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One might not think that a trilogy of science fiction books about the various ways one might go about creating a society based on Plato's Republic, and what the outcomes of those societies might look like, is going to be engaging, at times exciting, and hard to put down. And maybe it isn't, if you have little interest about such ideas as justice, the good life, excellence, the nature of conscious self-awareness and the soul, the origin of the universe and the meaning of time.

But since I have a strong interest in these things, and since Jo Walton has, in her Thessaly trilogy, written an amazing set of characters you can't help caring about who take part in explorations of these ideas through debate, daily living, and various travels and adventures, it was probably inevitable that I would fall in love with these somewhat unusual novels.

I've already talked about the first two novels in the trilogy, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. In the third novel, Necessity, Walton continues her explorations of the deep philosophical questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.

Necessity begins 40 years after Zeus, in order to save Athene's experiment in building a true Platonic society and continue its isolation from human history, has moved all the existing cities to a distant planet and to a time in the 26th century. Survival on Plato, as its new inhabitants have named it, is not as easy as it was on the island of Thera - the climate is colder, and the planet has no indigenous land-based animal life (though it has fish in abundance). But the people of Pluto have prospered, and their cities occupy the planet in peace. Living with them and taking part in Plato's society are two sentient Worker robots that were transported with them, and some members of an alien space-faring race, the Saeli, who find their Platonic ideals appealing.

The narrative that drives the further philosophical explorations Walton engages us in involves the disappearance of the goddess Athene from not only time and space, but the dimensions out of time. When Apollo, returned to his divinity by the death of his human incarnation, Pythias, discovers that he cannot sense Athene anywhere, his decision to search for her becomes a quest to understand the underpinnings of existence and the meaning of life.

This quest is interwoven with the lives of several inhabitants of Plato, key among them: Jason, who operates a fishing boat; Marsilia, one of the consuls of the City - the first Platonic community settled by Athene on Earth - who also works with Jason; Thetis, her sister, who works with the City's children; Hilfa, a young Saeli who is also part of Jason's crew; and Crocus, the first sentient Worker.

The death of Pythias and Apollo's discovery that Athene is lost take place place against the backdrop of an event the Platonians have long anticipated - the arrival of the first spaceship from another planet of humans. The planet's inhabitants must decide whether to follow the advice of Zeus, and present the story of their arrival on Plato as a kind of origin myth, all the while leading the space-faring humans to believe Plato was settled just as any other human colony - or just to tell the truth and let the other humans make of it what they will.

Rounding out this mix of events, Sokrates is returned to the Platonic cities, having been found by Apollo on his quest to find Athene. Not at all changed by having spent time in the Jurassic period, living as the gadfly Athene transformed him into, Sokrates becomes an essential part of the continuing philosophical dialogue that is Plato, and of the lives of the Platonians involved in Apollo's quest.

In Necessity, Walton proposes some possible answers to the questions being asked in these three novels, but also leaves much still to be considered by the reader, just as she gives her characters some degree of closure in their daily lives, while leaving the future open-ended.

The entire trilogy is a kind of experiment, the success of which the reader must judge for themselves. For me, it succeeds gloriously.

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Jo Walton is a fearless writer, which is part of what I love about her work. She's willing to experiment, to explore new themes and subjects and styles, to reinvent herself almost every time she begins a new project.

In The Just City - the first volume of the Thessaly trilogy - Walton combines Greek gods, robots, some judicious time travel, a thought experiment that brings together some of the greatest philosophers in the history of European civilisation and an extensive critique of Plato's The Republic to create a novel that is as narratively compelling as it is thought provoking.

The story begins with Apollo and Athena. Apollo is confused because his latest sexual adventure has ended, not in the enthusiastic compliance he believes all his previous advances have evokes, but in the desperate prayer of his quarry to be transformed into a tree rather than submit to his embrace. Unable to fathom why Daphne would rather give up her life as a nereid than give in to his desires, he seeks out his sister Athena, who tells him: "But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.”

Apollo grasps this at an intellectual level, but fails to fully comprehend the concepts of volition and equal significance behind Athena's explanation. He considers incarnating as human in order to explore the matter as a human. Athena suggests that he take part in her experiment - she is in the middle of creating a city based on Plato's The Republic. He agrees.

