The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson

Reviewed by Colin Harvey

The Plot to Save Socrates cover

Paul Levinson is probably best known in the SF field for his stories and novels featuring detective Phil D'Amato and for his Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella Loose Ends, about a 21st-century time traveler stranded in 1963. The latter work might be considered a thematic dry run for his new novel, The Plot to Save Socrates.

Sierra Waters is a classics graduate student given a fragment of a lost manuscript supposedly dating from 400 BCE, in which Socrates is offered the chance to flee his own death through time travel while a clone is substituted in his place.

Not surprisingly, Sierra is unwilling to believe this, but before she can question her lecturer (who gave her the piece of manuscript), she finds a second fragment, and the lecturer almost immediately disappears. When she sees a photograph of his doppelgänger from 1889, she becomes convinced that he is a time traveler.

The second chapter opens in Alexandria in AD 150, with a mysterious woman called Ampharete visiting the inventor Heron, and their narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. The next morning Heron has vanished. Ampharete and Heron’s servant Jonah set out for Athens, where she believes a time machine awaits her, only to be blown off course by a storm (Levinson is good at reminding the reader of how vulnerable the ancient world was to nature—a wind blowing the wrong way completely wrecks their plans). Ampharete tells Jonah that the machine will only be there for a short time, and when the vessel sails to Rome instead, they elect to travel onward to Britain, where there is a second machine.

From Rome, the story moves to 19th-century New York, where Sienna’s lecturer meets with a publisher in the hope of publishing the manuscript and introduces him to a young Greek student called Jonah. It’s clear from the start that Ampharete and Sienna are one and the same person.

Both the story and the eponymous plot weave backwards and forwards through space and time: between New York, London, and Athens, from the ancient world, through the nineteenth century to 2042. The pace during the first half is leisurely, but halfway through the story, an unexpected attack sees a major character killed without warning, and the pace of the tale quickens considerably.

There’s a delightfully old-fashioned feel to The Plot to Save Socrates, especially compared to other recent books about time travel, such as the relentlessly pumping kick-ass pace of Neal Asher’s Cowl and the mind-bogglingly complex society of Jon Courtney Grimwood’s Stamping Butterflies (I liked both, but there were times when I had to keep doubling back to avoid losing the plot).

Part of the trend, I suspect, is a (possibly) subconscious desire to further distance the genre from mainstream dilettantes such as P. D. James (The Children of Men) and Joanne Harris (Sleep, Pale Sister), and part is a natural tendency to extend the style and content of hard-SF novels. But there is a danger of this trend being taken to absurdity.

At a time when an editor at Tor gave an interview lamenting the trend in speculative fiction towards either mimetic SF such as Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife or the almost-baroque extreme hard SF—“extrapolated people in extrapolated settings doing extrapolated things”—of authors (such as Charles Stross, Robert Reed, and Walter Jon Williams) who currently dominate the publishing lists, Year’s Best SF contents, and award ballots,[1] it’s interesting to read a writer of old-fashioned SF whose aversion to flamboyance seems to verge on the near pathological.

Levinson’s cool, spare style reminded me of the writing of Isaac Asimov, with whom he shares the same overwhelmingly rationalist approach, an aversion to sturm und drang and a reluctance to clutter his pages with hyperbole or excess. I suspect that the novel’s style also owes a lot to David Hartwell’s ruthless editing.

Not that The Plot to Save Socrates is entirely flawless. At times in the first half, the novel was almost too bloodless, only really pulling me in in its second half. At times there’s a little too much info dumping in the interests of brevity, and the characters without exception seem to accept the idea of time travel a little too readily. Many of the spear-carriers are recruited Romans and Greeks. I know that they lived in comparatively sophisticated times, but nonetheless, there appeared to be a little too little fear of actual traveling in time.

But ideas are what drive Levinson’s stories, and his refusal to clutter them with more than passing mentions of human frailties and his concentrating the story on a comparatively limited cast and compact stage allow the reader more scope to think about those ideas.

The Plot to Save Socrates is a book that will bear repeated rereading.


Footnotes

[1] I’ve no aversion to any of the writers listed above; it could be argued that depicting characters who are not (or no longer) human in completely alien settings and who are doing things all but incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the deliberately exclusive language of hard SF is escapism in its purest form. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the sheer glut of it and mimetic SF threatens to squeeze writers inhabiting the middle stylistic ground out of existence, in the same way that best sellers, franchises, and series almost choked the single mid-list novel to death. Maybe this represents the mid-list fighting back!


Colin Harvey's latest novel, Lightning Days, is due out any day now (honest!) from Swimming Kangaroo Books, and features a stunning cover by fellow Strange Horizons contributor Duncan Long. His first novel, Vengeance, was published in 2005.