Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

Cover of The Philosopher Kings, featuring a round detail of Raphael's School of Athens. A number of white people in vaguely ancient clothes argue a point in front of a temple. The bulk of the cover is white.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS is the sequel to THE JUST CITY, Jo Walton’s novel of time-displaced philosophers doing Plato’s Republic with divine aid. It picks up about twenty years on and examines the fallout from Sokrates’s debate with Athene at the end of the previous book. You probably want to read THE JUST CITY first so you’ve got a good grounding in the premise and the characters, but there’s enough distance between the two books that I imagine a new reader could enter here if they were so inclined. I wouldn’t recommend it, since it’d mean cheating yourself out of the wonder that is THE JUST CITY, but it’s a thing you could do.

Like its predecessor, THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS employs three narrators: Apollo, who continues to increase his understanding of humanity as a father, civic leader, and recently bereaved husband; Arete, his daughter, who has lived her entire life in the remnant of the Just City with full awareness of her father’s divine nature and her own potential to become a Classical hero; and Maia, who remains a teacher and interrogator of philosophical concepts large and small.

Apollo and Arete’s stories work in concert as father and daughter undertake a journey to discover the truth behind a deadly art raid and their fragmented Republic’s missing colony. Maia’s mainly comprises flashbacks to the years after the Last Debate, giving us insight into the challenges cities and citizens alike faced during their restructuring efforts.

And of course, it’s all terribly interesting.

I adore these books because they’re intellectually exciting on any number of levels. There’s the philosophical framework, of course, and the examination of human behavior in a land where everyone attempts to live according to a particular, and divisive, philosophical model. There’s the question of divinity and the role religion can play in humanizing or dehumanizing its participants. And there’s the notion of literary context, which is what I’d like to start with because it crops up right away and it’s a longtime fascination of mine.

By “literary context,” I mean the context within which the text exists as a physical artifact the reader can experience. How is it we’re able to access this information? Why was it written? Are we the target audience, or has it just fallen into our laps at random?

With a third person narrative, we can assume the story comes to us via some sort of omniscient delivery system we needn’t worry about overmuch. With first person, though, the narrator and their writerly aims stand front and centre--which makes it all the more frustrating that so few authors address how and why the narrator has come to pen their story. It’s especially jarring when you’ve got multiple first person narrators whose accounts weave together with no discernible hand behind it all.

Walton says little about context in THE JUST CITY, but she addresses it almost immediately after THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS begins. The moment Arete arrives on the scene, she tells us straight out that she’s writing her autobiography for us, with the assumption that we don’t exist right now and may never exist at all because the entire island is fated for destruction. Still, she feels autobiography has value as a philosophical act and a means of increasing one’s excellence; and besides, pretty well everyone else in the Remnant City is doing it.

It’s easy to assume, then, that Maia has also taken to writing the life story we see here and in THE JUST CITY as a means of making sense of her role in creating the Republic, and because she’s following the autobiographical fad. And when Apollo discovers Simmea’s autobiography (which: her POV chapters from the previous book), we can logically conclude that he’s been inspired to undertake a similar project as part of his continued quest for excellence, and also perhaps so he and his co-narrators can someday compile their accounts into a personal and philosophical history of their culture.

This is the sort of thing that sends me into paroxysms of readerly glee. IT IS SO GREAT.

The religious angle also excited me to my core, even as certain revelations sent dread echoing through my chest. The inhabitants of Kallisti, the island where the Remnant City and its offshoots reside, have always been aware of the gods’ literal existence. They’ve met Athene, and they have firsthand experience of how she can shape the universe. This doesn’t mean they all agree on what they’ve experienced, though, or that they interpret her existence in the same way. Once they’re free from the strictures that governed the City’s first decade, some of them turn away from the Olympians entirely. A large number of them resume a version of the Christianity they practiced before they were brought to the Just City, choosing to interpret Athene as either angel or demon depending on their personal worldview.

This raises the question of how evangelism works, given that they live in prehistory. Obviously Christianity doesn’t catch on throughout the Mediterranean because, well, it didn’t. It’s a matter of historical record--unless history can be changed after all, no matter what Apollo says on the subject. Maybe the dissenting parties have created an alternate timeline, effectively reshaping this pocket universe while the original goes on unchanged. Maybe they’re far enough back in time that they’ve laid the groundwork for Judaism. Or maybe we can take Apollo’s beliefs as sovereign truth, and something happens to eliminate Republican (and colonial) Christianity before it has a chance to take hold.

There’s all sorts of interesting ground to cover here, especially since the Christianity practiced in some of the colonial cities is of a particularly brutal variety. They do the whole, “I’m right and you’re wrong and that’s the only possible interpretation so I’m gonna steamroll over you” thing, which I personally find terrifying. (It’s the whole reason I’m so reluctant to talk about religion in a public setting. Too many bad experiences with evangelism.) Add in a strong splash of, “let’s kill the heretics in painful and theatrical ways,” and you’ve got a setup designed to fill me with both personal and readerly dread.

I’ll let you discover how it plays out for yourself.

On top of the Christianity, we’ve got Apollo and his children: a god and a slew of heroes (in the Classical, rather than the fantastical, sense1). There’s a clear parallel between Jesus, the incarnate god who died for his followers, and Apollo, a currently incarnate god who’ll someday die. The reader can’t help but wonder how these two stories will mesh together, and what it’ll mean for everyone should they collide in a public manner.

So much interesting territory!

