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The Plot To Save Socrates (2006)

by Paul Levinson(Favorite Author)
3.41 of 5 Votes: 1
JoSar MeDia
Sierra Waters
review 1: The Plot to Save Socrates is a time-travel adventure with a generous mixture of philosophy. I liked a lot of elements in this book but also found a lot wanting. Hence my qualified "good" review of three stars.The good? The plot and the adventure are fun to follow. The time-travel adds an element of tension that you can't do away with, especially when coupled with a mysterious villain, whose greater mastery of the technology and unknown purposes add a constant sense of foreboding. The characters aren't much, but I don't mind; sometimes it is fine not to lean upon characters when there's a plot to be told. The author's decision to limit time travel to a set of locations where the technology has been set up (London, Athens, New York) was inspired. The dynamics of a time trave... morel adventure where time travel is spatially limited are very different from one where the time-travel machine is mobile, and this creates great adventure when one is traveling back to ancient times. Making the technology not-too-precise is also effective for plotting; it makes a big difference when you can set a date and be sure of it, or if you might not end up at exactly the time you hoped for -- being off a few hours, days, weeks, months, or years. I am not entirely clear in my own mind how to resolve everything, especially the time paradoxes that arise from the adventure. There is abundant circular causation and mysteries that I think a reread and careful mapping might solve, but I'm just not motivated to embark on such an endeavor.There is apparently a forthcoming sequel (about Alexandria -- I suspect concerning Hypathia and the Library) in which some of these issues may be clarified, though there is nothing you can do with circular causation except accept it.The bad. There two main sources of problems. (1) I said that the book features a generous mixture of philosophy, but the author is not really up to the challenge. The author is not a philosopher (he is a professor of communications) and his attempts to portray philosophical debate and philosophical minds are unconvincing. A newly discovered Socratic dialogue falls flat. Philosophical argument rarely rises above the sort we might see in a classroom between teacher and students -- which is not horrible but not representative of real philosophical discussion or debate. Still, it is possible to deal with this by largely ignoring the philosophy and focusing on the plot. But then (2) the second problem is that the author isn't really comfortable with anything other than the culture typical of educated, liberal late 20th century Americans living on the coasts, and he shows an inability to empathize with any other standpoint. The effect on his work is widespread. First, all "good" characters share the same values, no matter what time they come from: hedonism, democracy, secularism, education, these are accepted as basic values, values without any clear rationale, except of course that these are the values of a certain kind of American at a certain point in time. They therefore take the form of prejudices, which is unfortunate; one would like something richer here to support these views, or some diversity of viewpoint to throw them into relief. Socrates alone is exempted as a good character allowed to dislike democracy, but this is presented unconvincingly. He can't be rewritten to not oppose democracy but he is given on real reasons for opposing it, although the story itself provides ample reason (in the novel's recognition that Athens would kill Socrates regardless of whether Anytus brought charges against him). Second, there is a continual, almost unrelenting antipathy to Plato, which is distracting and annoying. The author recognizes his intelligence and the few convincing displays of philosophical acumen belong to young Plato during his brief appearances, but he continually suggests that Plato is a bad character in some important ways (cowardice, plagiarism, pessimism, brooding) and that Plato doesn't well-represent Socrates. This is most evident in the author's silent "correction" of Plato's Phaedo's description of the effects of hemlock, a pseudo-correction invented in the late 19th c. if I remember correctly, but which is based upon a misunderstanding regarding which poisonous plant the ancient Greeks referred to as "hemlock." Plato was accused of changing the effects in order to create a specific literary portrayal of Socrates, but in fact it is we who have misunderstood which plant they were referring to, and other authors refer to the effects of hemlock in ways consistent with Plato's description. This antipathy is annoying and extends from beginning to end, due to the author's unwillingness to forgive or sympathize to any degree with Plato's distrust for democracy or more importantly his contempt for hedonism. The author, I think, simply cannot comprehend the appeal of an otherworldly ethic like Plato's, but frankly it provides some relief from the unending ogling that the male characters (including the 70 year old Socrates!) give to Sierra, the main (and only) female character, another annoying feature. I briefly pause to say that perhaps the author is a Straussian and providing an esoteric narrative where Plato is the true hero. All the characters seem dismissive or hostile to him, but at the same time he is the only character who philosophizes well. In that case, well done.But finally, and most importantly, the author fails to accurately portray the "alienness" of the ancient world. It is instead a time rather like our own, that is, rather like post-1960's America, rather like the hedonistic, secular, educated America that the author is familiar with. Except they speak ancient Greek. Alcibiades comes off as basically no different from the typical contemporary educated American of the coasts, which is surely an absurd result. A comparison with Gene Wolfe's _Soldier_ books, about an ancient Latin mercenary who fights in the Persian wars, is devastating, because Wolfe (who is a master at making even the familiar seem alien) embraces the strangeness of the ancient world with gusto, and delights in making us feel as unfamiliar with it as possible through a series of "translator's" tricks, so that we can at it on its own terms. Encounters with another culture *ought* to make us more self-aware by making us aware of our unexamined assumptions; this book however has the opposite, soporific effect of making the contemporary American reader less aware of his assumptions. The ancient Greeks are apparently just like us. How boring and unconvincing! A small point related to this. None of the dialogue supposed to be taking place in Greek (including the newly discovered Socratic dialogue) sounds Greek, or like a translation from Greek. The feel is all wrong. Of course, the author apparently honors the translations of Benjamin Jowett, whose translations are excessively free and inexact, and therefore not favored by many doing scholarly work today. So perhaps he thinks there is no big problem if the language and ways of thinking don't come across as Greek; but this just goes back to the problem I mentioned above, the loss of any sense of alienness, and the reproduction of American mores and modes of thinking among ancient Greeks, which is both dull and false.So, as a story, the book is good fun; but as art, it lacks in several departments. Thus...three stars.
review 2: Thought provoking if not mind blowing, Paul Levinson's The Plot to Save Socrates weaves in and out of centuries (and even millennia) as a broad cast of characters attempts to achieve the titular goal. The novel centers on Sierra, a Classics graduate student from the year 2042, who is pulled into the plot when her mentor shows her a newly discovered Socratic dialogue featuring a conversation between Socrates and a time traveler. In the dialogue, the time traveler attempts to convince Socrates to escape to the future with him, allowing a soulless clone to be poisoned by hemlock in Socrates' place. A fun read while you wait to get your hands on Stephen King's new time travel novel, 11/22/63. (Genevieve, Reader's Services) less
Reviews (see all)
Smart, fun, time travel novel with interesting premise. Nice break from other serious reads.
Good book. A little hard to follow at times, but what book on time travel isn't?
Was an ok read. Not enough explanation for my tastes.
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