The Just City by Jo Walton

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Reviewed by Stefanie Hollmichel

Aside from The Death of Socrates and a few other pieces forced on me in school, I can’t say I have ever been interested in reading Plato. That Jo Walton’s novel The Just City made me download The Republic to my Kobo is unprecedented. I haven’t actually begun reading it yet, but hey, one step at a time.

Why this response to Walton’s book? The Just City is Walton’s take on what might happen if Plato’s Republic went from thought experiment to reality. Plato’s book discusses the meaning of justice, the soul, the place of poetry in society, and a number of other topics. Different cities are compared concluding that the ideal city is one ruled by philosopher-kings.

The gods, being outside of time, can do crazy things and Athena decides to answer the prayers of three hundred people throughout time who have prayed to her asking to live in Plato’s Just City.  The founding “Masters” are a nearly equal in number group of adult men and women. Recognizing that philosopher-kings cannot be created if everyone has to tend to growing and cooking food, cleaning and maintenance, Athena brings in robot workers to perform these chores so the Masters can carry out the task of teaching ten thousand ten and eleven-year-old children to strive for excellence and be their best selves.

The Masters spend five years setting up the city before bringing in the children. Unlike the adults who were brought from different times, the children are all acquired during the real time of the city’s existence. And when is that? Remember the myth of Atlantis? This is it, pre-volcanic eruption. The children are bought from the slave markets and inadvertently the sudden demand for slave children around the age of ten creates a supply problem.  To fill the demand, Slavers raid farm villages, kill the adults and take the children. One of these children is Matthias who becomes Kebes in the Just City. He was happy with his life and seeing his entire family murdered does not make him desire the success of the city.

But even before the children arrive, the adults struggle with decisions. Plato never intended the Just City to exist. There are large gaps regarding relations between the sexes, reproduction, how to teach the children, what to teach them and when, how to sort them out because, let’s be realistic, not all of them will be suited to become philosopher-kings. The Masters are not allowed to reproduce and they carry with them the ideas and prejudices of their own times. Even though women are supposed to be on equal footing, older men like Cicero refuse to acknowledge their worth. And then there is Ikaros, handsome womanizer, who commits rape at least once and suffers no direct consequences for his actions.

Among the children of the city is Pytheas, a beautiful, smart, talented boy. Pytheas is the god Apollo in human form. No one but Athena knows who he is. Apollo chooses to temporarily give up his god-powers and take part in his sister’s experiment in order to learn more about humans and the idea of agency and consent. He decides to do this because he cannot understand why Daphne would rather become a tree than have sex with him. He has a lot of learning to do and Simmea, a smart, gifted girl, becomes his friend and takes on the challenge of helping him be his best self.

There is great pleasure in reading this book and you don’t even have to know much about The Republic to enjoy it. Walton is very good about bringing us along and making sure we understand the implications. And the implications are everywhere beginning with the fact that Plato himself is not invited to be part of the city. The seeds for future problems are planted from the start and it doesn’t take much for them to sprout. At first they are tiny and can be overlooked, but as the children learn and think and question, the Masters suddenly find their hands full. Then Sokrates arrives.

After about five years, he is brought to the city against his will to teach the children rhetoric.  Unhappy, he makes the best of it and does what Sokrates is famous for doing: asks questions. He doesn’t spend much time talking to the Masters, it’s the children he talks to. And the robots. The Masters are conflicted. They revere Sokrates but his questions actively work to undermine the entire experiment of the Just City. To stop him from asking questions would prove the experiment a failure but to allow him to continue could equally invite failure.

Sokrates is one of the most delightful characters. He is child-like in his curiosity and quest for answers with a sharp wit and wicked humor, a mind that is never quite satisfied, a mild manner, calm reason, and a deep compassion. He is everything we would want him to be but probably nothing like the real Socrates. Nonetheless, I giggled with pleasure when he says,

“You can’t trust everything that ass Plato wrote.”

The story is told in alternating chapters of narration from the perspective of Apollo/Pytheas, Simmea who is one of the children, and Maia who is one of the Masters. Each of the three characters has different experiences of the Just City and each has varying levels of access to what is going on so the three narratives together provide a rounded story from which the reader can draw her own conclusions about what it means to be just and strive to be one’s best self.

This is the first book in a planned trilogy called “Thessaly.” The second book is titled The Philosopher Kings, and the third, not yet completed book, will be titled Necessity. I am looking forward to reading them all. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading a Jo Walton book, The Just City is a fine place to start.

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Stefanie Hollmichel blogs at So Many Books and will leave the Just City to the philosophers. Minneapolis might be cold, but it suits her fine thank you very much.

Jo Walton, The Just City (Little, Brown, 2015) 978-1472150769, 368pp., paperback.

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