The Just City
by Jo Walton
“Know Thyself. It’s good advice. Know yourself. You are worth knowing. Examine your life. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can. You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends. Know yourself.” ― Jo Walton, The Just City
This was the latest book discussed in our monthly SF reading group. The author, Jo Walton, presents a Utopian world modeled on the Republic of Plato. In doing so she creates a story that is a blend of fantasy and science fiction with the emphasis on the former. This raised a perennial question for the group: is this book a science fiction novel or not? My response is to consider it an example of speculative fiction as discussed and defined by Margaret Atwood and others.
In this book we have a new city created on an island by the Greek goddess, Pallas Athene. While Apollo, her brother, is involved as well (he chooses to participate in the experiment in human form), the main characters are young children, teachers, Masters, and some robots, all of whom have been brought together to form the Just City as defined in the Republic of Plato. Among the major characters is a student, Simmea, from Egypt who demonstrates a thirst for knowledge that would make Socrates proud. There is also a teacher, Maia, formerly a Victorian lady who is brought to the city by Athene when she makes a prayer to her. Other primary characters include a boy named Kebes and Pytheas (Apollo). There are other famous figures that are brought together as masters for the students, but none more famous than Socrates.
The masters are generally happy to build and live in the Just City, but not all the children are, especially since it’s suggested that the masters encouraged the growth of slavery in various eras by purchasing so many children. No matter that the children are well-treated and educated, they're not allowed to leave and must follow strict rules whose provenance they can’t entirely understand, since they’re not even allowed to read The Republic. The justness of the City becomes even more questionable when evidence accumulates that the mechanical workers used in place of slaves may actually be sentient.
It is when Socrates joins the city and brings his traditional questioning method that the utopian project really begins to experience significant growing pains. It is when the restraints imposed by the city as defined by Plato become too difficult for those in the city to follow that the story becomes both more interesting and sometimes unappealing. It is when the rigidity of the ideal city as defined by Plato creates a world where freedom becomes "freedom to obey", not freedom to question and act based on the reasoning of your own mind. This dichotomy is exacerbated by Socrates' insistence on dialogues with the students. After all, Socrates did not create the City or its rules. Here is an example from a dialogue between Socrates and one of the students about the system of taking children away from their parents and raising them together:
"'But you will say, will you not, that the purpose of the system is not to maximize individual happiness but the justice of the whole city?'
'Yes,' she said.
'And how does this maximize justice?'
'People do not form individual attachments but are attached to all the others, and people do not care about their own children than all the children of the city.'
'But that's nonsense,' Socrates said gently. 'They do form individual attachments, they're just pursuing them in secret. And they do care more about their own children, they're just prevented from seeing them.'" (p 352)
Athene interjects that there are good reasons for this such as avoiding the development of family rivalries. That does not persuade either the children or Socrates.
There’s often more thought experiment than plot here. The fictional and mythological protagonists have a certain appeal, but it’s disappointing that Walton barely sketches most of the historical characters who play minor roles in the story—readers will have to do the research themselves in order to flesh them out. The best aspect of this novel is the way that the students develop, socialize, and learn about the world. While the prose sometimes reminded me of a "Young Adult" novel, despite that possible drawback the combination of philosophic discussion and ideas was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It helps if you have previously read Plato's Republic, but if you haven't and are interested in the ideas presented here you may be encouraged to pick it up and read the original for yourself.
View all my reviews