Saturday, October 31, 2015

What we're reading: A philosophical sequel

Back in March, I reviewed Jo Walton's The Just City, a book that speculates about what would happen if someone with both infinite resources and access to people from all eras of human history (i.e., the goddess Athene) decided to establish Plato's Republic in real life, to see how it would work. It was a weirdly fascinating story about gods and humans and what they have to learn from one another, and when I discovered there would be a sequel, I made mental note and prepared to wait for a year, the usual interval with most authors. I was delighted, therefore, to discover The Philosopher Kings on the new books shelf at the Central Library last week, and dove back into the society whose Platonic ideal is the pursuit of excellence.

As she did in the first book, however, Walton shows in The Philosopher Kings what happens when theoretical philosophy meets up with stubborn human nature. After the contentious debate at the end of The Just City, the goddess Athene has taken her toys and gone home--she has left the people of the City to their own devices, and removed all but two of the futuristic robots who did most of the heavy lifting for her colony. Her philosophical experiment, which split into two groups at the end of the first book (with the rebel Kebes leaving by ship for parts unknown with about 150 others) is fragmenting into more factions, with groups splitting off to be more Platonic, less Platonic, or to integrate various other religious or philosophical beliefs and values. The groups are also following some of Plato's more debatable precepts as they war with one another for "honor" over the pieces of museum-quality artwork that Athena "rescued" from destruction and installed in the City.

As the second book opens, Simmea (one of the narrators of the first book) is dying from a fatal arrow shot during one of these battles over art, which precipitates most of the action in this book. Apollo, who is in human form as Pytheas, Simmea's husband and father to one of her children, Arete, is overwhelmed by grief and motivated to discover who killed her and take vengeance. Because they are not supposed to interfere with history, the residents of the City have kept close to home on Kallisti for all this time, but their curiosity about what became of the people who left 20 years ago with Kebes, partnered with Apollo's belief that the killer of Simmea came from the outside, sends "Pytheas" and various of his children (along with a full ship's complement of others from the Remnant, as the original city is now called), out in their ship, the Excellence, to cruise the islands of the Mediterranean. What they discover is impactful on all from both a personal and a philosophical perspective.

I was as excited by this book as I was by the first. It's rare to find a novel that is focused on the life of the mind and yet also gives you both story and characterization that are equally energizing. The first-person narration by three characters (Apollo, Arete, and Maia) is simple and direct, but so arresting in its ideas that I made myself late to work one morning this week so I could finish a chapter. And after all the adventures and the thoughts and ideas that they provoke, the twist at the end is simply stupefying. It didn't seem, until the last two chapters, that there was farther to go, although I knew this was to be a trilogy; but now Walton has crossed yet another genre barrier from myth and history into full-blown science fiction, and the possibilities are wide open. The third book can't come soon enough!

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