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Bewildering Stories

Paul Levinson, The Plot to Save Socrates

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Plot to Save Socrates
Author: Paul Levinson
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Length: 272 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-765-31197-9

Once in a while I pick up a book and think as I put it down, “What the heck was the point of this? Did the author realize he lost it?”

I’m not against fiction that aims for an intellectual audience, though personally I feel if entertainment was a worthy enough goal for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me, too. I just hate it when it turns out to be pseudo-intellectual.

I look at the usual glowing praise on the back cover of such books and assume I belong in the back streets of Baltimore, sharing a bottle with Poe. Poe, of course, was heartily disliked by the many author-acquaintances he wouldn’t scratch backs for.

The premise of The Plot to Save Socrates is intriguing enough. Somewhere in the future, far enough to allow for time travel and human cloning, a young female doctoral student is handed a lost dialogue from ancient Greece. An unknown time traveler tries to persuade Socrates to leave behind a cloned idiot body and escape to the future.

Why? Well, that’s the perplexing part. I thought the question was answered for me on page 25 of the story. I’ll quote directly:

The Iconic alphabet comes to Athens, revolutionizing literacy there, aggravates Socrates but not Plato — at least, not enough to stop Plato from writing — and Socrates dies shortly after. Oh, yeah, at the hands of the newly restored Athenian democracy, perhaps energized, solidified, by the written word. So Plato winds up hating democracy, because it killed his beloved mentor, Socrates — or, actually, because Socrates allowed the sentence to be carried out, refused Crito’s good offer of escape. So Plato, lover of the written word, eventually crafts his masterpiece antidemocracy manifesto, The Republic, inspiration for everything from the totalitarian societies of the twentieth century to the Islamic “republics” and the Far Eastern cybercities of the twenty-first...”

I never considered Plato to be the father of the Third Reich (Nietzsche and Madame Blavatsky usually get more philosophic press there), but I thought, wow, interesting premise. Now I get why they want to save Socrates alive. If Plato is to be blamed for the anti-democracy press (although I think we ought to cue in the late Senator J. R. McCarthy and a few others for their own sins), then Athenian democracy has to look good. Spare Socrates! Change that vote — or shoot Plato!

But that’s where my logic went south. The time travelers don’t try to influence the vote; in fact, they precipitate it. They intend for “a” Socrates — the clone — to die, leaving history unchanged. So how does that convince Plato not to give democracy its bad press? I couldn’t figure out the answer.

Various persons from the past and future pop up to drag Socrates off to the future. I lost track of why the Heron faction was fighting the Alcibiades faction and why the various clones are shipped back to the infamous death cell. But what does it matter?

If you simply want a chance to hang out with famous names, here it is. The historical Greeks, an often misogynistic and chauvinistic lot, are sweetly sanitized. Ants-in-his-pants Alcibiades, the Byron of his day, saves his sweetheart, the female time-traveling student, and Socrates ends up where he’d never have agreed to go. Anyone who reads Plato’s recording of the event knows one thing: Socrates was determined to die.

I had a hard time slogging through the lifeless prose and lost logic, and I have no use for the “10 Questions” appendix where the professor checks to see if we’ve got the lesson. I have my own question: what was Socrates supposed to be saved for?

But those famous names on the jacket blurb must be right. Poe, pass me that bottle!

Copyright © 2013 by Danielle L. Parker

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