Science fiction? Greek mythology? Philosophy? All in Jo Walton’s The Philosopher Kings

Three months ago I reviewed Jo Walton’s The Just CityRecently I finished reading the sequel, The Philosopher Kingswhich is equally fascinating and equally worth reading.

“We don’t know when we are,” as one character remarks. When, not where. The gods live “outside of time,” but the characters in this novel live very definitely inside time. But when? Maybe 1000 BCE? Before the Trojan War, at any rate. Certainly before the Classical period.

The first volume of this trilogy, The Just City, is a fractured utopia, mostly taking place on an isolated island, as all good utopias are. In this case the island is Thera, better known today as Santorini. In The Philosopher Kings the playing field is expanded to include several other Aegean islands, principally in the Cyclades. As I read, I kept seeing these islands in my mind’s eye, not because I have visited them (for the most part I haven’t) but because they have been featured on the wonderful series about Greek cooking, My Greek Table(Go watch it if you have any interest in Greece and its cuisine.)

Like the preceding novel, The Philosopher Kings is a heady mixture of fiction (traditional and science fiction) and philosophy. As a traditional novel, we have plot, setting, character development, conflict, and resolution. As science fiction, we have artificial intelligence and time travel. As a work of philosophy, we have an exploration of ethics, religion, and Platonic values. An example of the latter, written by Apollo in his incarnate form as a human:

To understand the source of the religious questions, you need to know the premise behind the trilogy: Before the first volume opens, the goddess Athena has decided to set up an experiment to create a real-world instantiation of Plato’s Republic. She and Apollo snatch up hundreds of adults from all eras, all of whom who have prayed to Athena, plus 1000 ten-year-olds (again from all eras) who would otherwise be about to be enslaved or otherwise oppressed, and together they establish a “just city” on Thera, with the aid of artificially intelligent robots that serve as “workers,” all following the precepts of Plato’s Republic. Because the inhabitants had come from all eras, many of them are Christians — so one of the themes of The Philosopher Kings is the resultant conflict between paganism and Christianity (never mind that this is about 1000 years BCE, maybe Jesus lives outside of time just like the Greek gods). The traditional issues of time travel paradoxes are dealt with lightly but nervously; back when the entire setting is Thera in volume one we know that a volcanic eruption is going to destroy the island and all its records, thus avoiding all paradoxes, but what happens now? Aside from Christianity, we have the anachronistic introduction of money, a topic that Walton deals with lightly and never resolves.

I mentioned the 1000 ten-year-olds, who seem to me to be a little old if you want to inculcate Platonic values in them. One of the characters, Maia, even says “Somebody, some Jesuit or Dominican I think, said that if you gave him a boy until he was seven, he’d be theirs for life.” This, of course, reminds me of the great documentary TV series, Up, which is explicitly based on this motto — “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” in their words. So why did Walton/Athena pick ten rather than seven?

A couple of other well-known works that The Philosopher Kings resonates with are Star Trek and Arcadia. Given Jo Walton’s prominence in the science fiction world, the former cannot be a coincidence, but judge for yourself:

Couldn’t be a more explicit reference to the Prime Directive, could it?

And what about Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia? This is a slightly less explicit reference, in which the daughter of the incarnate Apollo, Arete (Greek for excellence), quotes Zeus first and then Athena:

Finally, do we need trigger warnings or spoiler warnings? I suppose we need a little of both. As for the former, there’s one scene that I just can’t get past, so I wish it had happened off-stage. And the ending of the book is both startling and unpredictable, presumably foreshadowing the third volume, which I haven’t read yet but I’ve requested from the library. Stay tuned…

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV