2017 Sunburst Award for Adult Fiction Finalist
Necessity: the sequel to the acclaimed The Just City and The Philosopher Kings, Jo Walton's tales of gods, humans, and what they have to learn from one another.
More than sixty-five years ago, Pallas Athena founded the Just City on an island in the eastern Mediterranean, placing it centuries before the Trojan War, populating it with teachers and children from throughout human history, and committing it to building a society based on the principles of Plato's Republic. Among the City's children was Pytheas, secretly the god Apollo in human form.
Sixty years ago, the Just City schismed into five cities, each devoted to a different version of the original vision.
Forty years ago, the five cities managed to bring their squabbles to a close. But in consequence of their struggle, their existence finally came to the attention of Zeus, who can't allow them to remain in deep antiquity, changing the course of human history. Convinced by Apollo to spare the Cities, Zeus instead moved everything on the island to the planet Plato, circling its own distant sun.
Now, more than a generation has passed. The Cities are flourishing on Plato, and even trading with multiple alien species. Then, on the same day, two things happen. Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory. And there's suddenly a human ship in orbit around Platoa ship from Earth.
About the Author
JO WALTON won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012 for her novel Among Others. Before that, her novel Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. A native of Wales, Walton lives in Montreal.
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By Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Jo Walton
All rights reserved.
I have lived for a very long time however you measure it, but I never grew old before. I aged from birth to adulthood and stayed there, poised in the full power of glorious immortality. The mortal body I had taken up to experience and understand the joys and sorrows of human life aged as other mortal bodies age. My son Phaedrus, like my older son Asklepios, had healing powers. Our City had begun with a generation of ten-year-olds, and as our bodies aged he was kept permanently busy. Even with all he could do for us, aging was an undignified and uncomfortable process. Souls grow and flower and do not decline, so each mortal life inevitably ends with soaring souls enclosed in withered failing bodies. While death is necessary for rebirth, I could find neither necessity nor benefit in this slow ebbing of vitality.
I died on the day the first human spaceship contacted Plato. After that, I did all the things I'd been promising myself I'd do once I was back to my proper self. I established the laurel wreath as a symbol of poetic victory, in memory of Daphne. Then I spent a little while assembling the chronicles of the City — weaving together Maia's journals with Simmea's and Arete's, and composing a memoir of my own brief but intense period of mortality. Then I settled down to study sun formation, beginning with my own suns, naturally. Once I'd started looking into it, I became fascinated with the whole process. The song of suns, the dance of gravity and hydrogen, the interplay of radiation and magnetism and heat, the excitement of the symphonic moment when it all comes together and fusion begins — I never tire of it.
I can't say how long I spent alone studying the birth of suns. I was outside time, and when I went into time, it was a time aeons before the evolution of life. It's normal for me to live outside time, and step into it as and where I choose. The years I spent incarnate in the Just City were the exception. Then days and years unfolded in inevitable and unchangeable sequence. My more usual experience is personally sequential, but entirely separate from time, human time, history. I could go off and study stellar nurseries in the early days of the universe for as long as I liked without neglecting any duties. I could pay attention to my duties afterwards, they'd still be there. I could be aware of a prayer, watch the entire sequence of a sun being formed, and then respond to that prayer in the same moment it was uttered. (Not that I pay any more attention to the constant dinning of prayer than any other god. That's only an example.) I can't be in time in the same moment twice, but that's not much of a hardship, usually, because time splits up into extremely small increments. Despite being the god of prophecy, I don't know my own personal future any more than anyone else. I know what happens in time, more or less, depending on how much attention I've paid to it, exactly the same as you might know what happens in history — some of it sharp, some of it fuzzy.
Studying sunbirth was good for me. It was a relief to be on my own and not have to worry about other people and their significance. It was good to be able to focus completely on a fascinating and abstract subject and forget about Plato for a while — both the philosopher and the planet. I loved my children, and I loved Plato and the society we had built struggling to implement his ideas. But Homer calls the gods "untiring" as well as "deathless." Taking on mortality, and living through that slow physical process of aging, had made me understand for the first time what weariness meant. The study was a form of rest, renewal, and rebirth. It was fun, too. I like learning things, and suns are very close to my heart.
After a timeless while, I was interrupted by the sudden appearance of my little brother Hermes. He draped himself over the accretion disk of a sun forming from a particularly fascinating dust cloud, one full of ancient iron. For some reason, probably simply to irritate me, he chose to make himself so large that the disk looked like a couch he was lounging on. He looked like a youth on the cusp of manhood, an object of desire but filled with implicit power. "Playtime's over," he said.
I shot up to the same size and balanced poised in the same orientation against the glowing dust of the nebula. "What are you doing so far from civilization and everything you love?" I asked.
"Running Father's errands, as usual," he said, pursing his lips. "You know nothing less would get me so far away from people. What are you doing out here in the bleak emptiness?"
I thought it was beautiful, in its own way. "I'm fulfilling my primary function and working on how suns begin," I said. "For a god of travel, you do seem to hate going places."
