The Just City: Jo Walton

★★★★

Thessaly: Book I

In his book The Republic, Plato dreamed of a just society in which the pursuit of knowledge and excellence would be the highest goal. It was a daring dream, the first utopia: an elaborate thought-experiment which has captivated the imagination of thinkers through the ages. But could it actually work? Athena is determined to find out. Gathering together those who, throughout history, have read Republic and prayed to her that it might be possible to live in such a place, she prepares the groundwork for the realisation of the greatest political fantasy ever imagined.

On one bewildering day, about three hundred people from twenty five centuries – divided more or less equally between men and women – find themselves blinking against the sun in a magnificent Greek hall, with Athena standing in front of them. Among them are some of the most brilliant minds in human history: Cicero, Pico della Mirandola and Boethius, to name just a few. One of the assembled throng is a young woman from the nineteenth century, now given the Greek name Maia, whose last memory is of standing in the Pantheon in Rome with her aunt, raging inwardly at the unfairness of being born a woman in an age when women are not encouraged to think. Maia’s prayer for salvation has just, miraculously, been answered. She and her equally shocked companions have been transported to a time before the Trojan War, where history fades into legend and myth, to the island of Kallisti (Thera, before the great volcano erupts). Here they are given a thrilling responsibility: to be the masters who will bring about Plato’s radical dream and see if it is truly possible to create a just city.

But a city needs to be peopled and, following Plato’s dictates, the masters set out to gather a population of more than ten thousand ten-year-olds, rescued from slave markets across the ancient Mediterranean world. They are renamed, divided up into houses named for the great cultural cities of history and told to forget all they remember of their earlier lives. Now their only task is to hone their minds and bodies, learn to love knowledge and to become the best selves they possibly can be. Male and female are equal (allegedly). Here there is no poverty and no servitude: all manual tasks (for now, anyway) are carried out by the Workers, machines from the far future which Athena has brought to help cook, clean and maintain the city. Impressed by his sister’s idea, and plagued by a niggling feeling that there are some things he just doesn’t understand about humans, Apollo has decided to take mortal form and play a part in the experiment. And so the Just City gets under way, with the blessing (and secret participation of the gods).

There’s a problem though. As Apollo notes, ‘what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring.’ As the years pass, some of the children, like the knowledge-thirsty Simmea, come to believe passionately in all the City stands for. Others, like Kebes, refuse to accept that the masters had any right to bring them there in the first place, let alone choose their path. And then, when the children are fifteen, a new citizen arrives – the spark that lights the tinder – Sokrates, whisked away from his cup of hemlock to teach rhetoric to these new philosopher kings in training.

Yet Sokrates is shocked at what he finds. He had no desire to be taken from his death, and he is deeply troubled to see how his teachings have been distorted by Plato. Refusing to conform to the committees and hierarchy imposed on the City, he walks and talks and encourages his friends to ask a new question – not, ‘Is this just?’, but ‘Is this right?’ Is it right to buy children from slave markets and thereby create demand that will cause more children to be taken into slavery, even if the children are then told they are free? Is it right to mate the children off by lot for one night only, to breed babies for the City who will never know their parents? Is it right to divide the children up based on the ‘metals’ in their souls and, if so, how can you be sure you haven’t made a mistake? Is it just, or fair, or right to create a caste system based on those metals? Can one truly subvert the individual to the good of the whole?

Although Sokrates isn’t helping in quite the way that Athena intended him to, he wins friends among the children – Simmea, Kebes and the golden, brilliant Pytheas, who may or may not be a simple peasant boy from Delphi. But he also makes friends in other, more unexpected quarters. For what if it turned out that the mechanical Workers were, in fact, self-aware, reasoning beings? It is a question that will threaten to unbalance the very foundations of the City.

Walton’s novel is a wonderful, unique thing. Blending mythology, philosophy and science fiction, it interrogates Plato’s influential text in a very accessible and fun way. I haven’t actually read The Republic, though I now feel that I should, but don’t let an ignorance of Plato put you off. Walton is, like Sokrates, a mischievous, probing slaughterer of sacred cows, shining a shrewd light into awkward corners and forcing us to ask ourselves what, if anything, can ever be truly just and fair. And I think the subtle difference between those words is central to the book’s premise: something can be just in the eyes of law, but unfair in a moral sense, and it’s in those fuzzy grey areas that Walton finds her fascinating drama.

Do read this. It’s smart, playful and very accessible considering the ideas that flow around between its covers. There are two more books in the series, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity, which I shall hunt down in due course. I can’t believe that this is the first book I’ve read by Walton, but it certainly won’t be the last.

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7 thoughts on “The Just City: Jo Walton

  1. Helen says:

    This sounds very intriguing. I’ve never read anything by Jo Walton either, but I’ve had my eye on one of her other books – Tooth and Claw – because it’s been described as Anthony Trollope with dragons (I love Trollope). I obviously need to look out for this one as well!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Wow, that sounds a little bit like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels. I can’t really imagine Trollope with dragons, which I suppose is a good reason to consider giving Tooth and Claw a go at some point. Although maybe I should read some Trollope first?!

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    I’ve read Lifelode (one of my all time favourite Fantasy novels), Among Others and the first two volumes of her cozy-mystery-cum-alternate-history Small Change trilogy and found them all brilliant, each managing a fresh and unexpected approach on seemingly familiar subjects, doing this in a way that the reader barely notices just how deep the novels are. Not that I was expecting anything else (the trilogy is already on my TBR list) but it’s comforting to have it confirmed that Thessaly continues in that vein.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      I think I’m going to have to read more of her books. Thessaly first, though; then the others. Oh, and talking of your all-time favourite fantasy novels, guess what I found tucked away in the library yesterday? Little, Big! It will be very interesting to finally read it after you’ve been recommending it to me for, oh, three years or so 😉

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        Oooh, congratulations! I’m so looking forward to your reaction on that one, that seriously is one of the best Fantasy novels ever – I think I read it three times by now and was blown away by it every single time. I do hope that you’ll get around to reading it soon and that you’ll enjoy it. 🙂 (I actually should be reading it again myself some time soon.)

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