One day, in a moment of philosophical puckishness, the time-travelling goddess Pallas Athene decides to put Plato to the test and create the Just City. She locates the City on a Mediterranean island and populates it with over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult from all eras of history . . . along with some handy robots from the far human future.
Meanwhile, Apollo – stunned by the realization that there are things that human beings understand better than he does – has decided to become a mortal child, head to Athene’s City and see what all the fuss is about.
Then Socrates arrives, and starts asking troublesome questions.
What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.
This review will contain SPOILERS
I am a Classicist (well, ancient historian) by academic training, so when Tor said they were bringing out a book based on the idea of Plato’s Republic (perhaps his most famos dialogue) and featuring among other characters Sokrates, Athene and Apollo, I jumped at the chance to review Jo Walton’s The Just City.
That may have been a mistake; that training is the only prism through which it was possible for me to read the novel, and that resulted in a certain level of cognitive dissonance at times.
The Just City is a novel about consent, about – as it puts it – equal significance and volition; choice, and the importance of equal weight being placed on the choices of all parties. It opens with Apollo asking Athene why Daphne would prefer to become a tree to having sex with him; when her response is “volition and equal significance”, he decides to incarnate to learn about these things – and is sold to the Just City, founded by Athene with people taken from history who had prayed to Athene to live in Plato’s Republic. Of course, Plato’s blueprint being rather incomplete, there are areas around the edge where things have been changed, and it is founded on Santorini so that no evidence will be left of Athene’s experiment except stories of Atlantis.
So far, so good; the problem comes when actually looking at the Just City. Built and maintained by robots brought back from the future, it is full of such anachronisms to Plato – the Republic was written before, among other things, antibiotics and safe birth, yet Walton treats both of these as a given, and no woman appears, in the three clusters of births in the novel, to die in childbirth, despite the reality of the ancient world; similarly, Santorini is presented as a haven where all resources are present, from marble (without any apparent quarries) to cotton and wool, despite the reality of the uneven resource distribution across the Mediterranean and, indeed, the lack of certain resources completely. The Just City could be forgiven those problems, perhaps, if it even acknowledged them and simply allowed Athene to smooth them out; as it is, instead, Walton simply pretends these issues do not exist and are not a problem.
A further, and significant, issue is anachronism of attitudes. It is perhaps inevitable in a novel like this that some characters will have anachronistic beliefs and attitudes but at the same time, the extent to which Walton engages in such practices is extreme. The Sokrates of The Just City is perfectly willing to debate with, and consider as intellectual equals, women, and believes in the standard understanding of the Greek gods; given the attitudes of his time and culture towards women – which we have no evidence he did not share – and the very reason he was sentenced to death, this seems to be a significant break with any meaningful sense of history. Meanwhile, later Romans – including, in fact, Cicero himself – are presented as having absolutely no time for the opinions of women; as if Athens in the fifth century had more respect for women and their views than Rome in the first century. The Just City takes this to further levels of anachronistic attitudes in its discussion about slavery; while obviously a novel about consent, it still seems inappropriate and unseemly to suggest that slavery in Athens was less common a status than that of freedmen, and that it was really rather liberal (p240). The way The Just City constantly backs away from the brutal reality of ancient slavery is rather horrifying, and while it is good to note that Walton does not do so with American slavery, erasing the awful history of slavery in the slave societies of the Classical world is rather more than distasteful, it is horrendous.
Walton also appears to have failed to have done some basic anthropological research; in response to Plato’s model of marriage and childbirth, she treats random assignation as abhorrent and doomed to fail, and the idea of raising children in common as incredibly hurtful to women. The Just City treats it as if there is some mystical bond that has been true in all societies and cultures across history between mother and child that requires personal raising; this is troubling given historical communities that have engaged in perfectly healthy common-rearing policies and societies where the mother had no engagement with their children until their later years, and Walton is erasing that reality completely.
Finally, Walton’s portrayal of Sokrates is almost Platonic in its hero-worship of him. Sokrates is portrayed as incredibly wise, knowledgeable on every subject, able to pick up anything – including Arabic numerals (called zeroic numerals here, for some reason) and the idea of artificial intelligence – in mere moments, and always able to talk to anyone and convince anyone to let him do what he wishes. While some of that makes sense in the context of a society of Platonists, The Just City treats Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as an incredible human being as unquestionable truth, made most clear at the close of the novel where Sokrates debates Athene on the Just City and the idea of justice itself; Sokrates, as in Plato, lays rhetorical traps, but for the reader they are obvious and poor, and that Walton’s Athene cannot engage with him seems to be suggesting that Sokrates is a better debater than the goddess of wisdom herself, a rather ridiculous assertion.
I have mostly argued with this book, and that’s for good reason; it’s a book begging to be argued with – but on the evidence provided in The Just City, Jo Walton has no time for anyone who argues with her views in it, and that’s a real problem. This is an interesting book, but it’s seriously let down by Walton’s inability to hold to the problems of history and reality.
DoI: Review based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Tor Books. The Just City is released in the US & UK on January 13th.