Jo Walton comes from Wales, but lives in Montreal where, she reports, "the food and books are more varied." She is the author of short stories, poetry, and eleven novels, which include the World Fantasy Award-winning Tooth and Claw (2003), a satirical fantasy of manners about dragons; the Small Change alternate history trilogy (2006-2008); the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others (2011); and her new novel The Just City (2015), the start of a new series in which a time-traveling Greek goddess has set out to create the ideal city, as described in Plato's Republic. Walton also blogs at Tor.com, and has published a collection of her essays from that site, What Makes This Book So Great (2014). This interview was conducted by email in January 2015.
Liz Bourke: The Just City has a deep and abiding engagement with Plato's Republic—with the Socratic dialogues in general, but with the Republic in particular—and with those thinkers throughout history, like Marsilio Ficino, who have taken Plato as an inspiration. Tell us a little about the history of your engagement with Plato, Socrates, and the Republic, if you would?
Jo Walton: I read Mary Renault when I was a kid. In The Last of the Wine she has Socrates and a young Plato as characters, and in The Mask of Apollo a much older Plato. Being a teenager who spent much of her time in libraries, it felt natural to go from that to reading Plato—The Symposium first, everyone should read that first, it's the most approachable dialogue and Alkibiades comes in drunk in the middle, it's just so much fun. So I was reading Plato not as "Plato," not as this cultural icon, but in a kind of historical story kind of context. What I found in Plato was the same thing I found at that time in SF—interesting ideas about the possibilities of the world. And the interesting thing there, especially in the Republic is that Plato is right about so many things, and wrong about so many others, and the way he's right and wrong are braided together inextricably, and that's fascinating.
But beyond that, Plato isn't about answers. When you read Plato, it's all Socrates asking questions, and there he was actually attacking the real problems about how people ought to live and love and treat each other, which still feel like real problems. And his solutions are there for you to argue with, and I certainly wanted to argue with them! Sometimes he's so insightful and brilliant, and sometimes he's barking mad, so that you can go from "Yes yes yes!" to "Oh Plato, no!" so fast you get whiplash. I find that tension very productive. If it was just as case of "Plato was wrong" even in the Republic, there wouldn't be any point in it, it's the mixture that makes it interesting. The other thing about this is that I didn't know any actual people at the time. If you've read Among Others, I was at a school which was very like the school in the book, and I didn't have anyone to talk to about anything I cared about. I was trying to figure out the world, and when I was fifteen or sixteen if you asked me who had thought about what the world ought to be like I'd have said Heinlein, Le Guin, Delany, Plato .;. . . But I didn't think, "Oh I am enjoying Plato, I should read more philosophy" or anything like that.
Later I did a degree in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Lancaster, and I took a course in Greek philosophy, and it wasn't until then that I even realised other people had been thinking about Plato. Up to that point I'd had what you might call a very Protestant relationship with Plato, it was just me and my little black Penguin Classics and no intermediaries. As far as I'd ever thought about it nobody but me and Mary Renault had read him. It came as quite a surprise to see that everything from Karl Popper to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had engaged with Plato and there was all of this secondary stuff, and lots of people were very angry with him, and taking things seriously that were obviously jokes, like the hermaphroditic people in the Symposium.
By that time I had already written the first version of The Just City—it was called Thessaly, and it was the first novel-length thing I ever completed, and it had time travellers trying to set up Plato's Republic and things going wrong. It was practically the first story idea I ever had. It had Ficino in it—but I didn't know a thing about Ficino. My Latin teacher had told me about the Renaissance—and what he told me was that they almost lost all the texts from the ancient world, and then at the last moment they got them back and had a Renaissance, and Ficino translated Plato. This had come up in the context of Peter Abelard, another of my teenage obsessions. So I didn't know half enough about Ficino or the Renaissance or anything really, let alone that I didn't know half enough about how to write, but I didn't let any of that stop me and I just plunged ahead and wrote it because I didn't know any better.
