The Just City
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.