Review of ‘The Just City’ by Jo Walton

The Just City is the eleventh novel by Welsh-Canadian author Jo Walton and combines my love of SFF fiction with my love of philosophy. We see a world in which the Greek Goddess Athena has answered the prayers of everybody who ever wished that Plato’s Republic were real, bringing them to a place to try and make that philosophical theory into a reality. An excellent read for both those familiar with Plato and those who’ve never touched a philosophy text in their lives. Walton handles the problems of communicating philosophical principles with aplomb, and manages to tell a really engaging and interesting story while she does it. The kind of book that should go to first-year philosophy students as well as lovers of SFF. Well done!

Created as an experiment by the time-travelling 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.

So, needless to say, this book looked very exciting to me when I picked it up. I’m a philosopher by education, and have read Plato’s Republic on more than one occasion. To have somebody actually try to express what the practicality of the situation might look like was definitely of interest to me. The worry becomes whether something like that will be too dry, or too bogged down in the persnickety bits of philosophy and not be a good story. I’m glad to say that Walton never once failed to be telling a great story in the name of pushing the philosophy. Likewise, the philosophy never suffered in an attempt to make the story flow better.

While it can be difficult to imagine how you would bring people from all over history together and expect them to even communicate, let alone accomplish much, the fact is that almost definitionally anybody who has read Plato enough to wish they could live in The Republic will have spoken Greek, Latin, or both. Walton’s nods to the way that modern and futuristic scholars would have learned ancient Greek were also noticed and appreciated. Getting the story from a few points of view, each from different backgrounds, roles, and parts of the timeline also really filled out the narrative in a great way. Simmea, Maia, and Pytheas were all engaging and interesting and brought very distinct points of view to the story. Having the bulk of the story being told from a female perspective also allowed Walton to tackle some more significant social issues of gender equality, rape, and the role of women in society.

If I had an issue with The Just City at all, it would be that Walton makes just a few too many references to the future course of history. Everybody was instructed when they were brought to the city to do their best to forget about where they came from; obviously not everybody will be able to do that, and other conflicts will arise as people butt up against the issues and prejudices of where they lived. The old ancient Greek men who had issues respecting women as equals are a case example of that. But when they were discussing eugenics, and on more than one occasion we got the little shudder from everybody who came from a post-Nazis part of the timeline, I had a bit of a ‘Yeah we get it’ moment followed by a ‘because totally, Nazi Germany is the first and only time anybody tried to apply eugenics in a gross way.’ It made the story, which was set up to be outside time and space as best as it could, be too much a product of the present. In a bizarre way, a reference to Nazis felt like it dated the story in the same way a reference to Google would have. Not because the references are in any way equable, but more that framing it towards my own time felt jarring in a way that references to the renaissance or classical Greece didn’t. Strange to say, but there we are.

Overall, this was an excellent novel. Using the lens of The Republic to tackle some serious social and political issues really gave it a groundwork and basis on which to give a reader a lot of things to think about. Giving you something to think about being the primary goal of philosophy in my opinion. This is the first book in a series, and without spoiling the ending, I’m pretty curious how things are going to develop from here. There’s a temptation I think, to stray progressively further from the ‘thought experiment about Plato’s Republic’ end of things, and I really hope that doesn’t happen. I’m almost half tempted to hope that the next story isn’t picking up this plotline at all, and is instead going to just try and practically portray some other philosophical theory. Maybe Hobbes or Nietzsche.

Dan received an Advance Review copy of this book from Tor via NetGalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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