I don’t know Jo Walton personally, but somehow I get the feeling that she’s one of those writers who thinks, “I wonder what it would be like, if…” and then goes out and writes about it. Gleefully. A youngster who is a precocious reader and knows heaps about science fiction? Throw in modern fairies and Welsh traditions and come up with a Hugo and Nebula award winner in Among Others. Wonder about what it would be like if one woman lived two dimensionally contiguous lives? Add in provincial British attitudes and an unapologetic and loving lesbian relationship and you have My Real Children. Your publisher takes essays you’ve written for their blog over the years and binds them together into a fascinating discussion on the science fiction and fantasy genres? Sure! Call it What Makes This Book So Great, why don’tcha?
So when robots showed up in her book about the Greek god Athena establishing a city based on Plato’s teachings, I took it all in stride. A fun loving, joyful skipping stride.
Yes, the premise of The Just City is that Pallas Athene and her brother Apollo decide they want to experiment with Plato’s teaching, so she spirits away, from different ages and different cultures, 300 adults (who have prayed to her for deliverance) to become teachers to thousands of children (who she is saving from a life of slavery or other discrimination) to the volcanic Mediterranean island of Kallisti to establish a city where the precepts of Plato’s Republic will be the main statute that will strictly shape every aspect of their lives.
Apollo, for his part, is troubled. He has realized that there are some things that mortals understand better than gods, and that realization has rocked his immortal world. So he decides to put aside his athanasia and be born as a mortal, as one of the children inhabiting the City, so he can experience what it is to be human. Only Athene (who also takes on the guise – but only the guise – of a mortal) knows his true nature.
We also meet one of the Masters (teachers), Maia, who had been Ethel in her previous life. (All citizens of the City are given Greek names and told to forget their previous lives.) She had been a young British woman in the Victorian era who despaired of the lack of opportunity afforded to her due to her sex – but in the City, she has the same opportunity as the men (well, kinda sorta). Then there is eleven year old Simmea (who had been Lucia), who lived in ancient Egypt, but whose family had been killed; she was being sold into slavery before her transportation to the City. In the same “shipment” with her is young Kebes (formerly Matthias), who despite the change in circumstance continues to feel like his passage to the City was simply trading one type of slavery for another.
And yes, there are robots, or “workers”, that do all the heavy lifting and the work that no one else wants to do… until a surprising development forces the inhabitants of the City to question the very core of their beliefs.
Throughout the book, there are scads and scads of discussions on justice, freedom, personal integrity, equality and how best to boost the excellence of the City, all within the precepts of the writings of Plato, some of which are squirmingly difficult for characters and readers alike. But there is also a celebration of female empowerment, touching coming-of-age stories, invited conflict when Sokrates (who we better know as Socrates, the real life philosopher who was often critical of Plato) arrives at the City and stirs things up, and lots and lots of confusion and frustration and angst about eros (sexual love, as opposed to philia – brotherly love – and agape, which is unconditional love unattached to sex).
Who would have thought that Plato could be so entertaining?
Well, Jo Walton, for one! Me, for another, and I know nothing about Plato, not really. Although I know who Plato is, basically, I’ve never read any of his writings, and I’ve never really studied his philosophies, or any of the ancient Greek ideologies – one of the great lacks in my education (that honestly, I’ve rarely cared about missing). But other than wondering in some of the more contentious debates whether or not I should have been able to actually take a side, I never felt a lack while reading The Just City.
And not even then, not really.
While when experiencing The Just City, a reader can’t help but learn a lot about Plato, and about proper debate and what it means to strive for excellence outside of the self, the story is so much more than that. By putting intelligent, open minded people from many different historical periods (from ancient times all the way past our own time) together to overcome obstacles that have stymied humanity throughout the ages, we get to see a unique take on the attempt to create utopia – and to see just how unattainable it seems to be even when everyone involved has the same goal.
Fascinating. And entertaining. And highly, highly original.
In other words, Jo Walton, at her most gleeful. I think Plato – and even Socrates – would have been proud.