meant. “The chapters are in a repeating pattern – Apollo, Simmea, Maia, Simmea, Maia, Simmea, Apollo in the first book, and Apollo Arete, Arete, Maia, Arete, Arete, Apollo in the second. Except there, where the chapter where it talks about dancing with Dionysos in Berlin, there’s an extra Apollo chapter. Chapter 22. It breaks the metre.”

“Virgil did it with Dido’s curse in the Aeneid, so there’s a classical precedent,” Apollo said. “It just seemed an interesting thing to point out in this context. Leah also wrote a brilliant piece about the books on Tor.com, about the art in them. She gets what the books are doing and she’s really interesting talking about them.”

“What about John?” Sokrates asked.

“I don’t know that I understand John’s piece,” I said. “What’s a horcrux?”

“It’s inconceivable to John that anyone wouldn’t know that,” Apollo said.

“Does he really think the books should have been funny and had referential jokes?” I asked.

“No, he says it’s good they’re not,” Maia said.

“But he spends so much time on that. Maybe I am like Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I don’t understand humour,” I said.

“Humour, and references, are very personal,” Sokrates said. “The books are full of references, just not to twenty-first century in-jokes.”

“The best way to do a reference is so that somebody who gets it, gets it, and somebody who doesn’t doesn’t even notice there was anything to miss,” Apollo said.

“We already dealt with John’s problems with feminism,” Maia said. “But his point about the science fictionality is interesting.”

“Science fiction isn’t furniture,” Apollo said.

“No, it’s ideas,” Maia said. “That’s what’s interesting.”

“I agree,” I said.

“It’s the thought experiments,” Sokrates said. “All of those different things to argue with!”

“And Belle’s right that Plato didn’t mean the stuff about the city to be a blueprint for actually building one. It’s a template for the soul. Actually having a real city is a science fictional idea,” I said.

“That’s why Plato isn’t here,” Maia said. “He only wanted to make people think.”

“And John’s certainly right about recognising the insanity of writing something like this in that time and place,” Apollo said. “There’s an assumption that the reader will be familiar with Plato, at least by the time they finish the book, and a lot of science fiction. Are there people like that? Are the books too odd?”

“It’s certainly an odd idea, but some people like them,” I said.

“So, now at last we come to Ada’s,” Sokrates said.

“Do we have anything to say except that it’s all fascinating and right?” I asked.

“Yes, lots of things!” Apollo said.

“Historicity. So great that somebody finally gets it,” Maia said. “All that complexity.”

“I hadn’t thought of it as degrees of unfreedom, but that’s a very interesting way of putting it,” Sokrates said. “I’d like to talk to her about that.”

“As for the students, well, there may be too much in the book that was what Jo thought when she was fifteen and first had the idea,” Apollo said.

“But it’s amazing that the students don’t notice the feminism,” Maia said. “I certainly noticed it right away! And Ada is so right about the span of time after Plato when nobody else said women’s souls were equal.”

“I’d really like to talk to that Hobbes too,” Sokrates said, thoughtfully. “Apollo do you think you could arrange that?”

“Thomas Hobbes is no votary of mine!” Apollo said, decisively.

“Well how does that work?” Maia asked.

“Metaphysics,” Apollo said happily. “Finally!”

“So this makes me wonder, why don’t the books take place in Plato’s metaphysical universe?” Sokrates asked.

“Because Jo’s original very first idea was that in Plato’s system, falling in love would be socially and emotionally like being gay was in lots of historical societies. And because romantic love is one of the central metaphysical beliefs of her own time, this was one of the things that made it interesting for her, so she kept that. So it couldn’t be Plato’s universe, because in Plato’s universe love doesn’t work like that,” Apollo explained. “Plato’s ideas about love are very weird, and partly stemming from what Sokrates was saying earlier about men as objects of gaze, and probably partly just generalising from what he was like himself. As Steven Brust says, we all do that.” Apollo smiled. “But Plato’s ideas about love are very integrated into his metaphysics, as Ada explains so lucidly here.”

