Crooked Timber is running an online book seminar about Jo Walton’s ‘Thessaly’ novels, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, and the main aim of this post is to point you in that direction forthwith. My contribution reflects on the books as meditations on different aspects of the classical tradition, and I would hope that most visitors to this blog with an interest in classical reception will need little persuasion to take a look at them. However, I had far more things to say than would fit comfortably into a more or less coherent blog post, and so I’m going to take this opportunity to try to persuade sceptical historians, ancient or otherwise, that they should be just as interested in a fictional exploration of Platonic political philosophy, its limits and its implications.
Walton’s work is a mash-up: of genres, most obviously, with elements of science fiction (time travel and robots), fantasy (gods), historical fiction (recreation of past society) and the novel of ideas – but also of temporalities. Time-travelling Athene gathers together a bunch of dedicated Platonists from across the following 2500-odd years, helps them collect children and works of art from a more restricted period (unaccountably, no one bothers collecting some Canova or Alma-Tadema), gives them some robots from the future for the heavy work, and dumps the whole lot back in the bronze age, where (in theory) they’re not going to disturb anyone else. In theory (again), this farrago will be held together by a shared dedication to the ideals of Plato’s Republic, whether voluntary (the generation of Masters brought together from across time and space) or instilled (the Children and their descendents). In practice…
One of the reasons this is a neat trick from the novelist’s point of view is that it side-steps most of the boring questions of authenticity that bedevil most fictional engagements with the classical world. There is none of the desperate need to show off all the research and establish the pastness of the past, even at the expense of the narrative (I always think of the opening of Colleen McCullough’s The First Man In Rome, which in my memory runs something like “Gaius Julius Caesar carefully arranged the heavy woollen folds of his toga, with the broad purple stripe that showed he was a member of the Senate, the supreme governing body of Rome, made up of the most powerful, distinguished and wealthy men of the great city, unlike the togas with narrow purple stripes that his sons wore to show that they were not yet etc etc”. I’m sure it isn’t actually this bad, but you get the idea).
The Just City is new to all the different narrators at different times, and so it is perfectly natural for them to offer lots of description and exposition, and for some characters to explain things to others, as opposed to weird internal monologues where a character ruminates on an aspect of his or her society that would normally be taken entirely for granted. Moreover, the City is utopian in the sense that it is ou-topos, no place (how far it’s also eu-topos, good place, is up for discussion). There is no historical reality for the novelist to attempt to reconstruct (or, when there is, it’s seen through the limited perspective of these time travellers and their cloistered offspring, so the depiction is realistically fragmented and incoherent); the City is created out of bits and pieces from across time by its founders, just as the noveIist created it, and any apparent confusion or inauthenticity can be attributed to its origins. The one point where this risks failure is (as one of the contributors to the CT seminar has observed) whether the psychology and behaviour of an individual character rings true – for example, would a C19 woman like Maia respond to rape in that way, even though she aspires to be a philosopher? But the novelist’s purpose is to create a world that never existed, where incoherence is baked in from the beginning, and maybe that can even incorporate characters behaving in ways we wouldn’t expect.
So far, so fantasy, even if it’s at the Magic Mountain end of the scale rather than the Elfstones of Shannara. But it’s important to remember that, however far the City seems to be off in an ahistorical bubble of its own, ‘real’ history is just off to one side. Like all good utopias, the novels explore possibilities and their possible limits – could Plato’s Republic work? with what compromises? would it be good if it did? – but there is also an ongoing concern with the nature of time and historical change more generally, precisely because of the possibility of contact between this fantasy world and the actual pre-hellenic society developing beyond its shores.
As with anything involving time travel, there’s a lot of timey-wimey paradox stuff, with the threat of dire consequences if the prime timeline gets disrupted; but, in comparison with many such attempts, it’s left intriguingly open – initially, because the people who know about it (Athene and Apollo) are vague, evasive and possibly mendacious on the subject, and later because it becomes clear that they’re not entirely sure themselves, even their freedom of action being subject to ill-defined concepts (or forces, or entities) of fate and necessity. For the moment, the story seems to hover between thoroughly deterministic and potentially open, underdetermined conceptions of historical development. Things have, from the perspective of the gods, already happened; they can drop in at any point, but not change anything important – but how does anyone know, at the time, whether a given action, apparently insignificant, might not have far-reaching consequences? The title of the forthcoming third and final volume, Necessity, promises, if not a resolution of these questions, then at least a more direct engagement with them. Or so I hope.
A historical novel is not a work of history, just as a novel of ideas is not a work of philosophy – but they are not as completely separate as the practitioners of the latter activities might hope or pretend, and they may serve similar ends. Every historical work is anachronistic, put together by a modern writer with modern conceptions and prejudices out of the surviving traces of the past in the present, tied together with string and leaving lots of holes – which can neverthless offer us genuine understanding of the world, past, present and future, and help us think about our place in it. Walton’s work, in that sense, is entirely historical…