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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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The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Laurence Davis & Peter Stillman (eds.)

I'll admit it, this wasn't an easy book to read, and it took me a long time to go through it, reading one section of an essay at a time and taking more than a few side-trips into the philosophies of the major thinkers of the anarchist movement to fill in some of the gaps. for the most part, I'm still digesting what I've read.

I will say that making my way through these essays has given me a far more profound appreciation of The Dispossessed in particular and LeGuin's way of examining political and philosophical points of view in her work. From now on, I think I will see more - which is saying something, because there's always been a lot to see in her work. I also think that I might want to go back and re-read some of my favourite LeGuin yet again, to see what new thoughts come forth.

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Voyage from Yesteryear, James P. Hogan

First, let’s just agree that this is not a particularly well written book. There are infodumps everywhere – including a multi-page physics lecture on the state of research into the nature of the quark at the time the book was written which, while interesting, could have been boiled down into two paragraphs that would have served the story just as well, if not better. The characterisation is rather limited, and the style is a kind of ultra Campbellian “gee-whiz, look at the cool gadgets, now lets have some manly action” breathlessness that one associates with writers who had never even heard of the New Wave.

I read this a good many years ago, and what made me remember it and decide to read it again is its ambitious attempt to describe an anarchistic society (one that’s more in the libertarian than the socialist or syndicalist traditions) from the ground up, and to imagine the kind of dysfunctional society that could result from an extreme extension of a number of trends in late 20th century American culture. A classic comparison of a utopic and a dystopic vision.

The premise of the story is that a group of scientists and other forward thinkers, worried that the political situation on earth is such that human civilisation may not survive the possibilities of war, decide to try to save some part of humanity. Unfortunately, they don’t have the time or the resources to build a generational ship. What they do have is a ship crewed by robots that’s being readied to be sent on an unmanned exploration of Chiron, an Earth-like planet that was discovered in a neighbouring star system. Their solution? Stock the ship with thousands of fertilised embryos and reprogram the robots to first produce a planetary population using the embryos, and then to protect and nurture the children and help them create a new civilisation. Many years later, after the crisis on Earth is passed, the society that evolved out of the crisis sends a ship to check up on the Chironians and, naturally, exploit the colony for the good of the folks back home.

What I love about this book, for all its flaws, is the total lack of comprehension among the Earth contingent when basic concepts of an anarchist are explained to them. The culture clash between a rigid, hierarchical, status-obsessed, imperialistic and capitalist culture and a flexible, heterarchical, classless, non-exploitative, non-monetary culture is priceless.

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Elisabeth Vonarburg, translations by Jane Brierley:
The Silent City
The Maerlande Chronicles

I first read Elisabeth Vonarburg’s The Maerlande Chronicles (published in the US as In the Mother's Land) some years ago. It captured my imagination in a way that no other feminist exploration of a female-dominated society has. It remains my favourite example of the subgenre, more so than other, better-known feminist revisionings of society, be they utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on just why this book is so meaningful to me in the midst of such powerful works as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, to name but a few.

Part of it is the mystery, I think - the fact that Vonarburg lets us look at her future society from the inside out and leaves her vision incomplete and unfinished. Vonarburg’s Maerlande is a commonwealth of matriarchal societies at a pivotal point in their history. We know some of what has gone before, but only through the eyes of the characters - we do not know, nor will we ever learn, the uninterpreted truths. We know that changes are coming, from the discovery of new evidence about the past, from explorations planned for the future, from plans old and new only referred to and never described explicitly, but we do not know what those changes will be or how they will affect Maerlande and its people. There are characters whose functions in this change are only partially seen and understood. Vonarburg gives us an image of a future that is as open to speculation, interpretation, and conjecture as any real society is, and furthermore, one in which not only gender roles but gender itself may be less fixed and certain than we, and the women of Maerlande, believe.

Some time after my first reading of The Maerlande Chronicles, I discovered a library copy of The Silent City, which is set in the same universe as a time some centuries before. While the events of The Silent City – set during a period of worldwide social disintegration out of which the commonwealth of Maerlande will some day evolve – illuminated some of the questions, the uncertainties, the mysteries, there was still much that I didn’t have a clear interpretation of.

