The Just City
by Jo Walton
Cover Artist: The School of Athens (detail) by Raphael / Vatican Museums and Galleries /
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765332660
Date: 13 January 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Just City is a wonderful thought-provoking philosophical novel by the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Jo Walton. In this book a group of philosophers from different periods of history construct the Just City of Plato's Republic on the island of Atlantis with the help of the Goddess Athene. Much of the book deals with the process of setting up the city (using robots from the future to do the manual labor), and educating the slave children according to Plato's guidelines. But they make one big mistake; they invite in Sokrates.
Most of the story is told through two female viewpoint characters. Simmea is captured at age 11 by slave raiders from her Greek farming village and bought by representatives of the Just City. On the boat she meets Kebes, who proves to be rebellious and distrustful of the City and its masters. The other viewpoint character is Maia, a 19th century woman at a time when academic brilliance among women was not developed. On a tour of Italy she reads Plato's Republic, where women could be equals and learn philosophy, and prays to Athene to let her live there. And the goddess grants her prayer and teleports her to the planning sessions for the Just City.
The book opens with the Greek god Apollo asking his sister Athene why the nymph Daphne chose to turn into a tree rather than give up her virginity to him. When the sun god fails to understand her answer, and the concept of mortal's volition, he decides to turn mortal himself for a while. Athene suggests he try living in the new city modeled on Plato's Republic. A few chapters are from his viewpoint as he temporarily gives up his powers to incarnates himself as a mortal named Pytheas. Athene takes on a mortal disguise but does not give up her powers.
The Just City alternates chapters between the two main viewpoint characters. Simmea learns about the city and becomes an artist and swimming instructor. Maia deals with the practical problems of turning Plato's ideas into reality and the committees and factions that develop. Then, in the fifth year of the city, Sokrates enters the Just City and Simmea, Kebes, and Pytheas become his students. Naturally, Sokrates questions everything and everyone, including the robots from the future even though everyone assures him they are just machines. Of course, not everything is perfect, Maia notices that some men did not accept women as equals and many women had a tendency to defer to older men. There is also an incident of sexual violence that may be controversial among readers. Kebes is jealous when Simmea starts spending time with Pytheas. And many in the city do not like the city's rules about having a random lottery determine mating and requiring mothers to give up their children to be raised communally by the city.
The book is hard to classify. It can be considered fantasy, as the Greek gods are real and have real powers. But there is also a science fictional element as much of the book revolves around Sokrates' efforts to determine if the robot workers are intelligent and capable of having their own desires. The book might well be classified as a parable or utopian novel as it is more about the city and the society created in it. It can also be considered a bildungsroman (a coming of age story). There is also a substantial amount of humor here, especially with Sokrates. However, I found the ending to be a little rushed.
This book is not meant for readers looking for an action-packed adventure. And, while all the main characters are fully developed and believable, this is not primarily a novel of character. Instead, it is a philosophical novel about the setting and culture. Anyone who ever read Plato's Republic and wished it were real or ever debated whether the ideas of Plato could ever really work in the real world will welcome this novel. Highly recommended. I fully expect to see it on the Hugo ballot next year.