What I could say now is that I spent the next thirty-five years doing research so that I could write it properly, but that's not the case at all, I didn't even think about it until I suddenly had the idea again last year and saw how to do it. I hadn't been doing research at all, I'd just been idly reading things for fun the way I do, I can retroactively classify it as research. In that time, I'd re-read Plato from time to time, and a few years ago when I got my Kindle I read all the minor dialogues I hadn't read before, because there they were on Gutenberg for free, and that was just delightful. And I read Xenophon's Memorabilia and his other Socratic bits and pieces, and I found the tension between Xenophon's Socrates and Plato's version very productive of . . . Socrates. And I was thinking about the way he goes around getting into dialogue with everyone, and sometimes stands out in the rain thinking and has to be dragged in, I thought he's a bit ADHD. So my Sokrates is like that, and I had a lot of fun with that in the book.
Liz Bourke: In many ways, while reading The Just City, I thought you were remarkably generous to your character of Sokrates. Not only is he a radical thinker, but he seems to have no problems interacting with women on grounds of equality, and he lacks the . . . incredible sense of, well, ego that comes across in some of the dialogues, Plato's especially. (He's a very paragon of a stinging gadfly buzzing about the horse of the state!) Is the Sokrates of The Just City more how you see a historical Sokrates, or more how you'd like Sokrates to be?
Jo Walton: Oh, he's unquestionably idealised in the direction of how I'd like him to be. There's a problem with writing directly about actual historical characters which I had a lot with this book—you want to be fair to the character, and accurate, and you can't really do that once you're actually writing about them, because characters twist and the story shapes them and they become your character and further from who they really were. Guy Gavriel Kay has argued very convincingly that one shouldn't write about actual historical figures but only fantasy analogues, because that's what you're going to be doing anyway so you might as well give them different names and put them in alternate worlds. This is what I've mostly done before. But for this project I needed to deal with real historical people or it wasn't going to work.
With Sokrates, as I said, I was thinking very much about the intersection of Plato and Xenophon's portrayals of him. And while he can annoy people and be deliberately perverse in the dialogues, I noticed that he's never cruel, which I thought was interesting, when you consider the kind of humour you find in Aristophanes, and the culture generally. And in Xenophon he's very practical.
About dealing with women though—Plato not only wrote about women being as good as men and needing to be educated the same way and capable of becoming philosopher kings, he actually accepted two female pupils into the Academy, Axiothea and Lasthenia. They're mentioned in Diogenes Laertius, and Axiothea is mentioned as being a disciple of Plato's nephew and successor at the Academy Speusippos after Plato's death, so she was clearly around for the long term. There's absolutely no evidence about whether Plato's beliefs about women being capable of being philosophers are something he developed on his own or were shared with Socrates, I chose to decide the latter. Sokrates talks to everyone he can, and it seemed to me he'd have talked just as eagerly to women—and robots—if any were available for him to talk to.
Liz Bourke: That Plato accepted the theoretical equality of exceptional women doesn't mean he would've been good at it in practice—but I confess to being inclined to think the worst of ancient philosophers in general. (And I'm supposed to be interviewing you, not having interesting arguments about the ancient world!)
You mentioned not knowing much about Ficino when first you had the idea for The Just City. But Ficino is a significant character here, and so are some other Renaissance humanists. For those of us who still don't know much about those Renaissance humanists, could you tell us a little about them, and maybe tell us why you chose those people in particular to play a role in The Just City?
Jo Walton: The thing about Plato and women is that Plato said women were equal and should have educations, and as far as I know nobody else said this until John Stuart Mill. And I do think Plato said this to make people think, but then when he was confronted with female pupils he went with it. I don't think he was perfect on feminism, but he was so far in advance of everyone else that he gets huge points with me for this. I mean Aristotle said women and slaves were just one step up from animals, and that was much closer to the default position for the next two thousand years.
The Renaissance is fascinating because it looks both ways. It's a hinge—looking back to their imagination of the ancient world, and also looking forward to the Enlightenment and the modern world. There's all this humanism and beautiful art, along with horrible social and political conditions. They were thinking about who they were, and examining philosophical questions that had been answered with "Because God" in the Middle Ages, and there was all this excitement about that. Their imagination of antiquity is very very different from our imagination of it—we have archaeology, and also we pretend to be so detached, whereas they were wading into it and claiming to be the heirs and reinventing it with both hands. Because the Renaissance is so recent—compared to antiquity—there's masses of material—again, compared to antiquity. There are recipe books and accounts and letters and there's just so much material, comparatively. It's great.