For some time, I thought this might be due to the fact that I read them in the “wrong” order, so this fall, after finally acquiring my own copy of The Silent City, I decided to read both volumes in order, only to find that the tantalising lack of definitive determination of objective fact remains.

The Silent City is set at the end of technological Civilisation; a plague has swept around the world, disproportionately killing men, and most of humanity is sinking into various forms of barbarism, most of which are violent and patriarchal. At the same time, the last remnants of "civilised" humanity have withdrawn into underground fortresses, from which they send out, from time to time, cyborg observers to watch the disintegration happening around them. The novel tells the story of one of the last inhabitants of the last functioning city, whose genetic experiments may ultimately bring about an unfathomable change in human existence.

The Maerlande Chronicles takes up the story several centuries later. Humanity is recovering from the devastation of the past, although some variation of the old plague remains a threat to all children and men are still in the minority. A commonwealth of matriarchal societies has come into existence, each one somewhat different in the ways it deals with issues of gender, reproduction and leadership, among other aspects of life, but all drawing much of their culture from a key religious event involving a female saviour figure and her apostles. We see the events of the novel from a number of perspectives, one of which may be informed by at least some, if not all, of the information and experience of the key protagonists of the earlier book, but the crucial mysteries of the past – the reality behind the religion of Maerlande – and the future – what will be the ultimate effect on humanity of the combination of the plague and the genetic modifications that are part of the first novel's plot – remain unanswered.

And there is something both comforting and compelling in that uncertainty, because it is so very real.
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The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

Not too long ago, I found myself in the position of trying to describe to a friend some of the ways in which a society based on anarchist philosophy might operate, and in the process of trying to make my own visions of an anarchist’s utopia more concrete, I picked up and re-read the two books on my shelves in which someone else had already done this, and probably far better than I ever could.

LeGuin’s The Dispossessed tells the story of a scientist, Shevek, raised on Anarres, a world settled by the followers of a political philosopher from Anarres’ sister world Urras, who finds himself questioning and rejecting the philosophy of the world in which he grew up. He travels to Urras, thinking to find a better way of life, only to realise how strongly his values have been influenced by the culture of his birth. Ultimately, he decides that the flaws in the culture and philosophy of Anarres are easier to live with – and possible change – than the flaw he finds in the philosophies of Urras.

Ursula Le Guin discusses her novel in an introduction written for “The Day Before the Revolution,” a short story written in memoriam to the anarchist, Paul Goodman:
My novel 'The Dispossessed' is about a small world full of people who call themselves Odonians. The name is taken from the founder of their society, Odo, who lived several generations before the time of the novel, and who therefore doesn't get into the action - except implicitly, in that all the action started with her.

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right, but anarchism as pre- figured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian state (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
What is interesting about LeGuin’s exploration of an anarchist utopia is that she allows it to be flawed. No society created by humans will ever truly reach the perfection of a utopia, because humans themselves are not perfect beings. LeGuin, however, shows the reader a flawed anarchist state and a flawed authoritarian state and asks: which is easier to live in, easier to change and improve without bloodshed, provides a better life for more of its citizens?

Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time also presents an anarchist state and an authoritarian state for the reader to consider, although the former is more of a utopia and the latter more of a dystopia than in LeGuin’s book. Piercy’s protagonist, Connie Ramos, is an American Latina living on welfare, who has a “bad history” of standing up for herself and other women against the oppression and violence of men, and is ultimately incarcerated in a mental hospital where she is chosen to be a subject for experimental "mind-control" research. She is also a Receptive, someone who can serve as an focal point for a kind of mental time-traveller and, with the assistance of that traveller, move forward to see the future herself. Or she is mad, and hallucinating everything that she experiences in her encounters with the time-traveller Luciente and the future she sees and commits herself to helping to bring into being in her own time.

Luciente’s future is, like Shevek’s Anarres, a society based on basic anarchist principles, although it is more consciously a feminist utopia as well. Both books explore ways of organising society and making collective decisions about that society without the creation of hierarchical, authoritarian structures, of valuing co-operation and mutual assistance, of sharing labour and eliminating class, and of changing the nature of the family, interpersonal relationships and gender roles.

Both are strong and important visions of what an anarchist society might be like. As such, they are also an inspiration and an invitation for further consideration of how life can be lived without social or political oppression of any group of human beings by any other.


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