The Just City

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Series: Thessaly #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2014
Printing: January 2015
ISBN: 0-7653-3266-3
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 368

Buy at Powell's Books

The premise for The Just City is easy to state: The time-traveling goddess Athene (Athena) decides to organize and aid an attempt to create the society described in Plato's Republic. She chooses Thera (modern Santorini) before the eruption, as a safe place where this experiment wouldn't alter history. The elders of the city are seeded by people throughout history who at some point prayed to Athene, wanting to live in the Republic. The children of the age of ten that Plato suggested starting with are purchased as slaves from various points in history and transported by Athene to the island.

Apollo, shaken and confused by Daphne wanting to turn into a tree rather than sleep with him, finds out about this experiment as Athene tries to explain the concept of consent to him. He decides that becoming human for a while might help him learn about volition and equal significance, and that this is the perfect location. He's one of the three viewpoint characters. The others are two women: one (Maia) from Victorian times who prayed to Athene in a moment of longing for the tentative sexual equality of the Republic and was recruited as one of the elders, and another (Simmea) who is bought as a slave and becomes one of the children.

I should admit up-front that I've never read Plato's Republic, or indeed much of Plato at all, just small bits for classes. The elders (and of course the gods) all have, and are attempting to stick quite closely to Plato's outline of the ideal city. The children haven't, though, so the book is quite readable for people like me who only remember a few vague aspects of Plato's vision from school. The reader learns the principles alongside Simmea.

One of Walton's strengths is taking a science fiction concept, putting real people into it, and letting the quotidian mingle with the fantastic. Simmea is my favorite character here: her journey to the city is deeply traumatic, but the opportunity she gets there is incredible and unforeseen, and she comes to love the city while still understanding, and arguing about, its possible flaws. Maia is nearly as successful; Walton does a good job with committee debates and discussions, avoids coming down too heavily on the drama, and shows a believable picture of people with very different backgrounds and beliefs coming together to flesh out the outlines of something they all agree with, or at least want to try.

I found Apollo less engaging as a character, partly because I never quite understood his motives or his weird failure to understand the principles of consent. Walton doesn't portray him as either hopelessly arrogant or hopelessly narcissistic, which would have been easy outs, but in avoiding those two obvious explanations for his failures of empathy, I felt like she left him with an odd and unexplained hole in his personality. He's a weirdly passive half-character for much of the book, although he does develop a bit more towards the end (which was probably the point).

Half the fun of this book is working out what the Republic would be like in practice, and what breakdowns and compromises would happen as soon as you put real people in it. Athene obviously has to do a bit of cheating to make a utopia invented as an intellectual exercise work out in practice, plus a bit more for comfort (electricity and indoor plumbing, for instance). The most substantial cheat is robots to replace slaves and do quite a bit that slaves couldn't. Birth control (something Plato obviously never would have thought of) is another notable cheat; it's postulated to be an ancient method since lost, but even if that existed, there's no way it would be this reliable. But otherwise, the society mostly works, and Walton shows enough of the arguing and mechanics to make that believable, while still avoiding infodumps and boring descriptions. It's neatly done, although I'm still a bit dubious that the elders from later eras would have put up with the primitive conditions with this little complaint.

The novel needs a plot, of course, and that's the other half of the fun. I can't talk about this in any detail without spoiling the book, since the plot only kicks in about halfway through once the setup and character introductions are complete. That makes it hard to explain why I found this a bit less successful, although parts of it are brilliant.

What worked for me is the growth of Simmea and her friends as students and philosophers, the arguments and discussions (and their growing enthusiasm for argument and discussion), and the way Greek mythology is woven subtly and undramatically into the story. It really does feel like sitting in on ancient Greek philosophical arguments and experiments, and by that measure Walton has succeeded admirably in her goal.

What didn't work for me was the driving conflict of the story, once it's introduced. I can't describe it without spoilers, but it's an old trope in science fiction and one with little scientific basis. It may seem weird to argue that point in a book with time-traveling Greek gods, a literal Lethe, and a Greek idea of souls, but those are mythological background material. The SF trope is something about which I have personal expertise and which simply doesn't work that way, and I had a harder time getting past that than alternate metaphysical properties. It threw me out of the book a bit. I see why Walton chose the conflict she did, but I felt like she could have gotten to the same place in the plot, admittedly with more difficulty, by using some of the more dubious aspects of Plato's long-term plan plus some other obstacles that were already built into the world. This more direct approach added a bit of SF-style analysis of the unknown that seemed weirdly at odds with the rest of the story (even if the delight of one of the characters is endearing).

That complaint aside, I really enjoyed reading this book. Apollo didn't entirely work for me, but all of the other characters are excellent, and Walton keeps the story moving at a comfortable clip. Given the amount of description required, particularly for an audience that may not have read the Republic, a lesser writer could have easily slipped into the infodump trap. Walton never does.

Fair warning, though: The Just City does end on a cliffhanger, and is in no way a standalone novel. You will probably want to have the sequel on hand.

Followed by The Philosopher Kings.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-11-05

Last modified and spun 2016-11-16