The Plot to Save Socrates


Paul Levinson


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

July 8, 2006

Paul Levinson is an author that just doesn't connect with me. I tried to read his well regarded The Silk Code, and was bored almost immediately. But the concept for The Plot to Save Socrates sounded so cool, that I thought I would give him another try. Time travel done well? Cool.

The story begins intriguingly enough: the heroine, Sierra Waters, is presented with a recently discovered document written by Plato - it appears to be genuine, but the subject matter is decidely 21st century. (Sierra is a grad student in 2042 studying the classics). The text is a conversation between Socrates and "Andros". Andros promises Socrates that he can be saved from drinking the hemlock poison, instead a cloned, non-living replica grown from Socrates cells will be substituted instead. History won't be altered, because everyone will believe that Socrates has indeed perished, but the philospher can instead be transported into the safety of the future. (Andros doesn't use words like cloning and time travel, but the reader, and Sierra certainly understand what he/she is talking about - the sex of Andros is not clear from the text. Could it be that Sierra herself is actually Andros?)

And so begins a time travel story, full of paradoxs and changing identities. Time travel is achieved rather easily, you sit in a chair, dial up a date, push the button and off you go. (The chair sounds a lot like the H.G. Wells time machine, I think this is a deliberate tribute.) Sierra finds herself involved in the plot - how can Socrates be saved? Because it turns out Socrates rejects the offer from Andros - he doesn't want to be saved. His goal is to perish, so that history will see the awful crime the fledgling democracy in Athens has committed by sentencing him to death. Societies living after Socrates will be so aghast by the obvious flaws in democracy that they will avoid it as a system of government - clearly Socrates is no fan of democracy and is willing to die to discredit it!

As Sierra moves back and forth through time, she meets allies and enemies. Heron is the inventor of the time machine chairs. Heron is an ancient Greek inventor, or maybe he is from the far future and only pretends to be in a classical Greek. It is Heron who institigates the plot to save Socrates - or is it? This is a big flaw in the novel - everyone wants to save Socrates, so why isn't everyone working together? How does everything get so screwed up - why are they trying to kill each other? While I like the breezy nature of the time travel - sit in the chair - punch the button and you are there - I don't like how cavalierly the characters approach the adventure - they seem so ill prepared before going, just trusting that there will be authentic dress and supplies for them when they arrive. Though the chairs move back and forth in time, they don't allow you to travel in space, so if you leave London in the 21st century, you are going to end up in London in the 4th century BC, and not in (for example) Athens. It seems to me that travelling between points on the globe at any time before the 20th century would be quite a challenge, especially during ancient era, but this is doesn't seem to be much of an impediment to the time travellers.

Another big problem - WHY save Socrates? Why not, for example, save Jesus or Joan of Arc, or a host of other historical figures? There doesn't seem to be any defined reason for transporting Socrates to the 21st century. The story ends up in a muddle. Characters move around in time, and meet earlier or older incarnations of other characters - and then they give each other clues about what each other is supposed to do - but there doesn't seem to be a guiding plan behind all this flitting about. I am sure Levinson had a schematic drawn up somewhere, about each character's travels through time, and when they meet, but missing from Levinson's plotting is a purpose for all this adventuring. In the end, I was disappointed. I like the casual approach to time travel, but I don't like the casual approach to consequences. (I also didn't like the casual approach to the violence - assassins show up, a quick fight ensues and then people die, and then the characters just keep right about their business. I would think 21st century people would have a lot more respect for life, or at least some thoughts for their own safety.) The book is a quick read. It isn't a bad book. But the plot fails, in my opinion. My recommendation is to skip this - read The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers if you want to be wowed by a time travel story.