"I'm not in charge of exploration of the wilderness," he said, bending to adjust his elegant winged sandals. They and his hat were all he wore — not only at that moment, but practically all the time. He enjoyed displaying his exquisite body and being admired. "I like travel and trade and markets and the way people arrange systems of communication. I like going to places. This isn't aplace. I think this is the furthest from being a place of anywhere I've ever been. There's nothing out here for me, no civilization, no offerings, no possibilities for negotiation. Nothing but atoms and emptiness."
"Did you know people have equal significance?" I asked, suddenly reminded by what he had been saying. I'd promised Simmea I'd tell the gods. Putting together the chronicle was only the first part of that.
"To us? How could they have?" A frown briefly creased his golden brow. "They're mayflies."
"To each other. And their choices ought to count to us. They live long enough to achieve wonderful things, sometimes. And besides, a human lifetime is subjectively longer than you think. You should try incarnating yourself."
"Was it fun?"
I hesitated. He laughed.
"It was illuminating," I said, with as much dignity as I could manage. "I learned things I couldn't have learned any other way. I think we all ought to do it for what we can learn. We'll be better for it."
"I'll think about it. I have a number of projects I'm busy with right now. And instead I'm wasting my time coming all the way out here to the ass-end of nowhere to tell you that Father wants you to attend to your planet."
I looked at the accretion disk, poised at the moment of spinning up. "Now? Why now? He wants me to go to Plato in my personal now?"
"Does Father ever explain these things to you? He never does to me." He sounded bitter.
"It's a Mystery," I acknowledged.
"You haven't told anyone you have a planet. I must check it out."
"It's new," I said, reflexively defensive. "It's all Athene's fault, really. It's called Plato. It has people. And aliens. They're highly civilized. They worship us, well, most of them do. You have a lovely temple there with a statue by Praxiteles that Athene and Ficino rescued from the sack of Constantinople. Haven't you noticed people there praying to you? You'd be welcome to come and visit." I gestured in its general direction. "Drop in any time."
He ignored my jab as easily as he ignored prayers. "How did you get a whole planet?"
I sighed, seeing he wouldn't leave me alone until I explained. "Athene was setting up Plato's Republic, on Thera, before the Trojan War, before the Thera eruption. She had three hundred classicists and philosophers from across all of time, all people who had read Plato and prayed to her to help make the Republic real. She helped — that is, she used granting their prayers as a gateway. Really, she wanted to do it, so she did. As well as those people, the Masters, they bought ten thousand Greek-speaking slave children, and a set of big construction robots. The robots turned out to be sentient, only to start with nobody knew that. I incarnated there as one of the children. I learned a lot, from Sokrates and the others, and from the experience. I had friends, and children. When Father found out, he transported the whole lot of us to another planet four thousand years forward — and we were twelve cities by that time, all doing Plato's Republic in different and competing ways."
"And you're responsible for them?"
"Until my children are ready to be their pantheon, which shouldn't be long now. Why? Did you think Athene would end up getting stuck with it, after she tired of the project and moved on?"
He grinned. "It's hard to imagine. She always squeaks out of things. Well, you'd better get on and take care of them for her."
"For Father," I said. I was puzzled. I wondered why Father had sent this message. He must have known that I wouldn't neglect Plato. I didn't understand why there was any urgency about it. But I'd do it, of course. Nobody understood how Father knew anything, or how he prioritizes. Nor, for that matter, did we have any idea how he experiences time. He was there before it, after all. Mortals find it difficult to understand how we understand time, living outside it, but that's simple, compared to how it is for Father.
We're bound by our own actions, and, naturally, whether we're in or out of time, by Fate and Necessity. There's no getting around them. They make changing time extremely hard, and harder when we get away from our core concerns. And we're limited by Father's edicts, but only in so far as we respect them. They don't have the same inevitable force. If I got caught up with Fate or Necessity it wouldn't really be a matter of choice — resisting a force like that is almost impossible, even for me. But I could simply ignore Father's message if I wanted to. It was usually a terrible idea to ignore such things, because Father does know more than the rest of us and generally means well, and also because he could have made my life a misery if I went against him. There was this one time at Troy — but that's a different story. But it's not like being caught up with Necessity, which is a compulsion on the soul.
"What's this I hear about you playing my gift upside-down to beat somebody playing Athene's syrinx?" Hermes asked.
Hermes had invented the lyre when he was three days old, as a way to win my friendship after stealing some of my cows. He'd given it to me. He'd also promised never again to steal anything else of mine, a promise I didn't quite trust him to keep. He was much too fond of playing tricks.
"Yes, I played the lyre upside-down," I acknowledged. "Won the contest that way, too." The whole messy business seemed long ago and almost unimportant. I do enjoy being an Olympian and having a proper perspective.
"It sounds like something I'd do."
"Feel free to teach yourself to play it that way," I said, and grinned at him.
"Well, joy to you with all of it," wing-footed Hermes said, smiling as he departed.
So, with no foresight or warnings, and with one last longing look at the glowing disk (which would after all still be there and about to form into a sun whenever I wanted to come back into time at this moment to watch), I left too.