“So Ada’s right that it’s as Platonic as it could be and have people with psychology as they understand it?” Sokrates asked.

“Yes. It’s a fudge. But that also makes room for gods and robots,” Apollo smiled at me. “Which gives it more scope.”

“Let’s enquire into the nature of love,” Sokrates said, starting to pace again and undoing all the neat artistry of my raking.

“Let’s finish this first,” Maia said. “Ada likes the variety of human reactions to Plato’s arrangements . Isn’t that usual? You get it in Middlemarch.”

“It certainly shouldn’t be unusual,” Apollo said.

“I think she’s too kind to the books,” I said. “Reading too much into them. They don’t have the whole of intellectual history in them.”

“Ada’s absolutely right that Plato would change his mind,” Sokrates said.

“When Jo had the original idea for this, she was fifteen and very arrogant,” Apollo said. “She really wanted to be in all the arguments, and she was quite sure that if she was, she’d make everyone change their minds. Plato, Chesterton, Lewis. She’d be very embarrassed to admit now how often this was her wish fulfillment scenario.”

“So that comes to Belle’s point, about wish fulfillment,” I said. “Are the books wish fulfillment?”

“Yes, of course they are in some ways,” Apollo said. “Jo was having too much fun writing these.”

“But am I a Mary Sue?” Sokrates asked.

“No. Not if that means an authorial insert character,” I said. “I mean in one sense, we’re all authorial insert characters, especially me! All characters come out of an author’s head and do what the author wants them to do.”

“Hah,” Apollo and Sokrates said together, then they laughed.

“You obviously haven’t tried writing fiction, Crocus, or you’d know it doesn’t work quite like that,” Sokrates said.

“Characters who do exactly what the author wants don’t have any life to them,” Apollo said. “That’s what’s actually wrong with Mary Sues. It’s not just that they’re good at things, it’s that everything is made easy for them. It’s fine to have a character the author loves and admires, and it’s fine for that character to be good at things, as long as the author is mean to them when that’s necessary.”

“Mean like having horrible things happen to them?” Maia asked.

“Yes. That’s what’s wrong with Menolly in _Dragonsinger_, not having nine firelizards but having the author too much on her side, even for a YA book about firelizards,” Apollo said.

“Is it true that only female characters get called Mary Sues?” Sokrates asked.

‘No. Lots of people have said it about Rothfuss’s Kvothe,” Apollo said. “They’re wrong about him, too. But you know what’s more unusual? Not that they’re saying it about a male character, which happens quite a bit, but that they’re saying it about a male author. It’s women who get accused of writing Mary Sues all the time, if they write about anyone who’s half-way competent. It’s a surprisingly frequent putdown, even at times when it’s really inappropriate. Mary Sues of both genders exist, but not half as many as the accusation.”

“So am I a Mary Sue for Plato?” Sokrates asked cheerfully. “And how about other people who wrote about me? Xenophon? Renault?”

“Maybe you are,” Maia said. “For Plato. You do win all the arguments. And what about that bit with Alkibiades in the Symposium?”

“But it happened!” Sokrates said, indiginantly. “He came in drunk, there were all those witnesses – Aristophanes was there! Ask anyone.”

“And the argument winning?” I asked.

“I’m very good at arguments?” Sokrates grinned. “No, I think it’s reasonable to say Plato was using me as an authorial insert character and making things too easy for me, though more in some dialogues than others. He misrepresents me terribly sometimes.”

“What about the rest of the wish fulfillment, in the Thessaly books?” I asked.

“Jo at least refrained from actually writing the scene where Pico and Atticus rescue the art from the Bonfire of the Vanities, and the books from the Library of Alexandria,” Apollo said. “It’s as if the wish fulfillment fantasy is happening offstage there. Too much fun.”

“And how about you?” Sokrates asked.

“Moi?” Apollo asked.

“Are you an authorial insert character, or a Mary Sue?”

“In these responses I am an authorial insert character from time to time. But in the books? No. Absolutely not.”

“Isn’t it literally hubris though, writing about you, from your point of view?” Sokrates asked.

