12 July 2016

book review: necessity, jo walton.

Image from Amazon.
Or: a harmless necessary book review. As few spoilers here as possible; I'm aiming this at readers who've not read any of the series yet.

Jo Walton is one of those few living writers whose new books I am always willing to buy sight-unseen. Connie Willis is another such (have you seen she has a novel out in September?); Terry Pratchett, while he lived, was another. The first book of Walton's that I read was Among Others, which was a birthday present the summer I turned fifteen. I remember beginning to read it on a fold-out couch in my grand-parents' house. When I came to the line in the preface where she says "there was never such a year as 1979, no such age as fifteen, and no such planet as Earth. The fairies are real, though" I began to cry so I thought I'd never stop. I couldn't quite articulate why then, and I can't now. All I know really is that fifteen was a difficult year, and Among Others was just the kind of book I needed to help me get through it in one piece, the kind of book that felt as though it had been written specially for me. It's still one of my very favorites, and I've re-read it several times since then though I try not to read it too often for fear it'll lose some of its magic.

I think the next one I read was Tooth and Claw, the one about Trollope's dragons. Even my mother liked it, and I think they may be the only dragons she's ever cared about besides Eustace. (No, I tell a lie—I just remembered that she also liked Naomi Novik's Temeraire books.) Her alternate histories, the Small Change books and My Real Children, I loved possibly a little less, but I still loved them. And of course there was Lifelode, which besides being proper domestic fantasy in the vein of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting or Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills is massively clever about time in a way that means I'd recommend it as a readalike for Possession or Arcadia. All of which is to say that I haven't read a single Walton book I wouldn't recommend; which one I tell you to read depends more than you than it does on me. Tooth and Claw if you like dragons and/or Victorians, Among Others if you are or were ever a lonely bookish teenager, My Real Children if you like sci-fi but you also want to read quiet woman-centered character studies. (Do we not all want to read more quiet woman-centered character-focused sci-fi?)

It won't surprise you, then, that I pre-ordered both The Just City and The Philosopher Kings and read them both in a single day when they came out, and it won't surprise you either that when I woke up this morning one of the first things I did was download Necessity with a lusty cry of "Cancel my appointments, Bunter!" Which Bunter did—in fact I failed to make my mother a curry I had promised her because I was too busy reading. Much reading is a weariness of the flesh, you know.

To bring the stragglers up to speed: The Just City came out in January of 2015, and The Philosopher Kings was its sequel that June. I've read the first three times, the second twice. I read them both before and after reading Plato's Republic, and I loved them both times though I saw them differently. They're science fiction wherein the goddess Athene helps a lot of time-traveling philosophers and classicists found Plato's Republic on Atlanta. That description sounds awkward, but in fact in execution it always feels completely organic. The time travelers are all Platonists who read the Republic in the original Greek (it had to have been in the original, see, otherwise they wouldn't have had a common language; as it is, Ancient Greek and Latin are the linguae francae of the Republic) and prayed to Athene to make it real. They have a lot of the problems you'd expect—ten-year-olds aren't quite the beasts Plato imagined—and some of the ones you wouldn't. They populate their city with Greek-speaking slave children from antiquity and go from there. Also, Apollo incarnates himself in the city.

It all goes even more sideways when Sokrates himself turns up.

Again, it sounds weird but it works in the book; novels aren't meant to be experienced in synopsis form. (Wasn't it Lewis who said the difference between myths and novels was that myths still worked when you compressed them to their most basic elements, and novels usually didn't? It sounds like the sort of thing he'd come out with, but it's been a while since I've read An Experiment in Criticism.) The first book is narrated by Maia, an eighteenth-century philosopher, Simmea, who grew up in the city, and the god Apollo. Though Apollo is a narrator throughout the trilogy, the others change—I won't say who the new ones are, because in fact that's a spoiler in itself, but I will say that I was particularly delighted by one of the new narrators in Necessity.

In fact there's very little I can say about Necessity without either spoiling the first two volumes or just being impenetrable to anyone who hasn't read them. Like the first two, it's about utopia and volition and the precise nature of the soul. Like the first two, it's got lovable characters and really engaging Socratic dialogues. This time around, though, we have alien theology, more poetry than ever before (really very good poetry), and neatly handled time travel. Aw yeah.

