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Friday, March 31, 2006

The Plot to Save Socrates

Just finished The Plot to Save Socrates, by Paul Levinson, an intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying science-fiction novel. In many ways it’s in the classic time-travel genre, with the usual issues about preventing paradox and taking future knowledge back to an earlier time, but with an added dose of philosophy. What makes it intriguing — at least to me — is its premise, which is clearly indicated by the title of the book. Classical scholars from the 21st century (and elsewhen) return to ancient Greece; succeed in conversing with Socrates, Alcibiades, Heron, and so forth; and, unlike Crito, persuade Socrates to escape before drinking the hemlock. There’s a subplot involving clones that more-or-less makes all this plausible without violating the time-honored traditional that time travelers should never change history.

But the characterization is paper-thin, there are too many unanswered (and even unasked) questions, and too many actions are unmotivated by either psychology or physics. Nevertheless, I suppose I can live with T.M. Wagner’s review on sfreviews.net, which concludes with this paragraph:
For any other book, such shortcomings would likely lead to a harsher final analysis and lower rating than I’m settling on here. But I was sufficiently dazzled by the wealth of imagination and willingness to defy convention that Levinson displays that I just have to recommend the book to any and every SF reader looking for something truly original for a change. And if, like a good Socratic dialogue, it gets people arguing into the wee hours of the morning, so much the better.
Wagner is a bit more generous than I’m feeling, but it’s a legitimate point.

With my own interests in both mathematics and ancient Greek, I was fascinated by the extraordinary portrayal of Heron of Alexandria (often but erroneously called Hero — see the last paragraph of this post) and by the apparent ease with which modern scholars could communicate with ancient Greeks. I was fascinated, but I was also unconvinced. To math teachers, Heron is best known as the first person to discover, prove, and publish the formula for the area of a triangle given three sides. Many inventions are attributed to him, so why not time travel? Well, perhaps Levinson could have done more to make me willingly suspend my disbelief, but he did not provide the necessary scaffolding in this novel.

As for communication across the millennia, there are two major hurdles. One is just spoken fluency: I doubt that there are very many classicists who have conversed enough in ancient Greek to have developed the necessary conversational skills that speakers of modern languages can develop. The other is pronunciation: we don’t really know how ancient Greek was pronounced. Levinson jumps this hurdle by having his modern characters present themselves as speakers of non-Athenian dialects, and perhaps that would work. But I doubt it.
  • Finally, an aside on the name of Heron/Hero. Ever since the predominance of Latin in medieval and Renaissance Europe, it has been a tradition to latinize all Greek names. Occasionally we anglicize them (for example, changing Eukleides to Euclid, or Homeros to Homer), but they are more often latinized (Platon to Plato, Herakles to Hercules, Aiskhylos to Aeschylus). So I’ll have to admit that I’m being pedantic when I want to insist on the Greek form Heron rather than its latinization, Hero.

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