Socrates said he knew nothing but, even so, he was the smartest guy in Athens. Apparently a lot of Athenians found that amusing—at least for a while. Eventually, though, he got on enough people’s nerves, and in ancient Athens that was enough to get a death sentence. (In the contemporary U.S., it just gets you a life sentence, unless you’re being held in Guantanamo, in which case nobody bothers with a trial.) Paul Levin’s novel, which resonates with the current political climate, is premised on the thought that some future time traveler might time-warp back to 399 B.C. (or whatever they called it back then) to try to persuade Socrates from drinking the hemlock.
Trouble is, Socrates doesn’t want to be saved. He is, however, intrigued by the idea of time travel. And, well, who isn’t? That’s the charm of Levinson’s novel: he bootstraps the time travel paradox into an airy castle of baroque proportions. (The time travel paradox, in case you need a quick refresher, is quickly summarized in the classic question: What would happen to you if you traveled back in time and killed your grandfather? But I’m sure you don’t need a refresher because you remember the episode of The Simpsons where Homer [hey, wasn’t he a Greek?] squashes a butterfly back in dinosaur days and turns his house into a cupcake decorated with Bart and Lisa candles.) Alas, that is also the trouble with the novel: Levinson is having so much fun watching his characters going boing-boing across the centuries that he forgets about the key word in his title: plot.
I’m not sure I really care. This book is fun. Heroine Sierra Waters is sexy as hell—what (straight) guy wouldn’t fall for a brainy grad student of the classics? She’s just the sort of character to curl up and conjugate a few Greek verbs with. And then there’s Levinson riffing on the history of philosophy—what’s not to love? When he doesn’t get it right (and who, really, is to say, since the sources for ancient Greek anything are postage-stamp-sized shreds of burnt papyrus) there’s a reason: Levinson is subversive. Of course he is: his major source for the trial of the Socrates is renegade leftist I.F. Stone who, after retiring from a long career as a journalist, taught himself Greek, read the source materials, and retried Socrates in a famous (and idiosyncratic, to put it politely) book called (how’s this for stunning titles) The Trial of Socrates. Socrates came up guilty once again - though not, this time around, for atheism and contributing to the moral delinquency of minors - but rather for pushing anti-democratic and downright totalitarian ideas. There’s a terrible irony at work in Levinson’s choice of inspiration: Socrates was tried and executed by a vote of his fellow (all-male, land-owning) citizens who had their doubts about democracy and then condemned again, 2,400 years later, by a jury of one who was a dragon-slayer of an anti-totalitarianist. It’s my bet that it is I.F. Stone who is the novel’s invisible nemesis, Andros.
We meet Andros only in fragments of a never-before-seen dialogue (perhaps or perhaps not by Socrates’ student Plato, the prime novelist of the ancient Socrates) which eerily mirrors various Platonic dialogues concerning the last hours of the old man (specifically, the Phaedo and the Crito). Andros tries to get Socrates to come to the future with him. Socrates objects on various grounds. Andros counters with the thought that no one will be the wiser, as Andros is prepared to leave a clone in his place. Let the clone drink hemlock and you, Socrates, come with me, I.F. Stone/Andros, to the future—where I’ll put you on trial for various thought crimes. Or maybe not: Levinson seems to get dizzy at the twirling shenanigans and admits “that the free soul [meets] its match in the labyrinth of time travel.” Especially when he sends in the clones…
President Karl Rove is busy rewriting history (like a recovering alcoholic, one day at a time), so why can’t Levinson? Let’s see… let’s make the arch-traitor Alcibiades a hero. It’s The Gospel of Judas reworked for the contemporary agora of ideas. Maybe Karl Rove is Andros; as one character says, “I believe that in order for discoveries and new principles of knowledge to be well implemented, they have to be first introduced to people long before.” Anyone got a spare Mesopotamian battery? At least Alcibiades plays a major role in the novel. As Sierra travels to various times and places she becomes various famous (and not at all famous) personages (all of them sexy as hell). For instance, the much-beloved Hypatia of Alexandria. This wise woman was murdered by a Christian mob (why does that not surprise me?) in 415 A.D. But the novel never gets to Alexandria and we never see Sierra as Hypatia—it’s like somebody sawed an arm off the body of the book. Just as well: I love Hypatia even more than Sierra, so to have the two of them become one would have been simply too much for this weak heart to bear.
So, okay, there’s a certain slop-factor to this novel that seems to make it “light reading” (as so many reviewers have said). I’m not so sure it is light, and I’m willing to concede that the slop-factor is really cunning on the part of the author. Maybe. There’s a bite to Levinson’s wit that makes me think he is wielding his pen as a sword. Socrates says, “I know better to waste my time with students, who are likely to wound your heart, in due time.” Amen, brother, and of course, Plato, in writing the fiction we know as the dialogues, wounded Socrates just as Levinson is wounding (or “revisioning”) the history of philosophy. Every reader (and thus, every writer) is engaged in a conversation with the past and every conversation, since it requires memory, is an act of time travel. Readers, then, are time travelers wounding their grandfathers. Same old story, new every time.
That’s the beauty of the time-travel riff (with clones!): you get to wound the past even if it’s still the future because it really is the same old story. In Levinson’s New York City of 1889, for instance, a character grumbles about “the bankruptcy of the electoral college,” while Sierra, from the New York of 2042, is a grad student “at the Old School” which, presumably, used to be the New School of Social Research. And that, in the end, as Socrates is buried “in a small, private ceremony… in the Bronx,” is what’s up with this “novel”: social research. So take it lightly if you want but read into it if you can.