Plato’s Republic is a book that has been debated and studied since its composition nearly 2400 years ago. It delves into some of the deepest questions of society. How do we design a city, a world, a political entity to benefit the most people? How should people be ordered? What is Justice? What is the practical upshot of creating a society, a city, ordered on the lines of The Republic?
And what happens when the Goddess Pallas Athena decides that the thing to do in order to respond to Plato is to create a city based on The Republic, and populate it with people drawn through time and space, and several thousand children to be raised in the ways of the Republic, to carry the experiment truly forward? To create an experiment in a time and place where it cannot affect history but the pursuit of its excellence can be sought free of entanglements?
The Just City is a novel from Jo Walton that explores these very questions.
The novel is split between three major viewpoints. Maia is a 19th-century woman, brought to the Just City to be one of the masters of the new city. Like all of the other masters, she has a knowledge of Plato, of the Republic, and a desire to live in the city that Athene has recognized and chosen her for. Simmea is a ten-year-old girl, contemporary to the period, a slave bought to be freed to be a citizen on theisolated island where the Just City is created. And Apollo has reincarnated himself as a powerless boy, unknown as being the God to all the inhabitants of the city except for Athene herself. To all and sundry, he was just a slave boy too, to be raised in the city.
The subtitle of the novel on the cover is “A tale of philosophy, art and the struggle for excellence.” Indeed, the novel is relatively light on plot and instead really is about the creation of the city, the art and philosophy engendered and created by it, and the growth and struggles of the three characters. There are a couple of mild subplots beyond this, but the novel really focuses on the city, and the characters’ search for excellence. It’s not action-oriented at all, but the novel is thought-provoking throughout. I think the novel works best if you have already read Plato, but I daresay that anyone who makes it through the novel who hasn’t read The Republic is going to be motivated to do so.
There is another character in the novel, though, that I have not yet mentioned. It is a character we do not get a point of view for, but he strides through the novel as an equal in many ways, in the authorial way, to Athene and Apollo. And that is Plato’s mentor, Socrates. The author’s love and respect for Socrates is tangible and palpable and it comes across on the stage and to an extent the novel distorts itself around him, like the gravitational field around a dense neutron star. In some ways, he feels more like a plot device than a character. The dialogues he engages in are fascinating and in true excellent form (Walton clearly has read a lot of Plato). It’s just that while there are clear character arcs for Simmea and Apollo (and to a much lesser extent, Maia), Socrates does not really get one at all.
Given the important and central character of Socrates in the novel, I was reminded, in reading The Just City, of Robert Silverberg’s classic story “Enter a Soldier; Later, enter another.” In that story, set a couple of centuries hence, advanced computers prove capable of creating AI versions of historical characters. The first two characters to be so created, and quickly engage in a Dialogue together, are the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and, Socrates. Silverberg engages in a lot less of the “hero worship” that Walton seems to show for Socrates in The Just City. Pizarro is an unlikely debater to be matched up with Socrates (a point that the programmers themselves make), but he’s cannier than either the programmers or Socrates expects.
That said, despite the somewhat exalted status of Socrates as a character being a slight detraction for me as a reader, The Just City is a thought-provoking and fascinating novel, one of the most interesting reads in this new year thus far. Anyone interested in the intersection of classics, mythology and fantasy and science fiction, especially in the more literary portion of the SF spectrum, will be interested in The Just City. Sequels are in the works, and I look forward to tackling them, as well.