Plato was the first dystopic writer. I didn’t realize it when I read The Republic in college. But when Jo Walton decides to use Plato’s thought experiment about what it would take to build a truly “just city,” it seems that all Plato was missing was a plucky heroine or two short of a young adult novel. Plato’s thought experiment posited that if a population of 10-year-olds were taught by wise guardians, under a prescribed regimen of exercise and education, they could grow to be their “best selves.” Some of them could become philosopher kings.
The Just City opens with Apollo questioning Artemis about why she turned a nymph he was chasing into a laurel tree. Still unsatisfied, Apollo asks Athena why a nymph would rather be a tree than mate with him. He ultimately decides that he needs to spend some time as a mortal learning about “volition and equal significance.” Athena tells him she has just the place. She’s long wanted to see if Plato’s Republic could actually work, so she’s recruiting Platonists from all through history to try it out on an island that will eventually be destroyed with a volcano—so as not to mess up the historical timeline.
Even if you’re not familiar with Plato, this may sound like a very dry premise for a novel. Fortunately for us, Walton has three very compelling narrators tell us the story of the nascent Just City. Maia is one of the scholars drafted by Athena to be one of the first generation of teachers, Maia was born in Victorian England and always chaffed at the restrictions society placed on her gender. Simmea was born in Coptic Alexandria and sold as a slave after her village was raided by a group of teachers who are recruiting (purchasing) 10-year-olds to be the City’s first generation. As she grows, she becomes a loyal member of the City and considers herself lucky that she was chosen to live there—considering what her life probably would have been like back in the world. Apollo, in his guise as Pytheas, is also a narrator. By living as a human, Apollo has learned to temper his arrogance and privilege.
The first teachers—the Masters—are mostly philosophers, with a few translators and natural philosophers thrown in to keep things interesting. Few of them come from the twentieth century. I remember thinking as I read the book that if there had been any psychologists or sociologists or historians in the group, they would have known that the City was doomed from the start. The Republic was a thought experiment; it wasn’t meant to be a blueprint for an actual living city. There were too many gaps. Not only that, but Plato wasn’t really a student of human nature. People are complicated things. No matter how much you try to level the playing field and make everyone’s experiences the same, you can’t predict how people will turn out.
One of my favorite characters in The Just City is Sokrates (though I love Maia and Simmea). Just as he is portrayed by Plato in the dialogues, Sokrates is a questioner and a troublemaker. He still has a ravenous hunger for knowledge and information. When Sokrates shows up in the City, his questions soon cause the small cracks in the community to grow into big, ugly, glaring problems.
All dystopias are thought experiments. The Just City wears its inspiration more obviously than other examples of the genre. Every dystopic setting I’ve ever read about started with an attempt to make people better. They’re always wildly optimistic. And, just like The Republic, they’re always doomed to fail because they never take human psychology and unpredictability into account. Walton gives us the opportunity to really explore this idea as her characters build and inhabit Plato’s Just City. More than that, she makes philosophy come to life in The Just City.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 13 January 2015.