Summary: 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.
Thoughts: It only takes reading a couple of Jo Walton’s books to get a feel for the author’s passions and interests. Since reading Among Others, I’ve found repeating themes in her works, to the point now where little surprises me and I feel fairly sure of what I’m getting into when I start. The main character in Among Others, in fact, makes mention of reading Plato’s Republic, and how it wouldn’t really work because 10 year olds aren’t actually blank slates to edit as one sees fit. So when I heard that Walton was writing a full book based on that very idea, I was excited to read it.
The premise is that the goddess Athene, for whatever reason, has decided to see if Plato’s idea will really work, or at least to discover how well it will work. Apollo, puzzled over why someone would rather die than sleep with him, decides to enter the world of humanity and be part of Athene’s experiment, being born into a mortal body though keeping his divine knowledge and memory so that he is fully aware of the implications of his actions and of the experiment. The masters running the Just City, as it’s known, are scholars and philosophers plucked from all over the timeline, people who would not be missed for various reasons (unappreciated women, those sentenced to die, etc) rescued from unfortunate circumstance and placed in a position where they make use of their love of knowledge and learning. Those locked in the experiment are the children, bought from slavers and rescued and given homes in the Just City, cared for and given educations so long as they’re willing to follow the meritocratic city’s laws. To keep masters and children from wasting time in menial labour, robots from the future are also brought in, to do tasks like cleaning and cooking and general upkeep.
But as with any idea of a utopia, things do not exactly go as planned. Most of the children were happy and grateful to have been rescued from slavery and are glad to adopt the City’s ways, but some are bitter and resentful, and not at all willing to go along with the plan. There is friction between some of the masters, differences of opinion and interpretation on how the City should be run, and the situation forces them to deal with things Plato never laid down rules for because, well, let’s face it, Plato’s Republic didn’t originally involve robot servants or the intervention of a deity. Then the robots start to show signs of emerging sentience…
Jo Walton has this amazing talent for writing a story in which there is little to no action but so much intrigue. She can make mundane life seem interesting, she can make pages upon pages of dialogue discussing the hypotheticals of a situation seem like the most engaging thing ever. I suspect that I could read an entire book of her describing what she did yesterday and I wouldn’t get bored, because she’d include dozens of insightful observations and speculative thoughts and witty commentary. She’s a wonderful writer and manages to put such life into this story, such diversity of opinion and character that it all feels very real. The Socratic debates alone, asking questions until you come to all the answers, could hold my attention for ages, because they’re all about issues that I find myself connecting with.
It’s a fascinating idea behind The Just City. Not a terribly original one, since Walton is building off notions already set down by people in the past. It’s a though experiment about a thought experiment, and a tremendous work of fanfiction. And I say that without any negative connotations on the term, either; fanfiction is, at its purest, the notion of taking someone else’s idea and running with it in new directions, asking “What it?” and seeing where the idea leads. But even within the context of the story itself, interesting questions are being asked. How much should someone break the rules to keep the spirit of a place intact? Is buying children from slavery in order to free them just another way of keeping slavers in business? (A similar modern question could be asked about buying clothes made in sweatshops: if we stop buying those clothes, the sweatshop goes out of business, the workers are out of jobs and don’t make any money at all, so is it a greater evil to buy or not buy?) Will there ever be a society that will satisfy everyone equally? Is it worth a few malcontents in order to improve the lives of the majority? So many questions, and even if none of them get answered definitively (how could they?), Walton touches on them and highlights the issue. There’s a lot of thought-provoking content in here.
Having Apollo incarnate as a mortal also allows for an exploration of humanity, the kind that really can’t properly be written about when you’re already human and that’s all you know. I admit, I’m a sucker for stories involving incarnated deities, and with Walton’s ability to reflect on complex issues in a manner that still entertains and doesn’t beat you about the head with heavy-handed morality, I knew I would, at the very least, enjoy the sections of the book from his perspective. There are some issues you can only see clearly from the outside, and I find this sort of scenario is really good for identifying them. And with consent and equality being major recurring themes, Apollo’s perspective was a good one by which to gain another view on the matters.
I could go on and on about how good a book this is, how intelligent and insightful and entertaining it is, but like many of Walton’s books, any review I give really doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. It’s definitely a book for people who like to explore the “what if”s behind ideas, those who like to follow thoughts to whatever conclusion they end at, those who like to have their preconceptions challenged, and for that, I think very highly of this book. It’s not a book filled with action and fight scenes and high tension, but it’s still a book that keeps you turning the pages to see what develops next. Definitely for fans of Walton’s earlier works, and for speculative fans looking for something that’s different and thought-provoking.
(Received for review from the publisher.)