“Yes,” Apollo said. “But she did ask me if she could write about me before she started, or at least before she’d written anything down.”

“What did you say?” I asked, after a palpable pause in which Sokrates and Maia exchanged looks as if to say that they weren’t going to give him the satisfaction.

“I said she could as long as she got it right.”

“And did she get it right?” Sokrates asked, curiously.

“Nothing is ever right, in art,” Apollo said. “You know that, don’t you Crocus?”

“Next time,” I said. “Next time I’ll get it right.”

“So you keep mentioning Jo, why isn’t she here?” Sokrates asked. “I’d have a thing or two to ask her!”

“It’s too meta,” Apollo said. “Impossible, in fact, for her to engage directly with this kind of thing. She was feeling utterly overwhelmed until Ada suggested she could write a dialogue instead of a proper grown up response. And that, naturally, meant having us here to asnwer for her. She’s not being arch in doing this, it’s really the only way she could approach it. But that does have certain advantages for us as well. Not just that we get to come out of the box and have this conversation, but we can also talk about things Jo wouldn’t necessarily want us to.”

“Oh ho,” Sokrates said, rubbing his hands together.

“I was wondering earlier, what’s her position on religion?” Maia asked.

“She always says she’s a secular humanist, but I keep asking her for more than she wants to give, and she keeps trying her best to give it,” Apollo said.

“Is she going to write any more books in this universe, after Necessity?” I asked.

“No, she says she is completely done with it and moving on to new projects.”

“Does she want to live in Plato’s Republic?” Sokrates asked.

“No. But she also didn’t want to live in the British single-sexed boarding school where she was when she first read. Plato either. And she can see a lot of things wrong with the time where she lives now, as well as a lot of things that are great. The unexamined life is not worth living, and she agrees with you that the process of examination is valuable in itself,” Apollo said.

“Ah, so she has ambiguous answers like Henry wants!” Sokrates said.

Apollo just smiled.

“To go right back to the beginning, Ruthanna says that one of the best things in the books is the implicit invitation to the reader to participate in the conversation,” Maia said. “And that’s something Plato offers too, I think, something that’s central to the whole project.”

“And this project, this Crooked Timber seminar, is very specifically inviting the reader to engage,” Apollo said. “It’s very interesting, responding this way.”

“Great,” Sokrates said. “So, now we have everyone here – make yourselves comfortable! Which should we start with, the nature of justice, or the nature of love? Or how about the question of how we lead the good life, in the time and place where we find ourselves?”

Very Odd Bibliography

Plato goes without saying in this context. Books mentioned, in order of mention:

Mary Renault The Last of the Wine (1956)

C.J. Cherryh Cyteen (1987)

Charlotte M Yonge The Daisy Chain (1856)

George Eliot Middlemarch (1871)

John Locke An Essay on Human Understanding (1690)

Thomas Hobbes Leviathan (1651)

J.R.R. Tolkien On Fairy Stories (1947)

Lucretius De Rerum Natura (55BC)

Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

Ovidius Naso Metamorphoses (8 AD)

John Varley “Air Raid” (1977)

Robert Graves Seven Days in New Crete (aka Watch the North Wind Rise_)  (1949)

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

Ernest Callenbach Ecotopia (1975)

Ursula Le Guin Always Coming Home (1985)

Kim Stanley Robinson Pacific Edge (1990)

Yevgeny Zamyztin We (1924)

George Orwell Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949)

Aldous Huxley Brave New World (1932)

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Robert A. Heinlein The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)

Anne McCaffrey Dragonsinger (1977)

Patrick Rothfuss The Name of the Wind (2007)



Neville Morley 02.10.16 at 2:25 pm

This is simply fabulous. Thank you.


Sumana Harihareswara 02.10.16 at 3:12 pm

This is so wonderful. Apollo mentioned me! Zowie! And I teared up at the end.


Stephen D. 02.10.16 at 3:39 pm

I’d never heard of these books before this little lot kicked off and now I have to read the lot. Magnificent!


oldster 02.10.16 at 5:05 pm

Really wonderful, Jo. Thanks so much.