It turns out that Athena has drawn together around 300 scholars from many time periods, all of whom have at one point in their lives prayed in her name for the realisation of The Republic. Assisted by highly developed worker robots Athena has brought from the future, these "masters" have worked for five years to plan and build a city, situated well in the past on the volcanic island of Kallisti (and later, after the explosion that destroyed half of it, Thera), that would operate on the principles laid out by Plato. When all is ready, the masters are sent out into various time periods to purchase 10,000 ten-year old slaves to be the experimental population. Apollo arranges to be born as human at a tine and place where he will be one of these children.

As the experiment proceeds, we see what works - and what does not - through the eyes of three people: Apollo, now known as Pytheas; Simmea, another of the children who becomes a friend of Pytheas; and Maia, a master from the 18th century who was drawn to The Republic because of Plato's inclusion of women as full participants in his imagined society, capable of being philosopher-kings.

Indeed, as Walton explores the importance of volition and equal significant in the quest to create a truly just society, the issue of gendered justice and free choice in sex and reproduction becomes an important part of the conversation that runs through the novel. Slavery, misogyny, sexual violence, exploitation, the essence of sentience - all these are a part of the examination of freedom and justice that is the heart of The Just City.

I know it has had some mixed reviews, but for me The Just City was one of those books I couldn't put down until I finished it.

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Spider Robinson: The Deathkiller trilogy, aka The Lifehouse trilogy
Mindkiller
Time Pressure
Lifehouse


To begin with, I have to say that I have a complicated relationship with the works of Spider Robinson. He’s a writer who has a tendency to frequently use, and sometimes overuse, some very specific and highly recognisable themes, motifs, habits, re-cycled character types. Some of these I don’t mind until it gets really bad – such as his love of puns and his tendency toward chucks of heinleinesque first-person narrator exposition, and his willingness to openly use Canada as a setting for some of his books. Some of his other writing tics I tire of more quickly. Also, I find his works to range widely in quality, from the very good, to the downright awful; generally, the more self-indulgent hes being, the weaker the book seems to be.

And in the end, there is definitely such a thing as too much Spider at any given time.

Just so you know where I’m coming from.

I’d read the first two books in this trilogy a long time ago, but since it had indeed been a long time ago, I decided to re-read them before proceeding to the third book. So, here are my thoughts on the trilogy and its individual volumes.

Overall, it’s an interesting experiment – to write three novels about a scientific development that will completely and totally change not just human society but human nature itself forever, without ever actually showing us more than the tiniest glimpse of what human life and society will be like, or how it got to be that way – we never see inhabitants of this brave new world living in the future, and we see very little of the people who make the discoveries on which it depends, and who bring this new world into being. In a sense, Robinson is showing us his vision by negative example – here are the things it is not – and be inference – here are its effects on people who are not part of it.

Since Robinson’s future vision in this trilogy is in many ways analogous to the visions of religious mystics concerning life after death, or outside of time and space as we know it, this approach makes a certain kind of sense. How can he realistically describe things that no human can experience outside of the mystical state that has been called, among other things, satori, or the beatific vision? Instead of trying to do so, Robinson shows us this future through sideways glances, through the hopes of those who live before the change, and the second-hand tales of travellers from the transcendent future.

Great ideas, but like Robinson’s oeuvre in general, the quality of the individual volumes is highly uneven.

Mindkiller, the first volume in the series, is in my opinion the best. The structure is interesting – two interesting protagonists, in two timelines separated by six years, propelled by circumstances, embark on dangerous quests that have strong emotional appeal to draw in the reader. At first, you wonder what is the connection. Then, as you engage with the protagonists, you forget to ask that question any more, and finally, the clues start falling and you see how it all fits together. A good science fiction novel by any standard.

Time Pressure is difficult for me to look at objectively, because Robinson sets this volume right in the middle of a time, place and culture that I know only too well. In fact, odds are that I know some of the people who were inspirational models for some of the characters, because it’s a very small and somewhat insular setting and both Robinson and I were part of it at the same time. (Aside: and yes, I met Robinson on several occasions totally unrelated to SF while we were both a part of this setting. See, one of the women in the commune I lived in was dating one of the dancers in Jeanne Robinson’s troupe, and in a small community, that’s enough of a connection to make meeting each other inevitable. I remember him well, because he was already a well-known SF author. I doubt very much that he remembers me at all.)

