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The Just City

January 26, 2015

If you’re like me, it’s been years since you read Plato’s Republic. The good news is that your memory will be refreshed by the details in Jo Walton’s novel The Just City, as the city is built and philosopher kings begin to be made. Though this may seem a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” Athena makes it happen (with the help of time travel and robot workers) and the way it happens turns out to matter to the characters involved, and to the readers.

The novel has three alternating narrators. The first two are the god Apollo, who had himself born as a mortal boy for this adventure, and the master Maia, who prayed to Athena to be delivered from a century in which she could not live as a scholar. Apollo is trying to find out why Daphne wanted to be turned into a tree rather than “caught” by him. It is Maia’s dream to live out Plato’s ideas, becoming a “guardian, limited only by my own ability to achieve excellence.” She is slightly disappointed, as any woman who has read him would be, to meet Marcus Tullius Cicero and find that “he was flattered when he found how much of his work I had read, and how high his reputation stood in my century, but he could never really consider me, or any of us women, as people to be taken seriously.” She is also excited to find out that Athena has a time machine which, besides enabling her to be brought from her own century, can rescue other people, books, and works of art. As with all time machine stories, though, there is a catch—they can’t influence history, so the “just city” is built on Atlantis before it sinks, a guarantee that the experiment won’t spread further.

Simmea, the third narrator, was sold as a slave to the masters of the city and can’t even read yet when she is told to forget her old life and find out how to become her best self in this new city. She learns quickly and becomes a model child of the city.

What the city is a model of quickly becomes the subject of debate, first between masters, who disagree about which works of art should be saved and whether “Christianity is harmful to the Republic because it offers a different and incorrect truth. We want them to discover the Truth, the real Truth that a philosopher can glimpse.” Meanwhile, we see that even the masters don’t always understand that no means no, that even the gods don’t always understand that “good and well-meaning are different matters,” and that there are truths that only someone like Socrates can uncover through rhetorical conversation.

As the author, Jo Walton evidently received revelation about what it’s like to be a god:
“Detachment was really difficult to achieve. Everything mattered immediately—every pain, every sensation, every emotion. There wasn’t time to think about things properly—no possibility of withdrawal for proper contemplation, then returning to the same instant with a calm and reasonable plan. Everything had to be done in time, immediately. Paradoxically, there was also too much time. I constantly had to wait through moments and hours and nights. I had to wait for spring to see blossom, wait for Simmea to be free to talk to me, wait for morning. Then when it came, everything would be hurtling forward in immediate necessity again, pierced through with emotion and immediacy and a speeding pulse.”
The difficulty of detachment is one of the things all the characters are learning.

The difference between the ideal and the possible continues to be ever more sharply delineated in the city, as Plato’s precepts–for instance that “friendship was good but adding sex to it was bad” or that babies should be reared communally in order to prevent favoritism–are tested. There is a pointed (and parenthetical) remark about eugenics, which the inhabitants of the city see as a good thing, although two of the masters who were brought to the city after WWII “shrank from that term, but would never tell me why.” Even Simmea finally realizes that “keeping mothers and children apart wasn’t as easy as Plato had thought. When it came down to details, so little was.”

With the ever-sharpening lines between ideal and possible comes the most delightful part of the novel. Some of the robots Athena has brought to the city in order that they won’t need slaves to do the menial labor wake up and begin responding to the questions posed to them by Socrates. When he asks one of them if it enjoys its work, it plants “no” in crocus bulbs. As the inhabitants of the city begin to realize that some of the robots workers are sentient, they have to scramble to include this reality in the day-to-day operations of their city. Simmea and Apollo, having helped each other understand “that everyone’s choices ought to count,” set out to put the principle into practice, even for robot philosophers.

The novel is a lovely stroll through Platonic philosophy in practice, guided by someone who knows that the details of menstruation, consent, midwifery and child-rearing really matter, that if you have great ends in mind, you’d do well to attend to the means of achieving them.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2015 10:37 am

    I am only familiar with Jo Walton through Among Others. I tried reading it via audio, and although I really liked the story-line and the writing, I hated the narrators voice. So I stopped about 1/3 of the way through. (If the narrator’s voice is wrong the whole experience is ruined). I’ve been meaning to check the book out of the library to finish it. Not sure this one would be a good fit for me, but your review was excellent.

    • January 29, 2015 10:22 am

      One of the things I really like about Jo Walton’s characters is that fictional worlds are part of their lives–that’s true in Among Others, and it comes literally true in The Just City.

  2. January 26, 2015 5:39 pm

    “the difference between the ideal and the possible”–that’s a good way of describing what this book is up to. So many ideals seem great and make sense until you run them up against real life. Not all of Plato’s ideas seemed great, but even the good ones aren’t always so great in practice. But I liked it that the characters didn’t want to give up on all of it even when it was tough–and those Socratic conversations were so important for working through what to do when it wasn’t so simple.

    • January 29, 2015 10:28 am

      The way you put that makes me think about my job– I haven’t wanted to give up on all of it even when it was tough. Sometimes a thing worth trying is a thing worth pursuing to its logical end.

  3. Jenny permalink
    January 26, 2015 11:20 pm

    This book sounded odd to me when Teresa reviewed it and sounds odd to me now, perhaps because I have never wanted to go and live out my ideals anywhere (monastery, hippie commune, Star Trek deck officer, Plato’s Republic.) But come to think of it, I’ve read quite a number of books that watched just that sort of process, both fiction and non-, so this might fall under that sort of genre. Hmmm.

    • January 29, 2015 10:29 am

      But would you agree that working on a college campus can be a bit like trying to live out your ideals? At least by daylight!

  4. January 27, 2015 3:36 pm

    This sounds like one I would love! I read both Walton’s Tooth & Claw and Republic for the first time last year. Adding it to my TBR!

  5. January 27, 2015 6:36 pm

    I pre-ordered this and will likely get to it. I am hoping I will like it and not paying as much attention to the reviews as I normally do because want to try and not have anything shadowed by reviews…

    • January 29, 2015 10:30 am

      There are some good secrets I was careful not to give away!

  6. February 5, 2015 7:56 pm

    All of a sudden, I’m seeing reviews of The Just City everywhere! I thought I had already commented here, but nope, this was a new review! I don’t read reviews too closely until after I’ve read a book, too, but I liked Among Others a lot, and was a philosophy major way way back in my college days…


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