Just one little typo to fix, though:

“So all men went through a stage of bring that, being the prey and not the predator if you want to look at it that way.”

I believe “bring” was meant to be “being”.


Ruthanna Emrys 02.10.16 at 6:42 pm

I’m honored by Socrates’s, Apollo’s, and Crocus’s praise. Socrates’s, typically, made me think: why don’t I consider myself a philosopher?

If you’d asked me prior to reading the Thessaly books, and Ada’s essays, I’d have given a snobby answer: that scientifically-guided psychology addresses essentially the same questions as philosophy, but with more opportunity for progressing towards the truth through collecting empirical evidence. That attitude probably comes from training in cognitive science, which uses both disciplines to address questions about human nature, and doesn’t always overtly acknowledge that they can also do other things.

Ada’s gotten through my head that philosophy also progresses, and has exciting new breakthroughs that can reshape society at least as much as the most dramatic scientific advance–which Thessaly illustrates vividly. If the goal of science is to progress towards excellence of understanding the universe’s physical truth, is the goal of philosophy to progress towards excellence of moral understanding and reasoning? That’s certainly Plato’s assumption, and one that can be examined separately from the assumption that any type of excellence has an end goal.

Which also raises the question: what types of excellence is it *necessary* to strive towards for the good life? Moral excellence certainly seems central to a good life, and so does trying to improve your understanding of the nature of reality–and failure at either of those can lead to failure in the other. But do you need to be working on all areas of excellence in order to achieve anything significant in even one of them? Which is a different question from whether one should be engaging in many different kinds of activities. I might strive towards excellence in art and parenting, and yet find utility, even pleasure, in dabbling at something I’m bad at–if nothing else, it might inform both writing good characters (who often face tasks outside their areas of excellence) and empathizing with my children, who are beginners at everything. But then, if my dabbling doesn’t include any type of striving for improvement, however desultorily, how much can I learn?

So perhaps I am a philosopher, since I do strive towards excellent moral understanding and reasoning, even if it’s not what I spend the greater part of my time and energy working on (except in the sense that I think all my activities feed into it, eventually). But perhaps I can only be a philosopher in a world in which it’s possible to pursue it as a secondary excellence, or an excellence that builds on other excellences.


Janet 02.11.16 at 3:20 am

This is great. Thanks!

I was particularly struck by this: “Look, let’s talk about utopias and dystopias and ways of telling stories for a minute. There are standard boring ways of doing them. The standard way of writing a utopia is that somebody visits from elswehere and gets a tour, and the natives explain how much better everything is than back at home, one thing at a time….With dystopias, the standard thing is to either have a point-of-view character who hates it, or one who has been putting up with it and discovers they hate it….Then in some dystopian fiction, they try to change it and succeed….If we’d had Kebes’s point of view it would have been exactly like that, how much he hated everything and how it sucked. His conversation was bad enough. He would have been the normal way to write about it, if it was dystopia. But instead, it was ambiguous, more complicated than that. It was much more interesting to show it from my point of view, and Simmea’s.”

This makes me think of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky series, a children’s science fiction trilogy published in the 1970s. They are very much in the mode you describe — a young protagonist who discovers some very troubling aspects of his society and sets out to change them. But they are not dystopias; rather they’re about a flawed utopian experiment with some grave injustices that need to be remedied. Still, the main characters maintain a conviction that its basic goals are worthwhile; they remain committed to its goals, even while realizing that some things have to change, and that change will be messy and disruptive. And there’s an elite group that runs things, and a Noble Lie (also an ignoble one), and children get their career decided for them at age 13, and genders seem to be relatively equal (the elite group is exactly half men and half women), and children are rigorously trained from an early age (not to philosophy, but to non-violence). Unfortunately the first book of the trilogy is by far the best; the last book is a mess, and all of the really bad characters conveniently self-destruct. But unlike all the current crop of teen dystopias, it’s easy to understand and respect the founders’ goals. Also, it takes place on a low-gravity forest planet, so the characters glide around on silk wing panels like flying squirrels!