So Petrarch imagined that what was wrong with modern Italy was that it wasn't enough like Rome, and two whole generations believed him and brought up their children on reading classics so they'd be more like Rome, and of course it didn't work except in the ways that it did.
Ficino is important because he's a doctor's son who translated Plato, and he wrote long commentaries on Plato, and he was the tutor of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was actively trying to recreate the ancient world, and he was obsessed with Plato. Also his letters survive. I find reading people's letters a great way of feeling close to them. He was a very intellectual person, but also very warm and loving in a way we'd think of as more stereotypically feminine.
The other Renaissance person who has a major role is Pico della Mirandola, who takes the name Ikaros when he gets to the Republic. Pico was known as "the phoenix of our age," he learned all the languages (including Arabic and Hebrew) and made up a theory of religion that reconciled everything he'd ever heard of—and was then surprised to be condemned for heresy. He kept saying that if they'd just debate him . . . and he wrote this great defence that's called the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which I prefer to translate as Oration on the Awesomeness of Humanity because that's what it is, it's Pico going on about how amazing humans are, between angels and beasts, with a choice about which to be. So he's wonderful—but he's also problematic because he was always getting in trouble because of sex, seducing married women, and living with women he wasn't married to while considering becoming a Dominican. He was young when he died—Platonism seems to be an extremely healthy philosophy, most historical Platonists lived to be really old, which was a problem when it came to putting them into the book.
In The Just City there are about 300 masters and 10,000 children, but of course I only focus on a tiny number of them, trying to give the illusion of all the others. I wanted some humanists centrally because they were reimagining the ancient world, and that's what they're doing in the book too, in trying the Republic. I needed people who could have prayed to Athene—I couldn't have Petrarch, he was too good a Christian. I decided I couldn't have Machiavelli either, sadly because he was just too attached to Florence and the real world and trying to fix that. But Ficino and Pico worked for what I wanted.
Liz Bourke: I'll admit that Aristotle on natural slavery makes me want to throw books across rooms. (I enjoy reading him rather less than any other ancient writer. Much less than Plato.)
But Aristotle's argument that "all men that differ as widely as the soul does from the body and the human being from the lower animal (and this is the condition of those whose function is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming), these are by nature slaves, for whom to be governed by this kind of authority is advantageous. . . . For he is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does so belong), and who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it," seems like a good jumping-off point from which to mention the "equal significance and volition" that seems to me to lie at the thematic heart of The Just City. Why have Apollo learn about "equal significance and volition"?
Jo Walton: In the Villa Borghese in Rome, there are two seventeenth centurt statues by Bernini, "Hades and Proserpina" and "Apollo and Daphne." And when I first saw them, in the summer of 2011, I realised that they were part of our modern twenty-first century discourse about rape, and also that every other "rapes of the gods" picture and sculpture I'd ever seen was all about the male gaze. Every other one was all "wouldn't you like to do her" (or sometimes "him") and never about disproportionate power and how horrible rape is. But Bernini's statues are not about rape fantasies. Hades and Proserpina is about familial abuse—he's her uncle, and she's a teenager, and he's really strong, and his fingers are digging into her marble thigh, and he doesn't care, and this is one of the most uncomfortable pieces of art I've ever seen.
Then the Apollo and Daphne—it's very dynamic, and it's capturing a moment, the moment where she's in the process of turning into a tree, and he's reaching for her, and he's completely oblivious, and the look on his face is just such as to lead me to ask the question, "What is that beautiful oblivious face going to look like in two seconds when he gets smacked in the groin by a tree branch?" There's something he really doesn't know, is he going to learn something from this? And of course Daphne is the laurel tree, and he uses the laurel as his symbol of poetry and victory, and what does that mean, in the context of the woman who turned into a tree? Can gods learn lessons? I've always been very fond of Apollo, he's the patron god of poets and writers, and one of the things I thought looking at that statue was "He's always been so nice to me" in the exact way that people do when they find out that their friends have done awful things, and that was very uncomfortable too.
