BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Graduate student Sierra Waters travels back in time to learn the true identity of Heron of Alexandria and to save the philosopher Socrates from his tragic appointment with a cup of hemlock.
PROS: Wonderfully intricate plotting; historically accurate and, thus, unexpectedly educational.
CONS: Light on characterization; characters had little regard for safety or implications time travel.
BOTTOM LINE: A thinking person’s time travel story.
Back when I was young and stupid, I had somehow developed an inexplicable craving to learn about philosophy. That was years ago. Nothing has changed except that now I’m old and stupid. I’ve made little attempt to learn about philosophy save for picking up a used copy of Philosophy for Dummies. And who has time to read that when there are tons of science fiction books to read? Paul Levinson’s book, The Plot to Save Socrates, served a dual purpose, then. It was a way to dip my feet into philosophical waters and it was a time travel novel, one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction if it’s done right.
Levinson does get it right. The Plot to Save Socrates reflects some careful and clever plotting on the part of the author. The time traveling is integral to the story. The book’s plot has time travelers hopping back and forth through time, crisscrossing each others’ paths and weaving a Gordian knot of storyline continuity that echoes Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies”.
Levinson overlays an interesting premise amidst the complex, non-linear plot. Sierra Waters is a graduate student in the year 2042 working on her dissertation when her professor and mentor, Thomas O’Leary, shows her a recently-discovered Socratic Dialogue. In it, an imprisoned Socrates, shortly before he is to drink poisonous hemlock, has a discussion with a man named Andros. Andros offers to save Socrates from his painful fate by whisking him away to the future while leaving a clone double behind in his place. The ancient document is nothing more than an interesting historic artifact until O’Leary disappears and, tracking him down, Sierra discovers that a time travel device actually does exists. What follows is a series of time hopping excursions involving Sierra, O’Leary and a host of historic figures (among others: master inventor of his time Heron of Alexandria, Socrates’ student Alcibiades, Victorian publisher William Henry Appleton and, yes, even Socrates himself) with the goal of saving Socrates from his well-known fate.
As could be expected in a time travel novel that mixes in a little philosophy, the theme of destiny is prominent. And Levinson’s use of historical figures demands historical accuracy, which he delivers in such a way to make it unexpectedly educational. Unlike past school lessons, I felt like I was there.
But The Plot to Save Socrates largely concerns itself with a mystery to be solved. That mystery centers on the true identity of “Andros”. History records no such character and the only reference is an island near ancient Greece. Heron, however, was a real person, even tough the data surrounding him is ambiguous. Levinson uses that ambiguity to make Heron a central figure in the book that is integral to the plot. In the book, Heron is really a time traveler from the far-future – further than Sierra’s year of 2042 – who has assumed the role of the famous historical inventor. That’s also about all the reader will get into the explanation of the science behind time travel. That’s not the appeal of the book anyway; it’s the hop-skip-jump nature of the plot.
But the narrative’s concentration on plot is not without a cost to characterization. This is not the worst offense you can make in a time travel story. Careful thought must be given to ensure paradoxes do not arise and all other implications are properly resolved, especially when cause and effect (and their seemingly arbitrary ordering) are the tools of the storytelling. Levinson does an excellent job in that regard and I wish I had a time-map of the leap-frogging made by the time travelers just to visualize its carefully crafted structure. The characterizations, however, could have used a little more attention. For example, it was not very clear what Heron’s motivation was in these machinations. Was he a good guy or a bad guy? Why was he seemingly at odds with Sierra and others when they all had the same apparent goal of saving Socrates? Additionally, characters are quick to pick up the paradoxical nature of time travel and even more eager to dive in head first, with little regard for safety or implications. Furthermore, the relationship between Sierra and Alcibiades somehow seemed unjustified, though it was ultimately necessary to the well-tended plot, as we learn by the end of the story.
While The Plot to Save Socrates is not a hardcore introduction to philosophy, it did whet my appetite as I had hoped. In the bargain, I got a good time travel story.