It feels utterly of-a-piece with the preceding volumes, and it's a very satisfying end to the series. Walton answers all the niggling questions I had left while also developing her old themes in new ways and telling a new story that's worthwhile in itself. I'm already looking forward to reading all three books in a row and finally experiencing the trilogy as a continuous whole, especially as there are several things about the trilogy as a whole and Necessity particularly that I won't be able to form solid opinions on until I reread them/it. I'm still not at all sure about the narrative treatment of Christianity, for example, though I think I understand why she handled that element the way she did.

On the whole, though, I'm immensely pleased. I wasn't always certain what she was doing—as the review on Tor.com notes it's rather less tightly structured than the other two were, I think because it's trying to tell a rather bigger story—but Walton is of course much cleverer than I am and it all worked out in a way that felt both startling and inevitable, with no unnecessary loose ends. I laughed aloud with pleasure often, squawked quite a bit, and at several places I physically put down the book and applauded. I am, ah, a bit of a demonstrative reader.

When I first read the first two books I hadn't read any Plato but the Allegory of the Cave, and this past semester when I finally read the Republic for my Philosophy 101 (yes, the entire Republic) I felt not just that I understood Walton's novels better for having finally read Plato, but that I understood Plato better for having read the novels. In fact I think I'd probably pick up my copy of the Republic again if it weren't packed away for the summer. Walton is much more sympathetic to Plato than I tended to be when I was reading him, and even Necessity has cleared up some things for me about his points of view. Walton's Sokrates is eminently lovable. I want to argue with him every bit as much as I wanted to argue with him when I read Plato; the difference is that now I also want to be his friend.

"It's not for everyone" is the obvious thing to say about such an unusual book, but I think it's for a lot of people. If you love Plato (me), or hate Plato but love arguing with and about him (also me), or if you've never read Plato but like philosophical science fiction, or if you're interested in any or all of robots or utopia or incarnation or feminism or Greek mythology, you really ought to think about picking these up.

I can't imagine that you'd regret it.


  1. Your review makes me want to read the trilogy!

  2. I just finished this today, after adoring the first two when they were released. They're the only ones of Walton's I've read, because honestly I love the concept of the trilogy, whereas the concepts of Walton's other books only appeals to me in the Small Change books. I do really enjoy the gentle, dispassionate but still creepingly emotionally engrossing prose, and I love the characters, but I dunno if I'm quite at a point where I can read all of her stuff when I don't care for the premise. However, I do love this trilogy a lot.

    I thought the Tor review was kind of funny, actually. I've not really bothered about structure that much, as Walton is, as you say, very clever, but the things I read these books for are the characters and the ideas, and both of those are magnificently done in all three books. I was a bit...taken aback that the reviewer's dogmatic radical egalitarianism refused to shape itself to the already explored notion of the political structure of the city. It feels like they cannot understand the idea of hierarchy or difference of purpose without difference of value. I thought Walton's choice to give Thetis such a prominant and sympathetic role is really important in exactly the notion of class - and Sokrates, of course, immediately seeing that she's a true philosopher, even if she has no desire and would not be happy as a leader in the community. But the reviewer seems to assume that because she doesn't want to be a leader, and the community recognizes this and makes her happy in her own occupation, it's absolutely unjust.

    Ah, well.

  3. Walton's books are all very different from each other, so I completely understand why (most?) people have only read/liked a few of them. I trust her to make me interested in just about anything, but there's very few authors I feel that way about.

    On balance I like the Tor review, but it does make some points that struck me as a little off. I'm especially surprised by Bourke's persistence in calling the cities eutopias. (Which they aren't, but then they're not dystopias either; in interviews etc Walton's been calling them ambiguous heterotopias, after Delaney.) And you're right about difference of purpose not necessarily equating with difference of value—of course not all philosophers are suited to being philosopher-kings, or would even want to be.

    I'm a little surprised too that she thinks the gender equality and lack of slavery represent an idealized version of Platonic thought. I don't deny that Walton's a very charitable reader of Plato, but there really is a sensible argument to be made that there's no slavery in the Republic as Plato presents it, and he really did say that women are suited for philosophy. And of course back in the first volume we saw the founders of the city hashing out those issues.

  4. I think the general sense of goodwill and hopeful nature of the society and its conclusion misleads one into thinking it's a eutopia (also the general calmness and warmth of the writing). But I think that's definitely a misreading - otherwise, why are there 12 cities? (I did miss the travels to the various cities from the second book - the richness and diversity of thought was invigorating.)

    Thanks for responding! :)