Sunday, April 19, 2015

Socrates vs. Plato: Smackdown

I need to take some time to come back from this rough stretch in the real world; apologies, and no promises.

But there have been some fabulous books to discuss in this period, and I'm going to start with The Just City, which we'll be talking about at my work book club next week.  I posted from the halfway point, but now I'm done and I think this is a good place to gather discussion questions before the meeting.

Some quick review points, though: the sequel/companion books, The Philosopher Kings, comes out in May, and if you haven't read the first one yet, you might want to wait for a few weeks, because I suspect that it's a read-one-after-the-other situation.  It's not so much a cliffhanger--well, maybe it's a cliffhanger.  It could be a very abstract, nonspecific ending, but I suspect this was one long story in Jo Walton's mighty, magnificent head.

Okay, without further ado, questions for discussion of The Just City, which you must read, preferably with your book club.

1) To what extent is this novel a feminist novel.  But wait, let's back that up a bit and ask: 1a) what is a feminist novel?  Which is a broad question, but this is a book for long discussions of meaning.  And after you answer that, then you can answer the main part of question 1.  I have no idea of the answer to 1a.  But if you rephrase it: to what extent are the positions and depictions of women in this society the main or driving force of this novel?

I felt like the idea of what a woman's position is or could be in this imagined society was really the most compelling, driving force here, and I think it highlighted the whole point of this book, which was where philosophy meets practicality.  Who's going to do the manual labor, and how are we going to deal with childbirth?

Which leads to SO MANY OTHER questions, like 1f) given that none of the masters has ever had a baby (male or female), how is it that men can't help with the child rearing stuff, or 1m) to what extent are the Just City's limitations around women caused by the fact that the majority of people come from ancient history, especially the men?  Or 1s) rape and its many aspects: did it freak you out that Maia had to face Ikarus over and over again?  Or that Socrates was his friend?  What does it mean to be friends with a rapist?  With one who doesn't realize what he did was rape?  Even after being told?

I could go on forever.  Maybe these should be separate questions, but then you get back to 1) to what extent are these questions the main problem of the novel?  Or maybe, is this--the situation of women here--a lens for looking at all kinds of privilege and entrenched prejudices?

I'm not sure about this; the masters are almost all white, for clearly explained reasons, but of course the children are all treated as equal, apparently.  It seems oversimplifying to say that this is about women and how they are treated, but really way too broad to say that it's about oppression in general.

I can already see that my question numbering system is shot to hell.  Anyway.

2) The main theme of the book is very much about the transformation of the general to the specific.  Theories are turned into principles, which become plans and then actions.  Where along this chain do most things fall apart?  Is this something you see in the rest of the world, too?  How does this relate to the trouble people have in seeing why someone different from them might need the world to be constructed in another way?

3) What do you think about the depiction of gods as characters here?  How do gods' motivations and considerations compare to mortals', and how are they scaled down appropriately.  Compare it to other books in which gods are characters (I'm thinking of NK Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, but if you have others in mind, please mention them in the comments, because this in particular fascinates me).  How do gods understand mortals?  How do/can they care about them, and how do they manage their relationships with them?

4) Philos, eros, agape.  How useful is this construction of love?  What's so wrong with eros?  What did Plato have against eros?  I might need some actual Plato reading to catch me up here.

5) Tangentially related, how do you think the author managed the fact that all these people are basically living and arguing about Plato's ideals without actually managing to answer many of the questions that come up?  It seems only natural to me that answers would never be satisfactory, but it feels like Plato lays out all these answers that just lead to more questions, but no one in the story tries to lock down further answers, as though Plato was the only one who had the authority to declare things firmly True and Right. Does that seem natural?  Don't you wish someone had answered some of these questions?

6) Also, don't you now want to have a Socratic dialogue?  Have one with me!  I'm available for arguments and discussions.

There's so much more--slavery, Kebes, robot sentience, Athene's temper, cliffhanging, babies!  Damn this is the most readably meaty book--or meatily readable--that I've encountered in a while.  I preordered the sequel, which I NEVER do.  Can't wait for book club!

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