So for me, the setting predominates my responses to this book, as I deal with both extreme familiarity and the disconcerting effects of seeing the hippie culture of the North Mountain of the Annapolis Valley, nova Scotia, which was my culture for almost a decade, through the eyes of someone who also lived through it, but from a different perspective – again, inevitable, as Robinson is an ex-pat American and I’m a native Nova Scotian. We couldn’t ever have seen the that place in that decade in the same way. But I will make one factual correction to his narrative for anyone who’s read the book: the North Mountain hippies were not, as Robinson suggests, largely ex-pat Americans. A few of the many communes that flourished during the 70s had a lot of Americans, especially the Rajneeshi commune. Many had a couple of Americans among them. There were some very prominent members of the wider hippie community throughout Nova Scotia who were American. But most of the folks who were year-round, settled members of the community were Canadian, and most of those were from the Maritimes. The commune I was a part of had no Americans among its core group. The summer hippies were a different story, but after around 73 or 74, they hardly counted anyway.

What I can say about the book aside from my highly personal engagement with it is that I think it’s a fairly decent SF story about time travel from the perspective of the ones travelled among, and not the ones travelling. I do think that Robinson has used the “male musician who has become spiritually stagnant over guilt because he thinks the accidental deaths of his partner and their children were all his fault” protagonist a little too often, and that’s one of the things that bugs me about the book. And, reminiscent of the two seemingly unrelated plot lines in Mindkiller, it takes a while before you see how it relates to the previous book in the series.

The last book, Lifehouse, is, alas, an example of what happens when Robinson gets way too self-indulgent. First of all, the book is completely unnecessary. We know at the end of Time Pressure that something along the general lines of the Lifehouse set-up is going to happen, and that incidents like the one that forms the novel’s plot are going to happen and will have to be dealt with.

Second, the book is far too narrowly focused with respect to its connection to the overall, barely seen future. While the storylines of two previous novels, like this one, are tightly focused on the protagonists – even though this volume has a lot more key protagonists – their contribution to our understanding of the off-stage developments that lead to this massive change in human existence is to illuminate crucial and far-reaching aspects of that obscured narrative. Lifehouse gives us nothing more about the future beyond a few administrative details.

And third, it’s too cliched, overly complicated, way too full of in-jokes, too much of the plot hinges on coincidences, some of them of the most unlikely order. Making almost half of the key characters science fiction fans is kind of a death knell. It sort of boils down to “look how naive and gullible and yet how clever and resourceful SF fans are because they think about impossibly weird stuff every day” (there’s some of this in Time Pressure, but not nearly as much).

In my opinion, of course, it’s an example of Robinson at his worst.

And with that, I think I’ve had enough of Spider Robinson for some time to come.

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I've just finished another two volumes in Kage Baker's Company series, The Life of the World to Come and The Children of the Company.

Complexities and possibilities are building, the plots are thickening, new revelation are flying fast and I'm still no closer to even guessing how it all will end.

The Life of the World to Come brings us back to Mendoza, waiting in exile for the unimaginable - which naturally happens, against all odds and expectations. but most of the novel is about three men living in three very different time periods - two of whom, both Mendoza's lovers, we have already met - and the mysterious links between them, as illuminated in the life of the third of them.

The Children of the Company is told by a new voice, Labienus, who we have so far seen only in glimpses and off-hand references in the stories of others. Now we see the actions of other, all throughout time, through his eyes and those of his associates, subordinates and spies. So many little things thant seemd simple are made significant, so many loose threads are knotted up, and yet the coming mysteries loom greater than ever.

More, I want more.

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I have been reading a lot of novels in series lately. I like series. I love plots that go on for volumes and volumes and characters that grow and change and themes that are developed layer upon layer.

Lately, I have begun reading, or completed reading, or read a few more books in the middle of, the following series. All of these series, obviously, are ones that I have or am enjoying highly, because if I weren't, why on earth would I have read more than the first volume?


The Miles Korkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Brothers in Arms
Mirror Dance

What is there not to love about a runty little hero with a brittle bone disability, a brilliant mind and a gift for profound deviousness and intrigue who's trying to face down a birth culture in which physical prowess and manliness is everything, while making a name for himself as a mercenary captain and concealing his mission as an interstellar intelligence agent?

I read the first novels in this series a long time ago, when they first came out, and then a couple of years back, when I happened to notice just how many more of them Bujold had written, I re-read the older ones and am now in the process of reading the neweer ones. Bujold's is smart, and often funny milsf adventure with some very nice exploration of both gender politics and disability issues, and some very nice political intrigue.


The Diana Tregarde Mysteries, by Mercedes Lackey
Children of the Night
Jinx High

Completing my re-read of this urban fantasy series, which alas has only three volumes. Diana Teegarde is a Guardian, a person who is gifted with strong supernatural and/or psychic gifts and the ability to perform magic, and has accepted the responsibility to use these gifts to oppose those - both human and inhuman - who would use such powers for evil.

