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October 24, 2016

One of the books I saved for reading while recovering from last week’s knee surgery is Jo Walton’s Necessity, the conclusion to her Platonic trilogy that began with The Just City and continued in The Philosopher Kings.I enjoyed it even more than the first two, and the main reason is that it has even more aliens and spaceships. Plus, an alien god!

Zeus has moved the five cities to the planet Plato, where we meet Marsilia, a descendant of Simmea’s, and her daughter Alkippe. Marsilia is consul and in her spare time she fishes with her friend Jason and Hilfa, who is of the alien race called the Saeli. Jason is attracted to Marsilia’s sister Thetis, while Marsilia is attracted to Jason. Each of the main characters take turns narrating, so that we get multiple human, alien, “worker,” and god’s-eye points of view.

The action of the novel centers around two events: the death of Pytheas and the arrival of a spaceship from earth. Of course, Pytheas immediately comes back as the god Apollo and pursues the mystery of where Athene has disappeared to, while debates on how to interact with the strange humans and the robots they have brought with them on their spaceship occupy the inhabitants of Plato.

Crocus, the sentient “worker” or robot, thinks about what his philosopher friends have conjectured about his soul. “I keep outliving my friends” he says, and “sometimes I wonder if what is cowardly is to refuse to die out of fear that I may have no soul after all, and that death would be the end.” Although the chapters narrated by Crocus were my least favorite ones, being the most abstract and philosophical, I did like the conversation he recounts with Pytheas, about knowledge:
“He would answer some questions about the universe, but not others. ‘I don’t know everything, I certainly don’t know all the answers,’ he said to me. ‘And sometimes I don’t answer because it’s better for people not to know.’
‘Knowledge is good. How can ignorance be better?’ I inscribed on a nearby marble plinth.
‘Certainty closes many doors,’ he replied. ‘It leads to dogmatism. Souls accept what they know and stop striving upwards.’
‘Even among philosophers?’ I asked.
He paused, and his eyes lost focus for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. True philosophers, who believe the unexamined life is not worth living, are usually very few in a population. Even here, a lot of people want to receive wisdom rather than work on it, even among the Golds.’”
This conversation hit pretty close to home, as the major part of my job each fall is to teach a group of undergraduates how to teach writing, and it’s always harder with the ones who are certain they know the best way to do it already and the ones who want to receive wisdom rather than work on it.

There’s a wonderful trickster god theme running through the novel, involving the alien god Jathery, the greek god Hermes, and the question of which one of them fathered Alkippe at a festival. The gods hop about through time, seemingly as they please, but actually constrained by Fate and Necessity. At one point, Hermes takes Marsilia back in time to talk to Kebes and we find out that Hermes is responsible for what happened that allowed Kebes to learn music composed centuries after his death. Hermes says that if Kebes wants to travel through time, supplication must be involved, and he suggests that Kebes pray to him saying “Oh god of riddles and play, master of shape and form, you that I see before me, please take me to Mars.” Kebes believes it will harm his soul to pray to Hermes, so the god suggests that he say instead “Dear demon that I see before me….”

There’s also a delightful sequence with Sokrates in 18th-century France condemning lace-making as
“an incredibly unnecessary waste of human labor and human souls….Those women should be freed from their bobbins and taught reason. It would be a useless frivolity even if Workers made it as fast and unthinkingly as any cloth. Nobody needs dangling frills like this.”
When Ikaros asks “what if it’s somebody’s vocation, to make lace….Their art?” Sokrates replies:
“It is a normal part of these people’s clothing….Far too much for it to be made as somebody’s art. Look at these paintings, everyone has it. If somebody wanted to make it as their art, it might be a harmless decoration, like the borders some people embroider on their kitons. It’s this volume of it that’s wrong. Close work like that? Women must be compelled to make it from economic necessity.”

The potential love triangle with Marsilia, Jason, and Thetis is all worked out by the end of the novel, when Hilfa suggests that they form the kind of family group that all Saeli join as adults, a “pod” of five. Circumstances lead to the inclusion of Sokrates, transformed back from a gadfly, as the pod’s fifth member.

Jason is my favorite narrator, and it’s partly because he says things like this about his own happy ending:
“If this were a space human kind of story, one of the “classic” works of fiction from their culture they traded us in return for copies of all the things Ficino rescued from the Library of Alexandria, the end would be that I, the virtuous hero, had to choose between the two sisters, who would represent ugly wisdom and beautiful vice. How I chose would determine my fate, whether happy or unhappy. No wonder their culture is so strange and twisted. We think of romantic love as a primarily negative force, one we would do better to resist. They elevate it to being the most significant thing humans do, apart from making money—which, as far as I can make out, is a numeric quantifier of prosperity. I can’t understand how anyone reads such twaddle.
If this were a Greek tragedy, I’d be destroyed by my hubris for going against the gods….
If this were a Platonic dialogue, I’d wander away enlightened or infuriated by a conversation with Sokrates. That happens to me on a regular basis, so perhaps that’s what it is.
But no, this is practical Platonism, and real life, where we muddle through and try to pursue excellence while ensuring the latrine fountains work and there’s fish in the pot, as we bring up babies to pursue excellence in their turn.”

I do love it when a character in a novel declares that his life is “real life,” don’t you? And I was glad to have the uninterrupted time to read this book all the way through in one “sitting.” It made me forget, for a little while, my real life circumstances, lying on a bed with fresh holes poked in my knee, waiting to be able to walk again.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2016 9:15 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed this more than I did. The trickster god story just never worked for me, but I do appreciate how daring Walton has been in this series and how she’s willing to try different things, even if they don’t quite work for everyone.

    • October 25, 2016 3:45 pm

      I really liked the trickster god part, but I am partial to that particular kind of story. Many years ago I read “Trickster Makes This World” by Lewis Hyde (who teaches at Kenyon some semesters). I’ve always loved coyote and anansi myths, Brer Rabbit and Loki stories, and now the way the tv show Supernatural adds another dimension to the character of Loki.

  2. October 25, 2016 3:26 pm

    Oh goodness! I have got to read Philosopher Kings so I can read this one. Spaceships and aliens is not what I expected to happen!

    • October 25, 2016 3:27 pm

      Also, how did the surgery go? Hope you are on the mend!

    • October 25, 2016 3:47 pm

      You will find the ending of The Philosopher Kings a surprise!
      The surgery went well, and I’m about at the point now where I was before surgery, in terms of walking. I can sit more comfortably, though, without pain, and I hope to be walking again in another few days.

      • October 25, 2016 4:45 pm

        So glad it went well. What a relief it must be.

        I think I had better get Philosopher Kings into my reading rotation!

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