Sunday, September 4, 2016

Necessity - Jo Walton

Time travel, robots, Olympian gods and Plato's Republic, how do you manage to stuff those elements into one coherent story. In Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy she  attempts just that. The first two novels, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, both published in 2015, turned out to be some of the most unusual works of speculative fiction I've read in ages. Necessity, the third book, took a bit longer to write and contains the conclusion of a story that takes us from Iron Age Greece to a far future exoplanet. In many ways, it is just as fascinating as the previous two volumes but you also get the feeling Walton nearly tripped over the implications of time travel in this book. Even the gods have trouble keeping things straight it would seem.

Forty years ago the cities were moved from Iron Age Greece to a planet circling a distant sun. All of the masters have died of old age by now and the children are very old men and women. When the inevitable happens and Apollo's mortal body gives out, he returns to his divine self only to find his sister Athena missing. He soon finds out that her curiosity has driven her to explore the nature of the universe beyond the bounds of time, a thing expressly forbidden by their father Zeus. A desperate search for Athena is about to begin. On the mortal plane another potentially dangerous development is taking place. A space ship has entered orbit around the planet and it is carrying humans. The Just Cities are about to rejoin the wider human society.

Since mortals can't really influence the labours of the gods that much, you'd think they would be more concerned with the end of their isolation. Most of the book deals with Athena's antics and theie consequences however. There is quite a bit of Ancient Greek cosmology and the nature of the gods. Subjects the ancient Greeks seem to have disagreed on quite a bit themselves. The gods exist out of time but can visit it if they want to. They are not bound to any period in history but can visit each moment only once. It is quite possible that a god meets a mortal who have already met them before in their experience but the god in question still has to visit that particular point in time. When this happens, the gods feel the pull of necessity. An urge to make the moment in time they just visited come about by performing a task earlier in time. Encounters like these wreak havoc on the timeline in the story and only with great difficulty has Walton managed to make something comprehensible out of it. It is another fine example of why time travel is not one of my favourite tropes. It just keeps tying itself in knots.

The gods get to have their fun in this novel but first contact seems to be a very muted affair. After a lifetime of trying to make Plato's republic a reality, the community on the planet has drifted quite far from the human main stream. Language is the first obstacle but not as it happens an insurmountable one. Although you can feel the tension among the characters in the book, they are prepared for this eventuality and it is dealt with, with a minimum lack of fuss. I would almost say that a stoic couldn't have done it better.The conclusion of the series feels like a bit of an anti-climax but that may have more to do with me not liking the other main subject of the novel that much.

The one main character that was with us for all three novels, Apollo, is also not quite as interesting as in the previous two novels. In those books Walton uses him to explore issues like consent and sexism, but also loss and sacrifice. In this novel he is done learning and mostly broods over how his new-found knowledge fits into his wider view of the universe. By regaining godhood he has lost some of his humanity, making him a more bland character than he was in previous novels.

All of that doesn't sound very positive, but there are more than a few things to enjoy in the book too. Walton again included numerous references to history and art in the novel. She discusses the importance of art partly through the point of view of the robot Crocus, who has managed to become quite a philosopher and artist in the years since we've last encountered him. Walton deftly avoids making him want to be human. Crocus is striving for excellence, not humanity and is enough of a thinker not to confuse the two. In fact, robots - not distracted by the sexuality Plato so deeply misunderstood - may be much more suitable to achieve the Platonic ideal than humans are.

On the whole, I don't think Walton finishes the trilogy as strong as she starts it. It is not a book that adds that much to her vision of Plato's republic. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit but not as much as the previous two volumes. As a whole, the trilogy is a work to remember though. Walton takes on complex subjects and ideas in these books and yet manages to keep them very accessible. I would not be surprised to see a few people pick up some of Plato's works (note that Walton does not recommend starting with The Republic). Walton pushes herself in these books but she also pushes speculative fiction as a whole in a new direction. There are not many authors that can claim to have done that. Maybe she falters slightly on the home stretch but it is still a noteworthy work of fiction. I recommend you read it.

Book Details
Title: Necessity
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 331
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7902-3
First published: 2016

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