JUNE 29, 2015
JO WALTON specializes in high concept speculative fictions that she makes both believable and thoughtful through her deployment of the quotidian. Who else could write a story of Darwinian dragons as a novel of manners (Tooth and Claw, 2004) or an alternative history in which the Nazis win as a series in the style of Noel Streatfeild’s novels for girls (the Small Change series, 2006–’08)? In The Just City and The Philosopher Kings (and in another volume yet to come), Walton applies this same set of principles. Here is the high concept: The goddess Athena transports people from throughout history who yearn to live in Plato’s Republic, along with futuristic robots and 10-year-old slave children from ancient Greece, to an Iron Age Atlantis; there they will build the Republic, debate, and pursue excellence until a volcano obliterates the island, leaving behind only the legend. Athena’s brother Apollo joins the group, but in human form, so he can learn some moral excellence. But the gathered characters, their philosophical and practical discussions, and their character-driven decisions, along with Walton’s plain, declarative, and crystal-clear style, and the straightforward and probing dialogue (in both the Socratic and the fiction-writing senses), familiarize the high concept and make it seem plausible.
This is the sort of thing that “cosy catastrophes” (Brian Aldiss’s term from Billion Year Spree) and other “cosy” genre fictions do, in a way. Walton herself has many interesting things to say about cosy catastrophes in her Foundation article, “Who Survives the Cosy Catastrophe?” (2005). These largely British novels, from Walton’s perspective, spend their energies not on the catastrophes themselves but on the nice middle-class men who make do and keep a stiff upper lip afterward, rather like the characters in British novels about the home front in World War II (see Noel Streatfeild, although they’re young girls in her case). Walton points out that the cosy catastrophes, written primarily in the 1950s, “are talking about post-war Britain” and are, she posits, “a response to nice middle-class people suddenly being forced to take account of the working classes as real people.” Furthermore, they capture “middle-class resentment towards the newly empowered working class” by killing them all off “en masse in ludicrous ways and mostly offstage.” The cosiness has to do with the nice middle-class values and domestic details as well as the lack of nasty violence and gooey particulars of the catastrophes; this is also the case in cosy mysteries, where the murder is just a quick catalyst for the rest of the novel. These cosy fictions are escapes from hard realities, and the term has the odor of condescension.
Walton’s novels are responses to such cosy fiction; they are as domestic, as decent, as “cosy” in some respects, perhaps, but rather than offering an escape, they are meant to have us think about those realities. They include women and the working class, avoid heteronormativity and allow entry to those so often excluded from the cosiness of the middle class, and confront the difficulties of their estranged worlds and our familiar one. Walton’s novels do not condescend, nor should her readers, so I want to call her approach something other than cosy. How about everyday? Just as historians now pay more attention to the lives of ordinary people, less to “great men,” Walton’s fiction pays attention to ordinary people otherwise ignored or left on the sidelines in other science fiction. Just as Walton suggests that cosy catastrophes respond to both the looming threat of nuclear war (always offstage, never mentioned) and to fears about the rising working class, perhaps these everyday science fictions respond, metaphorically but actively, to the more amorphous threat of terrorism (also unmentioned) and to the constant danger to both the middle and the working classes posed by Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and their loathsome spawn.
If we take Walton’s novels as everyday science fiction, then we can posit the following attributes: 1) smart but ordinary-looking heroines; 2) characters from a variety of class positions, including, of course, the middle class; 3) relationships romantic and otherwise, heterosexual and otherwise; 4) rich details about the operations of daily life, which describe how people manage quotidian reality and the housekeeping details of their worlds; and 5) a corresponding avoidance of spectacular derring-do, blood and gore, and quivering passion. All of these attributes are enfolded into estranging speculative visions of alternate worlds, gods intervening in human affairs, talking dragons, and fairies. Walton’s fiction is different from Geoff Ryman’s “mundane” science fiction, which shuns such unlikely possibilities, but also like his somewhat tongue-in-cheek manifesto in its “focus on human beings, their science, technology, culture, politics, religions, individual characters, needs, dream, hopes and failings” (“The Mundane Manifesto,” 2004). Like mundane science fiction, Walton’s everyday science fiction familiarizes the strange. Similarly, Scarlett Thomas, in Our Tragic Universe (2010), combines dogs, knitting, and physics, while Kate Atkinson crosses home front domestic experience during and after World Wars I and II with parallel universes in Life After Life (2013), and Emily St. John Mandel imagines ordinary people managing post-pandemic conditions in Station Eleven (2014): these well-received mainstream novels are also examples of everyday science fiction. It may not be a coincidence that all my examples are written by women.
