Title: The Just City
Series: Thessaly #1
Author: Jo Walton
Published: 13 January 2015
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, mythology, fantasy
Across the ages, a few hundred people pray to the goddess Athene to live in Plato’s republic, the Just City. In response, Athene conducts an experiment. She brings together all those who prayed to her, to design and build the Just City, of which they will be the Masters. She sets it on the island of Kallisti, also known as Atlantis, so that the city will be destroyed. No trace of it will be left to screw with history, but it could “leave legends that can bear fruit in later ages”. Using her time-travelling abilities, she helps the Masters collect all the literature they need, and rescue original works of art for the education of the citizens. To populate the City, they buy 10080 ten-year-old child slaves to train and educate to be their best selves, thus producing a just city ruled by philosopher kings.
Among the children is Athene’s brother, the god Apollo, in the form of a ten-year-old boy. Apollo couldn’t understand why the nymph Daphne would rather be turned into a tree than have sex with him and decided to live as a human to understand this strange idea that other people have their own desires that are just as important as his own.
Apollo – living as the boy Pytheas – learns a lot from his friendship with Simmea, a Libyan girl who loves the City and always strives not only to be her best self, but to understand what that means. Apollo and Simmea frequently clash with Kebes, a child who hates the City because no one ever gave him a choice about living there.
Kebes is in the minority because for most, the City is a utopia or at least a far better home than the times and places they came from. Maia, for example, used to be Ethel from Victorian England, where she was warned that her passion for reading and studying would cause her to be labelled a “bluestocking” whom no man would want to marry. In the Just City, however, she can do fulfilling work by learning and teaching what she loves most. Most women feel similarly liberated.
But it’s definitely not a utopia, as many realise from the very beginning. It suffers from the flaws and absurdities in Plato’s work, as well as the circumstances of its creation and simple human imperfection. Then, when Socrates is brought to the City against his will, he starts questioning everything about it in his classic style.
I’ll admit that I’ve never read a word of The Republic. Presumably those familiar with Plato will get a lot more out of The Just City, but I loved it anyway, and I think anyone who likes philosophy would enjoy it too. Much of the book is made up of philosophical debate, whether internal or between characters, as they reflect on the creation of the City, its ability to fulfil its ideals, and their own places in it. The City itself is a magnificent setting for a novel, with its beautiful architecture, fine art, delicious food and wine, expansive libraries… Basically, I want to live there, except perhaps for the bit about the naked wrestling and weird breeding practices (more about that later).
However, the most interesting thing about the novel is not the way the City lives up to Plato’s ideals but in the many ways it fails to be just or good, because these tend to be the most though-provoking aspects. Firstly, the way it was created leads to fundamental problems. The Masters are all people who prayed to Athena to live in Plato’s republic. The circumstances of history mean that most of the people who would have the education and inclination to do such a thing are men from the ancient world, most of whom are old and come from very conservative times. Thus the Masters suffer from a distinct gender imbalance and lack of diversity, so the City is heavily influenced by people who are used to being in power, have no respect for women, and think it’s perfectly fine to keep slaves. Even though Plato argued that women can be philosophers too, they end up having less say in the way the City is run, and their personal lives are affected by it. For example, it’s decided that the Masters should not have any children, but the responsibility for preventing contraception seems to be the women’s alone. When the issue of rape arises, the City suddenly seems a very backward place, not a philosophical utopia.
One of the biggest problems is the text that led to the whole experiment. All the Masters admire The Republic, of course, but many of its principles are what we would consider fascist. The children are not allowed to acknowledge the truth of where they came from; they have to repeat the Noble Lie of having been born from the earth in the City. All texts and artworks are carefully chosen to suit Platonic ideals. The children are forbidden from reading The Republic because it would reveal the extent to which the Masters (and the future philosopher kings) have to lie to and manipulate them. Slavery is forbidden, but only insofar as it is considered immoral for one person to own another; the work reserved for slaves still needs to be done. Athena provides robots from the future to do this, but this is only meant to be a temporary solution until the children have grown up and a worker class of inferior minds is identified. In fact, the Masters are expected to categorise all the children according to a hierarchical system, with the best philosophers at the top.
It gets worse. When the children get older and the girls reach childbearing age, the Masters start the breeding programmes that Plato described, and it becomes abundantly clear that “what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring”. Ditto for what he knew about what it’s like being a woman (i.e. a female human being and not, say, a baby-making machine).
So far I might have made this seem like a very cold, analytical novel, but it isn’t. It’s the characters who grapple with these issues in their daily lives, so that the philosophy becomes a very personal, engaging thing. I cared about all the POV characters – Simmea, Pytheas/Apollo, Maia – so I wanted to know how philosophy affected their lives and what they thought about it. And Walton has chosen characters that present some of the most interesting perspectives.
As one of the Masters, Maia experiences the deep-seated inequality among the people responsible for building the City, and worries about the way they’re raising the children. Apollo, as the boy Pytheas, experiences all this as a god in human form. He has all his memories and knowledge, but has none of his powers. He’s read The Republic and knows, for example, that Plato was wrong in his ideas about the soul. He can also compare being a god with being a human, and compare the way the gods think about humans to the reality of living as a human.
Simmea is essentially the City’s perfect citizen – highly intelligent, analytical, focused, hard-working, creative. She knows how much worse her life would have been if the Masters hadn’t rescued her, and she’s wholly invested in the core ideals of the Just City. At the same time, she’s smart enough to think critically about it, even if that if it means facing uncomfortable truths. Together, Simmea and Apollo also reflect on various kinds of intimate and sexual relationships, between themselves and with other people. The Just City doesn’t allow for any kind of close, long-term sexual relationship, which is terrible on the one hand, but also gives room to explore other ways that intimate relationships grow between people.
Then there’s Kebes. He’s an unlikeable oaf (especially since we never read from his POV) but he articulates one crucial problem – the children were not given any choice in becoming part of the Just City. At first it seems like Kebes is being unnecessarily rebellious, since the children were saved from slavery and now live what many would consider an idyllic life. But Kebes doesn’t seem so unreasonable when you consider the fact that no one is allowed to leave the City (and they’d have nowhere to go, either). In fact, he gets flogged for trying to run away. He’s considered a troublemaker by the Masters because he doesn’t buy into their idea of his ‘best self’ (another problem with the City – you can criticise it if you’re trying to make it better, but you don’t have the freedom to reject its ideals completely).
The story spans about a decade, pensively exploring its way this thought experiment. I know this sort of thing wouldn’t be for everyone, and lots of people might find it dead boring. It’s mostly ideas and debates, with a meandering plot. But that’s part of what I like about it. Intellectually, it’s very engaging, but I also find it to very soothing. It’s easy to follow the various trains of thought, to see characters backtrack through their thoughts to examine their assumptions, or see how a new experience changes the way they think. It’s a kind of meditation, but one that caters to a contemporary sff reader. I think the basis of its appeal is captured by Maia, when she expresses her admiration for Plato in response to Socrates’ criticisms of him:
I think he invited us all into the inquiry. Nobody reads Plato and agrees with everything. But nobody reads any of the dialogues without wanting to be there joining in. Everybody reads it and is drawn into the argument and the search for the truth. We’re always arguing here about what he meant and what we should do. Plato laid down the framework for us to carry on with. He showed us—and this I believe he did get from you—he showed us how to inquire into the nature of the world and ourselves, and examine our lives, and know ourselves. Whether you really had the particular conversations he wrote down or not, by writing them he invited us all into the great conversation.
The Just City has a similar effect. For that, and it’s many other lovely qualities, I recommend it very highly.