Necessity by Jo Walton: Plato, Socrates, religion, aliens, and spaceships!

It’s always sad to get to the last page of the last volume of a much-loved trilogy.

Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy consists of three novels (what a surprise), the first two of which I reviewed previously in these pages. Here are the three:

  1. The Just City
  2. The Philosopher Kings
  3. Necessity

And now we talk about Necessity, perhaps the best of the three, though it can’t have the impact of the first one. My review of The Just City began with the sentence “I am overwhelmed!”, and that comment stands; there’s nothing like one’s initial introduction to a new world. But a concluding volume has its own dramatic impact, especially if it’s really a conclusion and not just another cliff-hanger. I’ll come back to its final words at the end of this review.

First of all, however, some general remarks. Although the entire series is nominally science fiction, this third volume is the only one with the traditional trappings of sf. It has aliens, distant planets, more time travel, and spaceships! So maybe you’re expecting Star Trek now — and there are a few similarities — but basically we’re still in the same “world” as the first two books: ancient Greece, Platonic ideals, some people from the future, and sentient robots, all mixed together in an amazingly coherent world. You may wonder in that case why Necessity took me so much longer to read than the first two volumes. It wasn’t just pandemic fatigue, although that surely played a role. It was mostly that I had to stop reading every page or two, close the covers, and think. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, but it certainly slowed me down!

Since the trilogy is all about building a real-world instantiation of Plato’s Republic, and since it includes time travel, you might expect Plato to be one of the characters. But no, he isn’t. Sokrates, however, shows up and remains a major character in Necessity. In ancient Greece he was known as a gadfly, and near the end of the second volume Athena turns him into a literal gadfly. Apollo restores his humanity in the third volume. He complains several times that Plato kept putting words in his mouth — as I always point out to students when we read the Allegory of the Cave — so Walton’s Sokrates may not match your own conceptions. Even Aristotle is referred to several times, the most notable quotation being “Aristotle was a jerk,” in the words of Hermes. (Walton does such a good job of making the reader suspend disbelief that it becomes totally matter-of-fact for Hermes to be commenting about Aristotle in a world containing both Sokrates and robots.)

Before we conclude, here are three more-or-less random excerpts that struck me.

  • Marsilia, who speaks Greek (like everyone else), is talking with Slif and Akamas, two non-human aliens:

“Is the space human language difficult?” I asked Slif.

“No, English is much like Greek in structure, but with odd tenses and conditionals and a very large vocabulary,” Slif replied. “It shows signs of being a creole originally, a merger of two or more different languages from the same family. Such often keep the vocabulary of both parent languages with different shades of meaning. Also, it has borrowed a great deal of technical vocabulary from Latin and Greek. The spelling is bizarre. It’s fascinating, but it’s not elegant.”

“It sounds like a kind of clicky buzz to me,” Akamas said.

  • Crocus is a robot (“Worker”), philosopher, and government leader; Ikaros is a human philosopher and former Dominican monk; Sokrates, who has skipped over 60 years, has reappeared in the newly populated planet of Plato and is thinking about what it will be like 1000 years after that:

“Think how many new arguments they’ll have come up with, how many new thoughts in a thousand years! I can hardly wait. Ikaros will try to synthesize them all into one system, but I want to hear what they are and point out all the holes.”

As we got nearer Thessaly, he speeded up a little, then stopped entirely: “Somebody came back and filled it all in,” he said. “What I said, what Simmea said. It reads like a proper dialogue.”

“Hasn’t it always been like that?” It had been like that as long as I could remember.

“No, the only thing written down was what Crocus said, and the other Workers. We humans spoke out loud. Though whoever did it remembers what we said accurately, not like Plato who was making most of it up even when he wasn’t making up the whole thing.”

  • As you know, the owl is associated with Athena. (And the role of owls in Harry Potter is a coincidence? I think not.) Thetis, a human daughter of Apollo, is speaking here:

“So should we put knowledge ahead of excellence?” I asked.

“No,” both of them said together, and the owl twisted its head around to stare arrogantly into my eyes.

“Excellence must always be our priority,” Crocus said.

“Pursuing excellence will lead to everything else,” Dad said.

The gods, the owl, and Sokrates nodded in unison.

As you can imagine, the whole situation can be a tad confusing, especially since the Greek gods are known for taking the form of various humans from time to time. Furthermore, all three books in the trilogy have multiple narrators, each with their own point of view, another potential source of confusion for the reader. Fortunately, however, the narrator for each chapter in clearly indicated at the beginning of the chapter. There’s no confusion, just food for thought. Characters and plot, as in all good fiction, but also lots of philosophical questions.

Once you are immersed in her world, you simply accept Walton’s questions about philosophy and religion. She presents both the gods and the humans multidimensionally. We all know, of course, that the Greek gods were filled with human failings and frequently conflicted with each other, so you won’t be surprised that Walton’s version of them followed that pattern. You might be surprised at the relationship between Greek gods and other gods, but I won’t reveal it, since it would be a spoiler. Go read the books! (But you have to do it sequentially.) And ask questions, even if you aren’t Sokrates.

I will quote the final words of Necessity, uttered by Apollo, followed by a relevant cartoon that appeared a couple of days ago in Existential Comics:

I’ve told you now what I think is best for you to know, so you can learn and benefit from it. It may not be a story of good people doing good things, but all the same I think Plato would approve my didactic purpose here. The overwhelming presumption is that you who read this are human, and that among the confused goals of your mortal life you want to be the best self you can. Know yourself. Bear in mind that others have equal significance. I ended the first volume with a moral, and the second with a deus ex machina. This third and final volume sends with hope, always the last thing to come out of any box.




Categories: Books