Does anybody else know or remember these books?

I forget where I was going with this, except to say that I appreciate ambiguity, rather than the starkness of the dystopia.


Belle Waring 02.11.16 at 4:27 am

Maybe Apollo will notice me now! But probably that would be a bad idea, still. I want to say, as I have before, that I actually convinced someone to have Platonic views about morality. Namely, my brother. We had a long argument, until like three a.m., about whether actions could be inherently, objectively, good or bad, and whether people doing evil recognize that they are in the wrong (not always, obviously). I also didn’t mention this, but my PhD thesis was (intended to be) about Plato’s Gorgias and Socrates’ status relative to Sophists (self-proclaimed or not.) So it’s not as though my initial dislike of Socrates the character persisted forever. I’m definitely a Platonist as far as numbers go, as well. I ever changed someone’s mind using improvised Socratic dialogue! This was a unique experience.


John Holbo 02.11.16 at 4:54 am

“Maybe Apollo will notice me now! But probably that would be a bad idea”

I second that emotion. The second one.

“Maybe I am like Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and I don’t understand humour”

I have this great idea for a children’s book: “Goodnight Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”. Been meaning to write that one for years. Haven’t got around to it.

Thanks for this many-headed response to all your respondents, Jo.

Funny you mention Varley’s “Air Raid”. I was thinking about saying something about that in my post but I didn’t end up talking about the time-travel issues. I assign that story in my ‘SF and philosophy’ class but it gives the students the fantods. In that class I also set Plato and Tolkien against each other, as rival schools of sf.

More later, maybe. But for now, again: thanks.


Neville Morley 02.11.16 at 11:40 am

I am not a philosopher. I realised this at about fifteen, working through Plato’s Apology as my Greek set text and finding myself ever more in sympathy with the Athenians who found Socrates guilty.

At this point I hear my inner Socrates – I have my fingers crossed that this is Walton’s Socrates, whom I find substantially more sympathetic than Plato’s – saying: “But, Neville, do you not yourself strive to achieve a kind of excellence? And did we not agree that striving after excellence is the essence of philosophy?” – which, if I grudgingly assent, is of course a prelude to demonstrating that I have simply been mistaken about the excellence I should be striving for.

Take two. If I am at all a philosopher, I am one who spends much too much time with nineteenth-century Germans. Philosophers have only interpreted the world, with their Alexandrian conviction that everything can be explained through reason and that this explanation will be sufficient for life. I would choose the music-making Socrates over the martyr for truth; but still more I would choose Thucydides as the antidote to all Platonism, and the idea (as my favourite Wilhelm Roscher put it) of historiography as understanding grounded in reality, as opposed to understanding grounded in fantasy (art, fiction) or understanding grounded in abstraction and the ideal (philosophy).

All that being said, I can see the appeal – and especially the appeal of this philosophical fiction or fictional philosophy. I can certainly understand Crocus’s bemusement at my contribution; it is apposite that Apollo should have a better idea what I was trying to get at, as the character with the broader overview, the capacity to compare across time and the sense of all the different stories that could be told about it. I like to think Arete would have grasped it as well, so long as she’s been allowed to read Thucydides (I can’t help fearing that the obvious antipathy to Hobbes may have had adverse consequences for his great inspiration…).


mclaren 02.12.16 at 6:47 am

But these are standard and normal and terribly dull.

The siren song of academic contrarianism, the sinkhole into which ivory tower types fall so eagerly. No, the novels mentioned are not standard, they’re not normal and they’re certainly not dull. But the eternal quest for something willfully new & quirky & different — a fetishistic pathology which Jean-Jacques Nattiez aptly termed enopathy — leads inevitably to moral as well as intellectual bankruptcy. When your main quest becomes newness rather than excellence, you wind up praising crap and ignoring great work. Novelty deters excellence. Nobody ever does anything best the first time anyone’s done it.

And so we get artists who shit into cans and mark prices on their feces — behold, the great novelty of modern art! We must praise it because it’s not “standard and normal and terribly dull.”

Composers apply a belt sander to a cymbal and play the result through guitar distortion boxes until the audience’s ears bleed — behold, the majestic magnificence of avant-garde music! We must worship it because it’s not “standard and normal and terribly dull.”

And now we have a hagiography of the putrid notions of the wannabe-Pol Pot of the ancient ancient world, an odious little punk whose great-uncle was Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants who tortured and murdered their way to power under the supervision of the Spartans when Athen lost the Peloponnesian War…until Critias and his thugs got overthrown by the citizens of Athens in a mass revolt.

If the grandson of Al Capone wrote a philosophical tract in which he called for gangsters to run civilization, few academics would rush to praise it. But because the names are Greek…why, time to genuflect and bow in adoration.


Henry Farrell 02.12.16 at 3:49 pm

Neville – how is Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides viewed these days? I own a copy that I found second hand, but have never dared venture in? Also, on the topic of Thucydides reception, Francis Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus? Have always been fond of the book (in part because it was so clearly intended to annoy his contemporaries, in part because well written, in part because how could you not admire the writer of Microcosmographia Academica), but have never at all been sure that it was at all right.


ragweed 02.14.16 at 8:30 pm

This has been a truly outstanding discussion about a couple of excellent books. I have to thank Brad DeLong and Crooked Timber for introducing me to Walton.

One thing that I don’t think I have seen raised in this discussion is the similarity between the experiment in The Just City, and some of the real-life experiments in creating a new society by rethinking the nature of the family. The most obvious example is some if the early Kibbutz that practiced communal child-rearing. While children were not separated from parents at birth and were encouraged to have relationships with their parents*, they were expected to live in communal dorms after 6months of age and only spent time with their parents in the evening. There is an interesting literature as well as a documentary “Children of the Sun” about the system, its impact, and why they were eventually abandoned.

Of course the Kibbutz were motivated by socialist, not strictly Platonic, ambitions, but I wonder if Jo was aware of this history and if it informed the novels at all. The parallels are striking and one of then first things I thought of when I read it.

(There is also an obvious parallel with Shilamouth Firestone and her technological/communal ideas to free women from the burden of reproduction and attachment, which is another discussion).

*They also argued that men actually had more involvement than in their children’s lives under this system, than in the traditional families of the 1930s-50s.


Neville Morley 02.14.16 at 8:58 pm

@Henry #11: the basic issue with Hobbes’ translation these days is the need to translate it out of C17 English – it is so much less accessible than a whole heap of easily available translations. People who’ve studied it in depth (Kinch Hoekstra at Berkeley, a postdoc called Luca Iori at Parma) tend to endorse the accuracy and sensitivity of Hobbes’ interpretation, and confirm the claim that he worked from the Greek original (which has occasionally been doubted). And his ‘To the Readers’ remains a brilliant, nuanced account of Thucydides’ enterprise.

Cornford is indeed fun and very well written, and certainly still worth reading – although I tend to disagree with most of it. My main issue is that he assumes an absolute distinction between ‘history’ and ‘myth’ or ‘literature’, and so assumes that identifying features in Thucydides that are vaguely literary/rhetorical is sufficient to prove that the work isn’t historical at all. Problem isn’t that he’s failed to anticipate Hayden White and the rhetorical turn, it’s that he’s either ignorant of or simply ignoring contemporary German work that was already breaking down that distinction. But definitely a corrective to readings that assume the work is straightforwardly factual and/or analytical.


Jo Walton 02.15.16 at 1:21 am

Ragweed: I’ve certainly read about kibbuzim, and read some things by people who grew up in them. Fascinating.

I also know a bunch of people who were sent to boarding school at the age of seven. And even more people who have terrible parents. And I think the question of whether families are the best or the only way to bring up children is an interesting question that science fiction doesn’t examine often enough.

Incidentally, with Matthias — Kebes — my initial idea for that character is that the Jesuits said “Give me a child until the age of seven” and Plato said “Start with ten year olds” and so I imagined what it would be like to be the kid that the Jesuits had had until the age of seven who then went to Plato’s Republic at ten.

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