Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Plotz to Save Socrates

So, we had our second Havdallah Talk at Adas Emuno last night--I wrote about the first Havdallah Talk in a previous post, Sports Spiel, and also explained the series there, so I won't repeat myself here, except to say that beginning the event with a brief Havdallah ceremony led by our sweet-singing Cantor Kerith Shapiro starts things off on just the right note.

Now, if you clicked on Sports Spiel, or otherwise jump around through these blog posts, what you're doing is a bit like traveling back and forth through time, and time travel was central to Havdallah Talk II, which featured my friend and colleague, Paul Levinson (who also really pushed me into starting this blog in the first place, so he is doubly responsible for this post).

Here's the blurb that went out publicizing the event:

Award-winning science fiction author and Past President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
Paul Levinson
will speak on
“A Talmudic Look at Ancient History & Science Fiction”

Dr. Levinson will also sign copies of the new paperback edition of his latest novel, The Plot to Save Socrates.

Paul Levinson’s science fiction novel, The Silk Code, won the 2000 Locus Award for Best First Novel. His science fiction and mystery short stories have been nominated for numerous awards and his nonfiction books have been featured in articles in major publications. Among his many appearances on national network TV and radio, Mr. Levinson has been a guest on “The O’Reilly Factor” (Fox News), “The CBS Evening News”, “Scarborough Country (MSNBC), the Newshour with Jim Lehrer (PBS) and “Nightline” (ABC). Currently, he is Professor and Chair of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.
Paul's talk generated an incredibly wide-ranging discussion that dealt with science fiction in general, historical research, fiction writing, the Talmud, the life and times of Socrates, scribal culture, politics, religion, moral reasoning, time travel, and much more--a veritable galaxy of gab. It was a very lively discussion, which is not surprising when Paul is involved (and it was also very nice to have Paul's wife, Tina, join us), and all told it was a very successful event.

The focus of the talk was Paul's most recent novel, The Plot to Save Socrates, which was just recently released in paperback, and which, as you may have gathered is a time travel tale. And like much of Paul's science fiction, it's also a mystery story. This novel is particularly complex (but by no means hard to read), as the story jumps around among a number of different time periods, and characters you read about at the beginning of the novel may be older than the ones you encounter at a later point (and in a different historical era).

Saving Socrates from the death sentence imposed upon him by the people of Athens for corrupting the youth of the city (in other words, educating them) is the MacGuffin of the story--MacGuffin is the term that Alfred Hitchcock used for a plot element that motivates the characters to do what they do, and often is more or less a pretext for advancing the action--not that the question of whether Socrates should be prevented from drinking hemlock is entirely irrelevant, and in fact Paul was motivated to some extent by I. F. Stone's excellent book, The Trial of Socrates (which is nonfiction, not science fiction, of course).

But what is especially interesting about Paul's novel is not the plot that the characters are plotting, but the plot about the plot, the plot of the narrative. In a previous post, All Blogged Up!, I brought up the point, made by media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, that the shift from orality to literacy made possible more linear types of narratives. Oral compositions tend to be episodic, with many plot elements appearing in no necessary order, and told in differing order during different performances. The episodic form persisted even after writing was invented, but writing introduced the possibility of a linear narrative that could proceed from beginning to middle to end, as can be seen, for example, in the Attic playwrights, and as discussed for the first time by Aristotle.

Printing intensified this bias towards linearity, and the eventual result was the novel. And, in the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe invented the mystery story. What's significant about Poe's invention is that you have one narrative, the story, which is about a second narrative, the sequence of events that tells you whodunnit, who committed the crime, when and with what sequence of events, where, with what tools or methods, and for what purpose. So, the mystery story is a plot about a plot, a narrative that involves piecing together another narrative, as bits and pieces of that second narrative are discovered, typically out of sequence until the final denouement--the plot of the detective story reaches its climax with the final revelation of the full linear plot of the crime or mystery.

So, a story like Paul's takes this one step further. You have the plot of the novel itself, and you have the plot that is being pieced together, the "crime" if the words fits in this instance. But by adding the element of time travel, and especially by having different time travelers visiting different time periods at different points in the story, you have a third plot to piece together, the time travel plot, which is also revealed in bit and pieces. Maybe Paul should have called it The Plot of the Plot of the Plot to Save Socrates? Maybe just The Plots to Save Socrates? But all of these plots is enough to make me burst, hence The Plotz to Save Socrates!--"Plotz: To burst, to explode, I can't laugh anymore or I'll plotz! To be aggravated beyond bearing." (Definition courtesy of the Yiddish Phrases website)--but I don't mean plotz here in the aggravating sense, of course.

If Poe's mystery stories could only be written in the era of the printing press, could Paul's meta-plotz be a product of the digital age, of the time of the blogs? I think so. But then again, Paul has been an advocate of the computer as a medium of communication since the 1980s, or maybe it was the 1970s? Could he himself be a time traveler?

Paul has repeatedly acknowledged that the late Isaac Asimov is one of his major influences, Asimov being a Jewish-American writer of science fiction, and nonfiction, and the author who has published more books than anyone else in the history of the United States. Paul's fiction is reminiscent of Asimov's storytelling, and I would recommend The Plot to Save Socrates and his other novels as real good reads, a good time I guarantee.


Paul Levinson said...

Tina and I had a wonderful time, too, Lance - thanks for making this possible (one your special gifts is making the enjoyable happen)...

I really like The Plotz to Save Socrates ... it put my book in the same category as Asimov's Oi Robot...

Anonymous said...

Ouch! That hurts! I'm officially coveting anyone's presence at that lecture except my own! (Gawd forgive me!)Oi/Oy! The Talmud, Ancient History and Sci Fi? No way/no fair/must find book. Thanks for the tip!