Necessity

by Jo Walton

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Series: Thessaly #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 2016
ISBN: 0-7653-7902-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 331

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Athena's experiment with a city (now civilization) modeled after Plato's Republic continues, but in a form that she would not have anticipated, and in a place rather far removed from its origins. But despite new awareness of the place and role of gods, a rather dramatic relocation, and unanticipated science-fiction complications, it continues in much the same style as in The Just City: thoughtful, questioning debate, a legal and social system that works surprisingly well, and a surprising lack of drama. At least, that is, until the displaced cities are contacted by the mainstream of humanity, and Athena goes unexpectedly missing.

The latter event turns out to have much more to do with the story than the former, and I regret that. Analyzing mainline human civilization and negotiating the parameters of a very odd first contact would have, at least in my opinion, lined up a bit better with the strengths of this series. Instead, the focus is primarily on metaphysics, and the key climactic moment in those metaphysics is rather mushy and incoherent compared to the sharp-edged analysis Walton's civilization is normally capable of. Not particularly unexpected, as metaphysics of this sort are notoriously tricky to approach via dialectical logic, but it was a bit of a letdown. Much of this book deals with Athena's disappearance and its consequences (including the title), and it wasn't bad, but it wanders a bit into philosophical musings on the nature of gods.

Necessity is a rather odd book, and I think anyone who started here would be baffled, but it does make a surprising amount of sense in the context of the series. Skipping ahead to here seems like a truly bad idea, but reading the entire series (relatively closely together) does show a coherent philosophical, moral, and social arc. The Just City opens with Apollo confronted by the idea of individual significance: what does it mean to treat other people as one's equals in an ethical sense, even if they aren't on measures of raw power? The Thessaly series holds to that theme throughout and follows its implications. Many of the bizarre things that happen in this series seem like matter-of-fact outcomes once you're engrossed in the premises and circumstances at the time. Necessity adds a surprising amount of more typical science fiction trappings, but they turn out to be ancillary to the story. What matters is considered action, trying to be your best self, and the earnest efforts of a society to put those principles first.

And that's the strength of the whole series, including Necessity: I like these people, I like how they think, and I enjoy spending time with them, almost no matter what they're doing. As with the previous books, we get interwoven chapters from different viewpoints, this time from three primary characters plus some important "guest" chapters. As with the previous books, the viewpoint characters are different again, mostly a generation younger, and I had to overcome my initial disappointment at not hearing the same voices. But Walton is excellent at characterization. I really like this earnest, thoughtful, oddly-structured society that always teeters on the edge of being hopelessly naive and trusting but is self-aware enough to never fall in. By the end of the book, I liked this round of characters nearly as much as I liked the previous rounds (although I've still never liked a character in these books as well as I liked Simmea).

I think one incomplete but important way to sum up the entire Thessaly series is that it's a trilogy of philosophical society-building on top of the premise of a universal love for and earnest, probing, thoughtful analysis of philosophy. Walton's initial cheat is to use an deus ex machina to jumpstart such a society from a complex human world that would be unlikely to provide enough time or space for it to build its own separate culture and tradition. I think the science-fiction trick is required to make this work — real-world societies that try this end up having to spend so much of their energy fighting intrusion from the outside and diffusion into the surrounding culture that they don't have the same room to avoid conformity and test and argue against their own visions.

Necessity is not at all the conclusion of that experiment I would expect, but it won me over, and I think it worked, even if a few bits of it felt indulgent. Most importantly for that overall project, this series is generational, and Necessity shows how it would feel to grow up deep inside it, seeing evolution on top of a base structure that is ubiquitous and ignored. Even the generation in The Philosopher Kings wasn't far enough removed to support that; Necessity is, and in a way this book shows how distinctly different and even alien human culture can become when it has space to evolve on top of different premises. I enjoyed the moments of small surprise, where characters didn't react the way that I'd expect for reasons now buried generations-deep in their philosophical foundations.

This book will not win you over if you didn't already like the series, and I suspect it will lose a few people who read the previous two books. The plot structure is a little strange, the metaphysics are a touch strained, and the ending is, well, not quite the payoff that I was hoping for, although it's thematically appropriate and grew on me after a few days of thinking it over. But I got more Socrates, finally, who is as delightful as always and sorely needed to add some irreverence and contrariness to the the mix. And I got to read more about practical, thoughtful people who are trying hard to do their best, to be their best selves, and to analyze and understand the world. There's something calming, delightful, and beautifully optimistic about their approach, and I'm rather sad to not have more of it to read.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-04-26

Last modified and spun 2017-04-27