So really, Apollo in the book is Bernini's Apollo.
One of the "three plots" is supposed to be "man learns lesson." This is "god learns lesson," and the more I thought about that the more interesting it seemed, exploring what it would be like for an Olympian to be human, and to at least try to acknowledge those things.
One of the things I've always been interested in (it's central to my Small Change books for instance) is the reason good people do bad things. It's all very well to say evil people do evil things because they're evil people—orcs, monsters. And that's Hades, he's a monster and a psychopath, he wants what he wants and he can take it and he doesn't care who gets in his way. But in reality very few people are psychopaths, most people are complex and mixed, and yet we do terrible things, we hurt the people we love, we screw things up without meaning to or because we're trying to do something else and things go wrong or we don't understand how people can get hurt by what we're doing. I think we can all understand that in our own lives, and that broadens out. I find the answers "because they're stupid" or "because they're evil" very boring. Sometimes they're true, but generally in a story context they don't go anywhere. I like to try to find better answers for why people do things, and how they can do awful things and still live with themselves. I've been arrogant and self-centred and too quick to dismiss other people's significance and value—what am I saying, I'm still arrogant and self-centred. I can see how you could get from that if you were a gorgeous male god to not understanding how somebody could actually be saying no to you. And I can see how you could want to learn better.
So yes, that's the central theme of these books.
Liz Bourke: It strikes me that much of your work is in conversation with something of history, in one way or another—from your first books, which drew on elements of Arthurian matter, and The Prize in the Game, which drew on the Táin Bó Cuailgne, through the Small Change books and now The Just City. Would you like talk about the influence of, well, the past, on your work?
Jo Walton: Yes, all of my books are deeply involved with history. Even Lifelode, which is the closest to being a straight secondary world fantasy, was inspired by reading a book on the Pastons. History is fascinating and complex, and the more I read the more I realise how little I know, and that's great, it's all there and it's fractal, the closer you get the more there is, and it all fits together. So I am interested in history and changing it fictionally, and in all the lives that were there and just as important as our lives but are hidden in the margins, overlooked, or completely forgotten. It gives so much. And you can look it up. Writing things set in the future is hard, you can't go and look up the details of how their communications worked or what they thought about the soul. (The Pre-Socratics thought the soul was triangular, and they thought that because the liver is triangular and they thought the seat of the soul was the liver. You can't make that up, it's just too bizarre and wonderful. So I put that in the book.)
In the preface to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien talks about having a preference for "history, true or feigned," and in some ways that's what I think fantasy fundamentally is—history true or feigned, or both together. Most fantasy has an engagement with time, with the past, at whatever level.
Liz Bourke: Most fantasy has an engagement with time? In what way? To me it seems as if quite a lot of fantasy is . . . trying to be timeless, or having a view of time that seems quite static, to be honest, so I'd be really interested in what you mean here.
Jo Walton: I think even the most clichéd derivative secondary world fantasy is using history in two ways.
First, even though it will be faux-Medieval Europe at a tech level where the Renaissance has never come (always the Middle Ages and never a Renaissance) it will still have hundreds or thousands of years of its own history—and if you think about it, a world with static tech for thousands of years could be quite interesting. But anyway, legends, prophecies, defeated dark lords coming back, decayed ruins, lost objects, there's always the presence of time piling up. I can hardly think of any fantasy I've ever read where the active presence of the past didn't have an effect—and this is an interesting contrast to SF, where it's often so future-centred that grandparents are barely mentioned and it can sometimes be quite hard to work out how the world got there from here.
The second way fantasy is engaged with it that it is faux-Europe, with almost-Romans and almost-Vikings or whatever. Making up societies is hard, and real historical ones worked, and if you take them and tweak them, you don't have to make it all up. So even when it's done really badly, I think it's still engaging with history.
Liz Bourke: I suspect we should wrap this up, since I've already asked you rather a lot of questions. So, to end on a lighter note: what's been the most fun thing about writing The Just City and its successors?
Jo Walton: That's easy—snarky Apollo voice. He's probably the most fun point of view character I've ever written.
Liz Bourke: And on that note, Jo Walton, thank you very much.
Jo Walton: Thank you.