Dialogue: Thessaly by Jo Walton

[Warning on themes around sexual violence and consent]

Plato: Joy to you Camestros. I am pleased to see you in the Agora this morning.
Camestros: Ah! Plato! I seem to have instantiated into a 1960’s movie set about the Greek myths. I assume that in your day there weren’t quite so many ruined pillars or heavily armed skeletons?
Plato: I assume the setting is intended to convey to me a sense of ‘ancient’ by evoking the Age of Heroes.
Camestros: Well I suppose Mycenaean Greece was a thousand years before your time. As distant from you as the Dark Ages are from me. Still, I would have hoped that I could have dreamt up something a little more historically accurate.
Plato: I see you wish to continue our previous debate in which you claimed to be simply imagining a conversation with me and that you yourself were simply the product of yet another person’s imagination, an even more imperfect being you call a ‘meat robot’.
Camestros: It is more than just a claim Plato. The meat robot can see themselves typing this very dialogue in the TextEdit app on their Mac.
Plato: So you still deny that you are actually a god and that your creator is Zeus?
Camestros: Obviously! You would have a series of higher realms and greater degrees of perfection and abstraction. Whereas I can see that this is actually internal, we are contained within a non-abstract physical mind that is complex and messy and imperfect but which imagines perfection within it.
Plato: Back to your world of atoms where forms are mere fictions and mathematics is little better than a nursery tale.
Camestros. I don’t think there is anything ‘mere’ about fiction. Invention and the imagination are powerful forces.
Plato: Which reveals that you are in truth Apollo.
Camestros: I assure you that I am not. I look more like your mentor Socrates than fair Apollo and I can’t stand being in the sun.
Plato: Yet you can appear and disappear from here at will so you are clearly a god. You prize knowledge but you aren’t Athena, hence must be Apollo and you are teasing me for reasons that must make sense to the gods but which I cannot fathom.
Camestros: I can’t fault your reasoning Plato even though I know for a fact that you are wrong. I’ll concede defeat for the moment – perhaps in this tiny world of an essay I am its Apollo. I actually wanted to talk to you about a book.
Plato: A book? Not that dreadful tome by the Germanic barbarian in which he calls me the enemy of the ‘Open Society”.
Camestros: No, not Popper. I was wrong to start there and not with his distinction between Worlds 1, 2 and 3. No, this is a story, a fable about your Republic.
Plato: We’ve had this argument already. The Huxley fellow? You already conceded that the society he envisaged was more to do with the brutal mechanism of your era’s mercantile class than my model of a just city!
Camestros: No, not Brave New World, although in a similar genre. This is a series of three stories called “Thessaly” by a writer called Jo Walton. The books are called “The Just City”, “The Philosopher Kings” and “Necessity”.
Plato: Noble titles but I dislike your era’s idea of “fiction”.
Camestros: You are a man of contradictions, Plato! You scorn poetry and yet you are the most poetic of classical philosophers. You fear fiction but you literally include made-up stories in your model civilisation and call them noble lies! In Western history, you are arguably the first person to invent a story and overtly claim that you just made it up and that it wasn’t actually based on an existing myth or history!
Plato: But those myths are for the purpose of instruction and improvement of the mind. The fictions you tell me about, these “science fictions”, are untruths about knowledge! What was that last one with the Olympic gods and thinking machines and the works of your island’s Homer? This new book you have better not be like that one.
Camestros: That would be Olympus and Illium by Dan Simmons. Well, there are some similarities. There are some excellent robot characters, as well as the gods of Olympus and both books discuss arete. However, Walton’s book is genuinely concerned with examining your ideas, rather than just exploring the Greek pantheon.
Plato: Excellent!
Camestros: Exactly! Yet, Walton’s books couldn’t be more different than Dan Simmon’s book. I guess they both reflect the modern interest in the classical world and thought. It is both familiar to us all and yet often quite alien in thought.
Plato: Alien? If I recall correctly, in your own language the word has an extra connotation to mean beings from other worlds that are not gods? Does this book feature your ‘aliens’?
Camestros: There are aliens in the final book “Necessity” but in some ways that final book is more of a coda or appendix to the first two. It revisits many of the characters and events from the first book and also ties up some loose ends. It also considers some of the internal mythology created by the author, in particular on the nature of the gods that she features. I recommend it but it is the first two books that are most relevant to our discussion.
Plato: You have yet to convince me that the book is even worth discussing. It seems to me that your era is more concerned with the gods of Olympus as magic beings than they are with the minds of Athens and when they do discuss me it is to disparage me. Now in Sparta…
Camestros: Let’s not discuss Sparta. I’d rather not get into how Sparta is colliding with popular culture these days.
Plato: Clearly you wish to discuss this fable you found. Is it edifying? is it good for the mind?
Camestros: Yes, I think so and it is fair to you also but not uncritical. Indeed, I think it is overly generous to your model of a fair government.
Plato: Then I shall listen for a while if I may ask questions as you go. How does this fable proceed?
Camestros: Apollo is pursuing the nymph Daphne but rather than being caught by him she asks Artemis to intervene who turns Daphne into a tree.
Plato: I’m not familiar with that myth.
Camestros: Well it is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but I guess that’s after your time. I assumed it was an older story than that though. Never mind. The point being Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would take such extreme measures to escape him. Unable to make sense of what is going on he talks to Athena. Athena reveals that she has a project that might help him better understand the concept of ‘equal significance”. She is creating a version of Plato’s Republic and will populate it with mortals who have prayed to her at one time or another to live in the city that you described.
Plato: One time or another? What do you mean by that?
Camestros: Well the gods can travel in time and Athena has grabbed people in your fandom from all sorts of times but mainly ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy. There are also some people from other time periods, including many women from the nineteenth century.
Plato: Why women from that time I wonder?
Camestros: The fact that a major work in Western civilisation included that women would be taught alongside men and could become guardians of the city is remarkable. The author (Jo Walton) imagines that in more recent centuries when women where gaining greater access to education (at least wealthier women) but still denied access to universities or recognition of their cognitive powers, that many might read the Republic and find themselves wishing that they could live there instead of the stultifying societies they found themselves in. One key character, Maya (originally called Edith) is the daughter of a classically trained vicar who taught her in her childhood to read ancient Greek. Enamoured with your writing she finds herself visiting Italy and in the Pantheon, in Rome, she briefly prays to Athena that she could live in Plato’s Republic.
