Wow, two five star reviews right out of the gate this year. Competition is looking tough.
The Just City is the literary equivalent of a stoned college thought experiment set in an Intro to Philosophy course — and if my Intro to Philosophy course had been as interesting as The Just City, I probably wouldn’t have had to be stoned to survive it.
Jo Walton’s novel follows Olympians Apollo and Athene as they try to solve puzzles of human nature. Apollo has just been thwarted in one of his countless mythological “chase-then-catch-then-rape” scenarios and is trying to understand why Daphne chose to turn into a tree rather than subject herself to his advances. Athene wants to see what happens if Plato’s Just City is implemented, would the resulting Philosopher Kings prove the ideal rulers?
To that end Athena pulls people from throughout history — students, teachers, philosophers and disciples of Plato and places them on the island of Atlantis to raise and teach 10,000 children (all plucked from slavery at various times throughout history) according to Plato’s ideals. They are assisted by robots from the future who provide the manual labor that enables the city to function. Apollo comes along to try and decipher the mysteries of human nature.Even Sokrates is brought along, to teach rhetoric to the children as they grow older, and he immediately resumes his role of gadfly, the one that earned him a cup of hemlock tea in the real world.
Apollo and Athene take human form (Apollo even abandons his immortality for a lifetime) to study and guide the experiment. The children are taught about art and philosophy, trained to peak athletic performance and (eventually) enter into conjugal relationships to produce the next generation of students. Their babies are given up to be raised communally, and relationships outside the auspices of the Festival of Hera are forbidden.
Some of the children blossom in the setting, like Simmea, an Egyptian girl rescued from a slave ship circa 500 AD, but others like Simmea’s friend Kebes see it as another form of slavery. Even Sokrates is brought along, to teach rhetoric to the children as they grow older, and he immediately resumes his role of gadfly, the one that earned him a cup of hemlock tea in the real world.
The book does a damn good job of explaining the ramifications of Plato’s Just City, and frankly, they aren’t particularly good. While Simmea thrives in this setting, allowing her mind to grow in ways she wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise, she and her teacher Maia, a 19th century English woman named Ethel, start seeing the cracks in Plato’s ideals.
The children are kept ignorant of the nature of The Republic, they are selectively bred to produce the ideal offspring (and any less than perfect babies are quietly killed), the children discover sexuality on their own, engaging in clandestine relationships outside the fertility festivals. Rape still happens, both among children and the teachers. Those futuristic robots might not be mindless drones after all.
And even if the city does somehow succeed and thrive, it will ultimately be for naught — this IS Atlantis, and we know how that story ends.
All of these uncomfortable truths and cracks in the utopian society are immediately evident to Sokrates, who persists in asking uncomfortable questions eventually leading to a climactic rhetorical battle with Athene.
I’ve read Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, another literary introduction to philosophy, but I found it’s presentation sort of hackneyed. I appreciated the effort, but the post-modern delivery felt forced. Walton obviously researched The Just City extensively, and presented Plato’s ideas in an easy-to-understand (and easy-to-eviscerate) manner. And she also reaffirms my feelings from college that Plato’s ideas weren’t all as good as he thought they were — indeed his utopian vision of benevolent dictatorship by the learned elite falls apart under scrutiny pretty fast.
But while Athene’s experiment may not have turned into utopia, Apollo does gain insight into human nature. The series continues with The Philosopher Kings in June, and I can’t wait to see where Walton take Apollo’s quest to understand humanity in the next volume.
— Michael Senft