Jo Walton’s latest novel, The Just City, contains time travel, robots and Greek gods, yet its realistic characters—even the divinities—dominate the narrative with their personal struggles to achieve their “best selves.”
The premise is clever and in lesser hands would have been impossible to pull off. In The Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato imagines a utopian city ruled by philosopher-kings. That’s about all I remember from the political theory course I took two decades ago. In this novel, Walton conducts a thought experiment on Plato’s thought experiment, imagining a world in which philosophers throughout history come together to make The Republic a reality.
The story begins with the god Apollo immediately after his failed attempt to rape the nymph Daphne, who prayed to be turned into a laurel tree rather than submit to him. Apollo cannot understand why any woman (or nymph) would turn him down. Following a dialogue with his sister Athene, the goddess of wisdom, he considers the concepts of “volition”—free will or choice—and “equal significance”—the idea that one being’s wants do not outweigh any other’s. He decides that he would like to incarnate as a mortal in order to learn more about these concepts.
At this point, Athene tells him of her plan to create a truly just city in the model of The Republic. At a time before the Trojan War and on a remote island that legend will one day remember as Atlantis, Athene gathers a few hundred “masters,” including Cicero, Boethius and Lucrezia Borgia, to build this city.
One of the point-of-view characters, Maia (who is not based on a historical figure), is a nineteenth-century Englishwoman who chose a life of the mind over marriage and is teleported to the Just City after whispering an offhand prayer to Athene while visiting the Pantheon in Rome. Constrained by her gender in her own time, Maia welcomes the opportunity to help lead the Just City, as Plato had, rather amazingly for his time, decreed that men and women were entitled to the same education and opportunity to pursue excellence.
It was the masters’ job to put Plato’s idea into action, but their true purpose was to help bring about future generations of philosopher-kings. To do this, the masters oversaw the education of the children: 1,080 ten-year-olds purchased from slavery in the ancient world and transported to the Just City.
One such child, Simmea, had been born in Egypt during the latter half of the first millennium CE. She remembers little of her childhood other than the horrors of the slave ship from which the masters purchased her. Like Maia, Simmea loves the city. She is bright, artistic and athletic—all of the traits Plato desired in a philosopher-king.
Simmea’s two closest friends are also rivals for her affection. Kebes constantly rebels against the authority of the masters, feeling no less free in the Just City than he had in the slavers’ stockade. Pytheas embodies excellence in all things except the ability to understand the emotions of the others.
To help the masters build the Just City, Athene provided “workers,” machines from some time in our future. The masters worry about their over-reliance on the workers, especially as they begin to break down. And when one of the workers seems to demonstrate free will, a whole new batch of questions arises.
Just as in the original Platonic dialogues, the key character here is Sokrates. In the real world, Sokrates was Plato’s teacher, who is not believed to have written anything himself. Most of what we know of Sokrates comes from Plato’s writing. In The Republic and other works, Plato uses Sokrates as a character engaged in dialogues to present philosophical points.
Unlike the masters, children and workers, Sokrates does not arrive until the city has been running for several years. His role here seems to be his usual one: he wanders the streets talking to everyone (including the robotic workers) and questioning everything. The novel culminates in a twenty-page debate between the gadfly Sokrates and the goddess of wisdom herself, Athene.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way that those masters who were born outside of the classical period must reconcile their own religious beliefs—Christianity or atheism—with the indisputable evidence that Athene is real. Regardless of their beliefs, all of the masters treat The Republic like a religious text that must be followed, although its inconsistencies and impracticalities force the masters to make compromises. In this sense, The Just City can be read as a critique of religious fundamentalism, for the masters’ unquestioning adherence to an ancient text in pursuit of justice leads them to commit acts of injustice.
Despite the heady philosophical content, The Just City is easily accessible to readers who haven’t studied Plato. Indeed, this would make a great supplemental text for someone struggling to make sense of The Republic. The characters are fully fleshed, and I found myself regularly identifying with people on each side of the book’s many conflicts. This is Jo Walton’s strength—no matter how outlandish the setting, her characters always read as real people I want to get to know.