Thursday, August 25, 2016

What we're reading: Philosophy, sci fi mingle

Last week, with great excitement, I checked out Necessity, by Jo Walton. It's the third in her series about the establishment of Plato's Republic by the goddess Athene, a science fiction mash-up of classical philosophy with speculative fiction that delighted me in its first two volumes. The first book, The Just City, was also thoroughly discussed and dissected (and mostly enjoyed) by the high school book club in May, once we were able to buy the book in paperback; I reviewed the second here.

The first two books were fascinating explorations of the concept of society--what is acceptable, what is preferable, what is required, what is taboo--and how to go about setting one up from scratch, with the premise that the one you are creating (in this case Plato's Republic) is better than what you had before, for whatever reasons. In the first book, the goddess Athene brought together all the people from down through the centuries who had prayed in her name for a different life, and made them the masters, and then collected a horde of children, all aged 10, to be "raised right" by the masters in the pure ways of Plato, and placed them all in a time anomaly on an island destined to be destroyed by a volcano.

In the second book, some of the results, both positive and negative, were explored, taking into account the complexities of individuals versus the society, the tensions and differences, and the striving for excellence that is at the root of Plato's vision. At the end of book two, there is a mind-blowing twist that, while it initially isolates the people of the Just City (and all the cities that evolved out of it) from the rest of the universe, also puts the society back into regular time and space and sets up the probability for eventual contact with other human (and nonhuman) societies.

In the first few chapters, it looked like that was the direction the book was going to play out--other humans and other species initiate contact, new gods take an interest in this society created by Athene and Apollo, and it's up to the members of Plato's New Republic to convince them that their particular brand of excellence is worthy of continuation and even adoption.

But then...it turned into another book. Athene goes missing "outside of time," and the book becomes a scavenger hunt by Apollo (back to being a god after his sojourn as the human Pytheas), Hermes (or is it Hermes?), the resurrected Pico (Idakaros), and Socrates, who has been retrieved from gadfly status and restored to his "family." It seems Athene went outside of time on purpose, to explore Chaos and study Necessity, and left clues to help them retrieve her if she remained missing for too long (although since time is purely subjective to gods, this didn't quite make sense).

This twist took the reader on such a segue away from the expected conclusion of the series that it became, for me, a disappointment, despite being an entertaining book in and of itself. The first contact with aliens and other humans is not dealt with in any significant way; the aliens melded right into Platonic society, and the new humans look like they won't fit in at all, but these issues aren't addressed beyond a few rather shallow moments. And what happened to the great exploration of social issues with which this series so elegantly and excitingly began? The new society seems to have evolved into a fairly pedestrian place, despite all its unique elements, and the focus here is more on the gods than on the humans.

Having said that, the people who read the previous books and want to know what happened to the characters and their descendents will probably enjoy what's here. There are some wonderful, poignant moments, including giving one narration track to Crocus, the Worker who became sentient in Book One, and the epilogue grabs the romantic who invested in this world and these people and makes him or her happy. But...it's not the book I was expecting or wanting.

This is always the peril of series fiction--while the reader has only the previous books on which to base expectations, the writer, meanwhile, has perhaps grown or changed focus and takes his or her writing along a different road. It may be an interesting route...if you're willing to give up on the one you had anticipated. Jo Walton is still an amazing writer; but for me, the end of this series didn't satisfy.

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