The Good Place (2016-Present)

TV Series – What happens after death?  Do you turn to dust, enter the spirit world, or join the realms of Heaven or Hell?  The Good Place puts a unique spin on the ol’ “What happens to us when we die,” question.

So you’re dead.  What now?  Enter the almighty architect and faithful guide to your afterlife, Michael. He’s here to help your transition from life on earth to death in the Good Place.  You’ve made it into Heaven!  Good for you!  For Eleanor Shellstrop, this reality is hard to believe.  She was pretty much the worst kind of person on Earth–self-centered, greedy, and has never done a nice thing for anyone in her life.  She’s pretty sure there’s been some mistake and any second she’ll be dragged down to the Bad Place.  She’s terrified Michael will realize his error.  In the Good Place, you are paired with your soulmate, and that’s how Eleanor meets Chidi, philosophy and moral professor.  They couldn’t be more different, but Chidi agrees to help Eleanor learn to be “good.”  With fellow couple, Tahani and silent monk Jianyu, the four delve into what it means to be good.

One of my favorite aspects of the show is that residents of the Good Place are rendered incapable of using curse words.  Eleanor has quite the risque vocabulary, which is censored and ends up saying “fork” often.  Janet is by far my favorite character.  Like a humanized robot version of Siri or Alexa, Janet is a personal assistant to each resident of the Good Place.  Simply say “Janet,” and she appears!  I love the show’s premise and incredible cast.  It’s hilarious, full of drama, and leaves us feeling good.  Check out Season 1 and 2 of The Good Place today!

The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza

atheniBook – In ancient Athens, one of the pupils of Plato’s Academy is found dead. His teacher Diagoras is convinced the pupil’s death is not as accidental as it appears, and asks the famous Heracles Pontor, the “Decipherer of Enigmas,” to investigate. As the death toll rises, the two men find themselves drawn into the dangerous underworld of the Athenian aristocracy, risking their own lives to solve the riddle of these young men’s deaths.

The Athenian Murders is more a game than a novel. It’s a novel, too – if it weren’t it would be intolerably tedious, like the Greek fiction it’s pretending to be – but the point of it is the game, not the fiction. While Heracles Pontor and his employer are getting into trouble with the Academy and the families of the murdered youths and eventually a rather ominous cult, the really interesting stuff is happening in the footnotes. You see, the novel we are reading is being translated by an unnamed Translator from a transcription by an earlier scholar. And the Translator is sure that this is an eidetic text, in which the original author has hidden images that combine to form a second, hidden meaning. His colleagues tell him he’s going crazy with this obsession, and he starts to believe them – until he’s kidnapped and forced to finish translating both the manuscript and the eidesis.

To tell any more would be to give away the twist, and to do that would be to spoil the whole book. Just know that the mystery, while serviceable, is not really the point here. If you’re as intrigued by the sound of eidesis and mysterious translators as I was, though, give it a try – this is a book that rewards intellectual curiosity.

The Just City by Jo Walton

just cityBook – What do Sokrates, the god Apollo, a nineteenth-century spinster, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a ninth-century Libyan slave, Giovanni Mirandola, and an array of twenty-first century robots have in common? They’re all inhabitants of The Just City, Plato’s thought experiment made manifest. Oh, and less than half of them are there of their own free will.

After being spurned by Daphne, Apollo decides to spend some time as a human in an attempt to understand “volition and equal significance,” and his sister Athene suggests that the best place to do so would be in her city. She’s creating Plato’s Republic and filling it with people who prayed to her and wished to live there. Like any utopia, the problems start piling up quickly. Plato thought you could build a civilization starting with ten-year-old children, so they buy more than ten thousand of them out of slavery, even though some of the Masters of the City worry that buying from slavers will make their city unjust before it even begins. Their hard labor is done by robots brought by Athene out of the future, but when Sokrates strikes up a conversation with one it begins to look as though the City has been relying on slavery after all. And of course everyone comes with the flaws of their own histories as well, because Plato was wrong, and a ten-year-old child is not a blank slate.

Fair warning: this book is in large part about consent, and there are several scenes depicting consent and its absence in sexual contexts. But it’s a careful, detailed exploration, tying together many different ideas about free will, virtue, and good intentions. Anyone who’s ever wished for a life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence should find this book fascinating.