I was going to Plato, of course I was. I accepted Father's message that playtime was over, whether I liked it or not. But I wasn't quite ready. Another little while — another long subjective time — watching suns would have been exactly what I needed, but I wasn't going to disobey Father to that extent. I didn't want to mess up whatever mysterious plan he had, which presumably needed me to be still a little off balance. But I did have something to do first, something that would hardly take any personal time and couldn't possibly make any difference, and which would make a good transition. I had a date with Athene.
The date in question was 1564, the day in the spring of that year when the orange tree in the courtyard of the Medici Laurentian Library bloomed. Athene had arranged it herself, the last time I had seen her, on Olympos, at the time of the Relocation, when Zeus moved the Cities from Bronze Age Greece to Plato. It had been a peace offering, after everything that had happened. "When you get back," she had said. This would mark me being back. We could meet on neutral territory, in an extraordinary year, and after we'd talked I might feel better equipped for taking care of Plato. I wanted to see her. There were several things I wanted her to explain, and other things I wanted to explain to her. Parts of it I knew she'd never understand, but other parts of it she was the only person who ever could understand.
I hadn't talked to her in decades, and while decades might often pass without our talking, these years had been full of things I wanted to share with her. Her experiment in setting up Plato's Republic had had unexpected results, and had produced something genuinely new and of interest to both of us. The culture on Plato wasn't the ideal Republic Plato had described. As I'd said to Maia long ago, we all live on somebody's dunghill. But it was a completely different kind of human culture, one steeped in Platonism and philosophy and the dream of the classical world. And it was out there in the twenty-sixth century, vibrating with philosophical passion and full of people at least trying to lead the Good Life. I wanted to know what she thought about that, and share my thoughts. Creating Plato's Republic had been Athene's idea, after all, and lately I'd been wondering if there had been more to it than simply to see what happened and have somewhere to take Ikaros. Pico. I wanted to see him again too. I wanted to see his face when I told him what the Ikarians had made of his New Concordance since his apotheosis.
So I left that distant forming sun and stepped into time in Florence, in 1564, on the steps in front of the unfinished façade of the church of San Lorenzo. They were still waiting for Michelangelo to come and finish it, though he'd been dead for several months already. I remembered the inside of the church as a perfect Neoclassical space, but the outside now was rough and unfinished, jagged raw stone waiting for a facing it wouldn't get for another eight hundred years. The Florentines, having so much of it, weren't prepared to compromise on beauty. They'd wait for another Florentine artist of comparable skill to be born and finish it. An admirable perspective, if rare. I stepped inside for a moment to admire it — strangely, moving into the space always felt like going outside. The streets around San Lorenzo are narrow and crowded. Inside was full of light. The proportions were perfect, the pillars, the windows, the porphyry memorial set in the floor to celebrate the soul of Cosimo de Medici. I spared a fond thought for it, wherever it was, no doubt busily engaged in its new concerns. I felt perfectly at home in there. You'd hardly have known it was a Christian church.
I stepped back out of the church and walked around to the courtyard that led to the library. I didn't need to interact with anyone so I hadn't bothered to take a plausible disguise or find an excuse for visiting the library. I simply let the light flow around me and so became invisible. There were a few monks in the cloister. I sat down on the wall by the foot of the stairs that went up to Michelangelo's intimidating entranceway — one of the projects he had managed to finish. The sun was coming down into the courtyard, my own familiar golden sunlight. The scent of blossom from the tree was heady. Here too the pillars and proportions were perfectly right. But although the library was open, there was no sign of Athene. I sat there for a while enjoying the sunlight and the scent and thinking. It was quiet in the cloister, with distant muted street sounds, and close by only the humming of bees and the occasional swish of a monk's robe to disturb me. I didn't disturb them at all. If anything, I'd have looked like a brighter patch of sunlight.
After an hour of waiting, I stepped outside time, and checked the courtyard at other times throughout the day. When I still couldn't find Athene I tried the day before, in case, but the orange blossom wasn't quite out, and she wasn't there anyway.
I went up to the library — directly, stepping into that wonderful room from outside time, to avoid the effect of Michelangelo's deliberately daunting staircase. I looked around. I was accustomed now to the library in the City, with its controlled temperature, electric lights, and all the books of the ancient world rescued from the Library of Alexandria in multiple neatly printed copies. But this was more moving — the high windows giving light to work, the patterned tiles on the floor, the wooden benches with the books chained to them and scholars sitting reading and working. The books themselves were mostly hand-copied texts, preserved through time, saved from the ruins, written out painstakingly. They lost Homer for a time, but they got him back. Ficino had worked here. They had the oldest and most complete copy of the Aeneid. These books were here because people had cared about them, individually, cared enough to copy them and pass them forward across centuries and civilizations, hand stretching out to human hand through time, with no surety that any future hand would be waiting to receive the offering. All the texts from antiquity that had survived the time between were in this room. But Athene wasn't.
Excerpted from Necessity by Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2016 Jo Walton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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