Plato: I see, a book about ‘women’ is it? You’ve attempted to explain ‘feminism’ to me before but the conversation always turns to issues around procreation and ‘consent’.
Camestros: I wouldn’t call this a feminist analysis of The Republic but it is a story that centres the perspective of women. Also, I must warn you that the books deal with sexual violence and non-consensual sex of varying kinds.
Plato: Why must you ‘warn’ me of this? Have you not read our myths? Have you not read any of the myths about Zeus?
Camestros: Of course but myths are one thing. A modern story is intended to evoke empathy towards and about the characters within it. This story uses first-person narratives to help you understand the particular perspectives of the characters. So the events described are particularly traumatic and disturbing.
Plato: Yet you say you read books for entertainment! You also told me this book is edifying! What you describe is neither edifying nor entertaining!
Camestros: As I said Apollo is a god and a character in the book. He is a god of the Homeric kind more than perhaps the Platonic kind and as you observed the gods of culture were not creatures who understood consent in any context. Walton is examining consent and equal significance as moral concepts, inviting the reader to think more deeply about them. In my era, there is much discussion of these subjects, specifically around sex and around how society treats women. It is a confronting topic but it makes sense for Walton to include it as a major theme of the book. In particular, because the Republic has important features around the care and upbringing of children that has deep implications for women in the imagined society.
Plato: So edifying because rapists are punished and their crimes are shown to be wrong?
Camestros: Well this is where I find the books weaker. Apollo becomes human and enters the city as a child, one of many slave ten-year-old children brought to the Just City to be brought up according to your teachings. His character arc is one about learning the error of his ways, going from the classic god Apollo intent on raping a nymph as if his actions were no more than a game to a more rounded person. It is a redemption arc. However, there is another character (who I shan’t name so as to not reveal a plot line for those who haven’t read it) who is also a rapist who later earns forgiveness from the person he raped and who is somewhat lionised in the final book.
Plato: I see but is this not part of your own confused sense of aesthetics and ethics. You want stories that are complex and avoid simple morals and outcomes. however, you also want stories that push norms that you feel need society needs to adopt. Authors cannot meet your competing standards!
Camestros: Not at all! You would argue that we should examine all things and strive for excellence. I can admire what Jo Walton attempts to do in her story and still consider where I feel she may have erred. I don’t fault her for attempting to discuss a confronting subject but a confronting subject is necessarily one that is difficult to attempt. Examining the ways something is ‘problematic’ as we like to say in my time helps us improve.
Plato: Inquiry is a means to achieve excellence.
Camestros: Which is the central theme of the books. Walton isn’t uncritical of the Republic. She knows it was essentially you just spitballing what sounds like a good plan for a city. She knows that the wacky mix of people she brings together from history (a great SF trope in itself whether it’s Riverworld or Bill & Ted) is full of flawed human beings. She also deals herself the best cards: robots brought from the future to get the city going, Athena to give the whole thing a divine shove and confirm souls exist, a site (pre-eruption Thera) to give a place for the city to be that will eventually be erased from history. That’s all fine. I think it is the author’s prerogative
Plato: Authors are gods of their own fictions is your claim, much as you claim that you are the god of this world that we are both inhabiting.
Camestros: I suppose so.
Plato: Our earlier point of disagreement is that you see this as an unreal world and I believe this is our normal world of the senses.
Camestros: I think my point is different than that. You already believed that you lived in a lesser world even when you were real and living in Greece. It’s just that you thought the higher reality was more perfect and more abstract. I’m saying the Plato I’m talking to now lives in a more abstract and in some ways more perfect world that is contained in a messier less abstract reality. The shadows on the cave wall are controlling the puppets.
Plato: So you choose a less fearsome debater to hold you dialogue with rather than Socrates.
Camestros: Well, Socrates is a good example. There was a really Socrates (at least I assume there was) and there was the character in your dialogues and then in Jo Walton’s books, there is a character called Socrates that is her take on Socrates whom she only knows about from your dialogues. Then in this dialogue, I’m casting you in the role that you cast Socrates so that I can talk about Walton’s take on Socrates.
Plato: Have you not cast yourself in the role of Socrates?
Camestros: Maybe Socrates was the people we met on the way?
Plato: I cannot see how Socrates could be included as a character. You have said there are gods, people who came after me who read The Republic and children. Socrates is none of those. He died long before I wrote the Republic and as much as my ‘fandom’ (as you call them) would love Socrates, it would not be the wisest course to let him loose in an experimental city!
Camestros: Which is exactly why he is there! Socrates is introduced in the first book to do what I’d call ‘stress testing’ of the republic they have created. Walton makes excellent use of him as a character. Provocative and charmingly annoying, he is a locus of change in the city. Having Socrates examine Plato’s ideas is a clever move and one reason why I think she makes the actual city depicted more robust than I think it would be. I think it would have collapsed within a couple of months but that’s just me or if not collapsed then rapidly become an authoritarian nightmare.
Plato: Oh, so you are going to discuss the Open Society and its Enemies?
Camestros: No, just helping people understand Walton’s take on things. I think she sees the magic sauce for the world she creates is that everyone in it (even the one nominal antagonist) as being committed to the philosophy and critical examination of ideas. Her cities (and more than one eventuates through the books) have flaws and aspects I don’t like but they survive because of a general good will. The longer that goes on, the less convinced I am i.e. that it implies this culture of inquiry continues which in turn implies that the mode of education is effective.
Plato: I would imagine that if the city she creates is truly founded by people who were scholars of my work. As we have discussed before the dialogue you call The Laws should be read alongside The Republic.
Camestros: The Laws isn’t mentioned but is present by its absence. You would know better than I how the more practical city of Magnesia that appears in the Laws relates to the city in the Republic. The evolution of the cities in Thessaly books (particularly in the final book Necessity in which the closest city to The Republic’s ideal is a city of benevolent sentient robots) mirrors what I imagine was your evolution of ideas when faced with the practicalities of politics in the Hellenic world. That works for both good and bad on issues such as private property or slavery (which, if I recall correctly is absent in the Republic but accepted in the Laws).

