I never believed that Socrates drank the hemlock - after having been given a chance to escape.
I first began wondering about this when I was 16, in an Intro to Philosophy class at the City College of New York. Socrates was sentenced to death because the Athenian democracy didn’t care for his opinions. According to his student Plato, Socrates receives a visit from his old friend Crito the night before the death-by-hemlock sentence is to be carried out. Crito says the jailor will look the other way, and there’s a boat waiting for you in the harbor. And Socrates says, oh no, I criticize the state, but I would never put myself above it. I’ll stay and drink the hemlock.
Are you kidding me? I know that if I were ever sentenced to death for my political opinions, I’d be on that boat out of Athens in a New York minute.
The Plot to Save Socrates tells what I think really happened back then. It took me years to write – I didn’t put the first words on the screen until 2003 – but I always knew I’d write something about this crucial moment in history. I decided to embed those thoughts in my favorite genre of writing and reading – time travel.
Now, I don’t think time travel is really possible in reality – too many paradoxes such as, if you travel to the past, and get in the way of your grandparents meeting, how did you come to exist so as to be able to travel to the past in the first place? But that’s what makes time travel so much fun.
And it’s even more fun, I think, when you tell the tale of real people in your time travel story. Not only Socrates, but his beloved student Alcibiades – who in real history died naked with a sword in hand and a concubine at his side – play major roles in The Plot to Save Socrates. So does William Henry Appleton, a real publisher in Victorian 19th century New York City.
Fictional characters also abound in the novel. My favorite is Sierra Waters, a graduate student in her 20s in 2042 who comes upon a previously unknown dialogue of Socrates in which someone from the future pays the philosopher a little visit right after Crito leaves. This puts Sierra on a path to the past where she not only tries to save Socrates but falls in love with Alcibiades and works beside him to rescue the philosopher.
Sierra was my first female lead character in a novel (I have four other novels). I think it’s naturally easier to write lead characters in one’s own gender, so I took special care with Sierra. My wife and daughter, at least, tell me I got it mostly right.
The Plot to Save Socrates was published by Tor Books in 2006 to critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly said it was “challenging fun,” the New York Daily News called it “a Da Vinci-esque thriller,” and SF Signal said the novel is "a thinking person's time travel story... I felt like I was there." Curled Up with a Good Book said The Plot to Save Socrates "resonates with the current political climate . . . . heroine Sierra Waters is sexy . . . . there's a bite to Levinson's wit".
The novel sold well in its first few years. But the current climate in traditional publishing being what it is, sales eventually slowed, and I was pleased to get all the rights back to the novel in 2011. I decided that, rather than looking for another traditional publisher, the best thing I could do for Socrates and Sierra was make their story available as an ebook. JoSara MeDia, an indie publisher in Texas, published the ebook last month. I not only restored some of the original wording which I had let the copy editor change, but an entire chapter that my editor at Tor thought I should save for the sequel. This ebook is an “author’s cut” in more ways than one.
I’m writing the sequel right now. It will be called Unburning Alexandria and will be published as an ebook in 2013. But, first, there’s The Plot to Save Socrates …
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