As with many of Lackey's novels, there's a distinct pagan-friendly and queer-positive vibe, a strong female protagonist, children at risk and some clearly defined heroes and villians.


The Jenny Casey trilogy by Elizabeth Bear
Hammered
Scardown
Worldwired

Ok, if you like hard sf, strong female protagonists, cyberpunk (although Bear has argued that it is actually post-cyberpunk), geopolitical sf, or just plain good writing with great characters and complex, action-filled plots about important human issues, go read Bear's novels about Master Warrant Officer Genevieve Casey. If you want some details first, you can find them at Elizabeth Bear's website.

I was enthralled by these books - quite literally, I read them one after another over the course of about two days. Compelling, thought-provoking, and exciting reading.


The Dragon Temple Trilogy, by Janine Cross
Touched by Venom
Shadowed by Wings
Forged by Fire

These are not easy books to read. I'll give you that warning right now. Over the course of these three novels, the young female protagonist - who is only a child when the books begin - experiences just about every kind of abuse you can imagine, as a child, as a female, as a slave, as a political prisoner, as a gender rebel, as a racial minority, as a member of an oppressed socio-economic class, as an addict, as an enforced victim/participant of a religious cult, as a recruit in a brutal quasi-military training program, and probably as several more identities that are traditionally targets of institutionalised as well as individual abuse that I hadn't noticed.

Some people have dismissed these works as violent pornography, others have seen them as a deeply disturbing dystopia with a profound feminist and anti-oppression stance. I'm defintely in the latter camp on this - sometimes it's important to remember just how bad things not just can be, but are for people who are not privileged (as I imagine many of the readers of this blog are, at least in some ways).

There is a great review by Liz Henry up at Strange Horizons that not only looks at the first book in the series from a feminist and anti-oppression perspective, but also examines the vastly divergeant opinions people have voiced about the book.


The Company Novels, by Kage Baker
Sky Coyote
Mendoza in Hollywood
The Graveyard Game

I read the first volume in the series, In the Garden of Iden, earlier this year, and was very much intrigued with the set-up - time-travelling for profit, with entreprenuers from the future conscripting orphans throughout history to become immortal collectors of vanished artworks, cultural histories, extinct specimens, and all sort of other things worth saving - if someone is going to profit by it. It was claer from the very first that there were some unanswered questions about the whole enterprise, and as the series has continued, that's proving to be even truer than I'd expected.

The key continuing characters - Mendoza, saved from the Spanish Inquisition as a child, and Joseph, her recruiter, himself rescued from a massacre of his family group in 20,000 BCE by Budu, an even older Immortal of whom much is heard but little is seen in the books I have read so far - find themselves and their associates withing the Company increasing confronted by mysteries about who really runs the Company, the source of the technology that made both time travel and their own immortality possible, the real motives of the increasing large number of factions associated with the Company, its operatives and controllers, the growing number of disapperaing immortals, and most mysterious of all, what happens after 2355 - the year in which all communications from the future to the operatives and immortals stationed all throughout human history (and pre-history) cease.

Political intrigue on a truly grand scale. I'm loving this series.



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In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

I've been reading all sorts of recommendations of Kage Baker's The Company series for some time now, and I must say, having read the first book of the series, that the recommendations were right.

It's an interesting set-up - a time travel corps recruited among abandoned children across the millennia with the purpose of saving things - from artwork to biological specimens - that would otherwise have perished and "hiding" them in time so they can be discovered later. Later being when the 24th century corporation running the show unearths them for profit.

Because these recruits really don't have much of a choice - or rather, their choice is, esentially, join or die - this is not a bunch of happy and idealistic self-selelcted folks, but rather a collection of real people drafted into work that is sometimes dangerous, some of whom like the job they're doing, some of whom don't, many of whom are perhaps not the best suited for the task but they're all there is.

The protagonist of the first book is Mendoza, who was snatched from certain death at the hands of the spanish Inquisition when she was only five (under suspicion of secretly being a Jew), raised in the australian outback of several million years ago, given extensive modification that end up making her, like other members of the Comapny, virtually immortal, and sent out at 18 on her first mission, to salvage what will become rare plants from the estate of a 16th century gentleman gardener/collector/botanist.

And yes, the book is about a loss of innocence, on many levels.

And it's a very good read. Baker at times uses a tone that is breezy, almost flippant, but this only serves to underline some the the very serious issues she is exploring in between the plot points of a time travel adventure. I expect to be returning very soon to the universo of The Company.

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