As examples of everyday science fiction, Walton’s two novels of the Republic have more heroines than heroes, including an “ugly” but brilliant and compassionate former slave girl who grows into a fine philosopher and artist and is always in pursuit of excellence. Tellingly, Simmea’s art is embroidery, and it is taken as seriously as another artist’s sculpture, or as the music of Apollo (disguised as the human Pythias). Simmea, Pythias, and the other citizens of the developing Republic debate Plato’s ideas and how to implement them practically, considering everything from the distribution of reading materials to hygienic arrangements and from citizenship to dining halls. There is almost no violence in the first volume and only two brief battles in the second — neither written in terms of excitement and tension, but rather as catalysts of emotional and political repercussions.
Let me contrast Walton’s everyday science fictions to the novel I am reading now, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015). It is also high concept (the explosion of the moon and the end of life as we know it!), and rich with detail on everything from reading materials and hygiene to citizenship and dining, but it consolidates these details in cliff-hanging set pieces about dire threats and ingenious inventions rather than in the intellectual and psychological dialogues that make up much of Walton’s novels. Seveneves (which may go on to further volumes) is over 800 pages long, covers 5,000 years, and is epic in scale (indeed, the events of the first two parts are referred to in the third part as “the Epic”). Walton’s two volumes are fewer than 800 pages long, and while they span three generations of Atlanteans, their tone and scale are intimate. Stephenson’s novel is space opera; Walton’s are more intimate art songs or lieder. Perhaps cosy fictions are parlor songs.
I know that I am describing everyday science fiction as a kind of old-school feminine form — SF on a small scale reflecting women’s sphere of interest and influence. But we all, men and women alike, live in the everyday world, in a domestic economy of work and play and practical management, in our earth household. These are the matters that are truly vital to all of us, that shape our concerns and personal dramas. Why wouldn’t that be true under the most exceptional and estranging circumstances as well, and why wouldn’t those elements also allow as many reading pleasures for all of us as the ripping yarns of space opera? Who can say that Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” is less thrilling on its smaller scale, with its supernatural threat juxtaposed to a father and son relationship, than Wagner’s Ring cycle is on an epic scale, with its clashes among the gods?
I have avoided plot summary and descriptions of events and characters here. The Just City tackles the founding of the city and the role of Socrates (a wonderfully drawn character) in encouraging the society to look on Plato’s Republic as a stimulus for creating an ideal community rather than as a rigid blueprint for it. The Philosopher Kings takes up the story after a new generation of philosopher-citizens has begun to mature. There are now other cities modeling a variety of interpretations of the Republic, and there are rivalries, sometimes violent, among those cities. In addition, a splinter group has seeded the Mediterranean with still other versions of the Republic along with anachronistic Christian communities. (Athena had brought the first generation from many ages and this has meant that they brought the worldviews of their own times with them.) Thus, the novels parse Plato’s Republic for its strengths and flaws, stimulating a dialogue not only between the characters but also between the epistemes of various ages and societies, and between ourselves and the novels. To say more feels like giving away too much. Events unfold as characters and ideas develop, and one of the reading pleasures of the novels is watching the feedback among characters, ideas, and events, and entering into the dialogues ourselves.
Another of the reading pleasures here, and in all of Walton’s writing, is the intimate scale. Much as I love the more-is-more rush of Stephenson’s work, Walton’s economical method is just as effective. The characters are just as complex, and perhaps more distinctive because they are not lost in the overwhelming detail about their environment. The environment in the Atlantean novels is detailed enough for us to supply the rest, and if we don’t know exactly how the robots work or how the ships are constructed, we still get the idea. This economy, along with the harmony among characters, events, and ideas, keeps her novels of ideas from seeming wooden or boring. Walton knows what to leave out as well as what to include. I love operas as much as I love art songs, but the reverse is also true. Lieder pack a lot into their intimate forms, and Walton does the same in her novels. I look forward to the next volume, which I suspect will travel to outer space, but as a space lied rather than a space opera.
Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. New York: Doubleday, 1973.
Ryman, Geoff, et al. “The Mundane Manifesto.” 2004. SFGenics 4 Jul. 2013. Online. 9 Jun. 2015.
Walton, Jo. “Who Survives the Cosy Catastrophe?” Foundation 34.1 (2005): 34–39.