Plato: if I may interrupt, I should warn you that the heavily armed skeletons have noticed us. I fear they are controlled by some god who wishes us ill.
Camestros: Indeed! A god who is known to me as ‘Ray Harryhausen’
Plato: I recall you telling me about him. Did you explain to him, as I asked, that the Kraken was not a figure of Greek myth and not any kind of titan?
Camestros: I think that is why he is cross with us and has sent those skeletons after me. We must depart!
Plato: Before we part company, can you tell me where I might find these books we have been discussing? It may be that you have at last brought me something worthy of my interest?
Camestros: Oh, you get them from Amazon!
Plato: The great warrior women are now booksellers! What wonders your era brings!
Camestros: Farewell Plato!
Plato: Farewell Camestros! Thank Timothy for helping me edit my final dialogue ‘Why Atlantis is Totally a Real Place and How to Find It: 12 Steps for Hellenic Happiness!’

 

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18 comments

  1. PhilRM

    Bravo!
    I got to meet Ray Harryhausen, who I did indeed regard as a god, once. He was extremely modest and gracious for a divine being. I’m glad I got the chance to tell him how much his films meant to me when I was growing up.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 11/2/18 Keep Scrolling All The Time – Stormy Pixels | File 770
  3. Paul Weimer

    This is great, Cam.

    “Olympus and Illium by Dan Simmons”:

    Yeah, I am glad that this trilogy is much better than those wound up being.

    And now I totally want to rewatch Jason and the Argonauts.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. lenorarose

    I haven’t seen the Harryhausen films. I keep thinking I need to remedy this. This might actually be the relevant push.

    I’ve also been debating on reading the Thessaly books because Walton has been hit and miss both for me. Despite pointing out the problematic aspects, this actually interests me in it more than most of the more standard recs.

    Like

    • camestrosfelapton

      I should note that I listened to the audio book versions of the books.

      What my review lacked was an indication that I did enjoy the original characters (and clealry Walton had deep affection for them). There is a didactic element to the books as well a mythic element which I also enjoyed.

      I should also note that there aren’t any fighting skeletons

      Like

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