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.