Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.
The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.
Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.
Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.
Tell Me More: I was 17 when I read Plato’s Republic for the first time. It was the first assigned reading for my Soc Sci II class, and I was, in a word, enthralled. Here was my first taste of Socratic thought, of a contemplative society, a social ideal that might be achieved. Like some of the characters in The Just City, I was enchanted by the idea of philosopher-kings and the value of art, by the possibility of creating a society that would work only towards the good. But as they also come to discover, The Just City may need to remain an ideal, and not become a reality.
Walton employs several points-of-view for this story, and each of those perspectives highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the philosophy behind this society. Maia’s enthusiasm is both infectious and oblivious–her desire to build this new society is driven by her dissatisfaction with the gender inequality of the Victorian era. And while she accomplishes some great things, she’s also unable to see the limitations of the Republic on some very important personal freedoms. The pursuit of an ideal society doesn’t mask or change individual attitudes, as she is horrified to discover.
Simmea is equally keen to grow into her best self in The Just City, and it is her generation’s minds that will first be formed by the Republic. While the adults may believe that they are making the right choices to mold the younger generation, it is curious Simmea who serves as a testament to how well those choices really work. Her experiences are a more personal standard by which to measure the City’s success, and the things she doesn’t understand or finds lacking are markers for the weaknesses in the City’s foundations. Sokrates finds her intriguing, and those conversations were the moments I enjoyed most.
That said, I struggled with emotionally connecting to any of the characters. While I was interested in them and their philosophical discussions, I just couldn’t move past that to really care about their personal struggles. Apollo was the one main character that I felt somewhat strongly about–I found him insufferable, and self-centered. That might be how Walton meant for her readers to feel about him, and those feelings didn’t change for me even upon finishing the novel.
The story is slightly hampered by necessary exposition, but Walton handles it well, balancing the need for solid world-building and the actions that drive that world forward. I will admit to having to reread some of the exposition after finishing a few chapters, because I was already familiar with the philosophy and wanted to get straight to the action. Some readers may want to do the same thing to follow the characters straight through the story, and a reread will likely enrich the experience further.
The Final Say: The Just City is the kind of story that peels back layer by layer, not just in its characters but in the societies it unwittingly reflects because of them. It’s reminiscent of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, reshaping philosophy into a story that grapples with the viability of those ideas in the real world, and saying much more about the people we choose than the ideas themselves.
Jo Walton writes science fiction and fantasy novels and reads a lot and eats great food. It worries her slightly that this is so exactly what she always wanted to do when she grew up. She comes from Wales, but lives in Montreal.