Completely separate from the Jesus angle, but still along a religious track, I found myself thinking about the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo and Dionysos are opposites; order and reason versus chaos and madness. And traditionally, Dionysos is the Dying God of the Olympians. He dies and comes back so many times that the early mythologists eventually began attributing his deaths to stand-ins instead because he had too many deaths for one person (er, god). I find it fascinating that Walton has cast Apollo in his opposite number’s traditional role this time around, especially since the very nature of humanity imbues even Apollo’s reasonable, orderly life with a certain degree of chaos.

There’s also a great little vignette where Apollo and Dionysos dance together near the end of the Weimar Republic, and you’d better believe I geeked out over order and chaos moving in step for a moment.

Finally, we return to philosophy and the pursuit of excellence, which is intimately tied to all the rest. Perhaps the thing I find most interesting about the Republic’s philosophical bend is that everyone has been brought up to debate each other without malice. They may disagree on certain points, but they do so in measured, logical ways that draw on concrete evidence. It’s respectful; a case of, “I hear you and I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I believe you’re wrong for these reasons,” not, “Your opinion is bullshit and mine is better.”

Except, as previously stated, when we get into the religious side of it.

Maybe that’s not such an unusual thing in your life, but it’s something I dearly wish I’d seen more of my own self. These people can disagree and still work together without letting their resentment fester (at least in most cases). I love it.

Very few people are unwilling to change their minds, too, should someone else present a logical argument. Sometimes it takes decades, since individuals may have different ideas as to what constitutes a “logical argument,” but it happens. Even Ikaros, who utterly disgusted me in the first book when he failed to understand that he had raped Maia, eventually manages to bend his mind around the idea that other people have the right to make their own choices, and that these choices should be listened to. Personally, I had trouble believing in his change of heart because deception and the exercise of power play such a large role in sexual violence, but the other characters listen to and accept his new conclusions with their usual willingness. And it doesn’t go badly for them because it's the very foundation on which their culture rests.

I love this redemptive tack. Punishment remains an ongoing theme, given the book’s opening scene and the things the Lucian cities engage in, but it’s never presented as the only way, let alone the best way. In the main, these characters believe rehabilitation and forgiveness are always preferable, provided you’re dealing with a reasonable opponent.

This extends to their own role in promoting slavery, which was a major debate throughout THE JUST CITY. By the start of THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS, everyone has accepted that they were wrong to use the mechanics of slavery to acquire the Children and press the Workers into service. They've owned up to their mistakes, and they've made sacrifices in order to abolish the practice. As Apollo says:

To live a life of the mind you need slaves or technology, and technology is unquestionably better. Now we compromised, eking out the technology we had and working ourselves half the time. It didn’t leave us the leisure for philosophy we had before. A tired mind can’t think as well. But nobody who enslaves another can truly be free.

People are free to come and go now, too. No one is forced to remain in any of the cities if they feel they’re better suited to dwell elsewhere. At least one city has kept the Festivals of Hera that pair random men and women for the purpose of procreation, but it's done with the acknowledgement that those who wish to can leave rather than participate, and that they may conduct queer or platonic relationships the rest of the time. One of Arete's brothers happily does his bit during the Festivals even as he does agape with a steady boyfriend. Arete herself lives in a different city where she rests sure in the knowledge that she can choose when and if she'll have a child. In the moment, she nurtures an intense physical attraction to a female friend.

This more tolerant approach hasn’t entirely erased serious conflict from everyone’s lives, though. The cities of Kallisti are all in some measure of conflict with one another over their interpretations of Plato, and over the artifacts and technology the Remnant City keeps for itself. The book opens with a violent death during an art raid. Many of the characters also fight personal (and orderly) battles with themselves as they work to reconcile their emotions with their ongoing quest for excellence.

The models of conflict resolution, though, all employ logic and an earnest desire to do and be better. The characters believe excellence is possible and worth striving for, both for themselves and for others. The vast majority of them put this goal ahead of any personal vendettas.

I like that very much.

The ending, now, pushes the story in a somewhat different direction, and one I’m excited to see play out in the next book. I’ve always maintained that these books are social science fiction with fantasy trappings (like divine magic), and I’m excited to see Walton take this even further with her next outing.

Really, friends, you want to read these books. They’re excellent, and the questions they raise will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.

  1. Classical heroes have powers because they’re the offspring of gods, but they aren’t required to use them in what modern readers would consider heroic ways. Witness Achilles, making selfish choices and sulking his arse off over every little thing that goes wrong for him. We can assume Arete and her siblings will use their powers for good, seeing as how they’ve grown up in a society that values excellence and service, but they’re not mandated to do so.


  1. I love what you say about debating without malice. One of my favourite things about these books is how they show a group of characters earnestly trying to do better, and even when they get it wrong that doesn't mean the whole endeavour is doomed to failure. They never frame earnestness as naive, plus they're never nihilistic, even in the face of the Republic's potential disappearance from history. I really value that.

    1. YES. It's such an important form of social modelling (or whatever the right term is).

  2. I really must get to these books. I started the year off reading so much but now am struggling. :(

    1. :( I think you'll enjoy them quite a lot, when the time comes.

  3. Agape! I love these books when they talk about the different kinds of love because, lo, I am a nerd.

    I haven't read The Philosopher Kings yet, but I am looking forward to getting to it. Everything you highlight here are things I loved about the first book (sob but I am sad no more Socrates!), and I additionally love how nakedly devoted to Mary Renault Jo Walton is. Yay. I love her also.

    1. I feel you. You ain't the only nerd in this game.

      I must read Mary Renault. I keep promising people I will, and I keep getting distracted. Here's my promise to take care of it in 2016 for sure, if I'm not able to squeeze her in later this year.