Robots, Time Travel, and Social Experiments: Why You Don’t Have to Be An Expert on Plato to Enjoy The Just City

If you know anything about Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first book in her Thessaly trilogy, it’s probably the inescapable fact that Plato’s Republic is a cornerstone of the novel. The titular city that is constructed and that the characters come to inhabit is modeled explicitly on the society that is outlined in Plato’s foundational text of Western Philosophy. It’s the most intimate mixing of a classical text and science fiction that I have ever read, and in a very real way, The Just City is in dialogue with The Republic in a way that Plato himself, I think, would have approved.

What if, however, you’ve never read The Republic, and the only thing you know about Plato is that he’s the guy who came up with the Allegory of The Cave? Or perhaps even that is news to you. Can you still derive pleasure and value from tackling The Just City? Should you even try? Can you read The Just City without a course on Plato, first? Absolutely!

Just as not being steeped in Christian theology shouldn’t stop you from reading C.S. Lewis, or not having a PhD in literature shouldn’t stop you from reading Gene Wolfe, not having any prior knowledge or interest in Plato’s Republic is no barrier to your enjoyment of The Just City. I am here to show you the many delights of the book that require absolutely no prior knowledge of Plato or The Republic.

Even if you’ve never read Plato, and can’t distinguish Glaucon from Thrasymachus, the major figures of Greek mythology are far more widely known and embedded in Western literature and thought. The Just City may have The Republic as its foundational text and its model, but the debate and conflict that drives the novel, at its highest level, is between two very familiar mythic figures—the goddess Athena and the god Apollo. It is their contention and their dialogue that causes the Platonic experiment of the Just City to be constructed and populated. The novel goes even further, however, by having the two gods enter into the city, inhabiting it as mortal children. The Just City explores what happens when two of the more complicated Greek gods create an artificial human society…and are then drawn into participating in their own experiment, temporarily surrendering their godly selves to mingle with the mortals in an attempt to understand issues like choice, consent, and autonomy.

The Just City, however, is not just for fans of mythology. Readers of Walton’s previous works, both fictional (Among Others) and non-fictional (What Makes This Book So Great) know that she has a deep and abiding love for genre tropes and ideas. And The Just City is as fully hip-deep in the waters of genre as it is in Greek philosophy, or mythology. The central conceit of the novel, Athena’s creation of the Platonic city, requires a population of residents in order to be effectuated. Athena’s cunning plan is to take lovers of The Republic—thinkers who might be amenable to fulfilling its ideals and its mission—and bring them from various points in history back to the pre-historical site that the city is being constructed on. The mixing of people from various points in time (both past and future), brought to one point in the past recalls for me classic science fiction in the mold of Poul Anderson’s The Dancer from Atlantis, to cite just one example.

Further, the intellectual nature and preoccupations of these scholarly masters means that a lot of the actual drudge work involved in getting the city up and running has to be performed by someone, or something. Athena’s elegant solution? Robots. Although most of the characters, especially from pre-technological times and societies do not refer to the Workers as robots, and don’t think of them that way, the clear model that Athena is channeling here is the classic Asimovian artificial servitors. Once again, Walton’s abiding love for and interest in the formative science fiction of her youth gets mixed with a mythological theme. The interactions between the inhabitants and the robots, as the inhabitants probe the natures and limits of their servitors, are a classic case of interrogating a science fictional idea. Any reader who wants their science fiction to be in intimate contact with strong and abiding tropes drawn from classic SF will find favor with The Just City.

The novel also delves into some thorny and meaty issues that run to the root of not only The Republic and its foundation, but to basic questions of philosophy and human existence. While a part of the population (the masters) are brought to the city by at least tacit and implicit desire, as mentioned previously, the bulk of the population is made up of the ten thousand children, brought to the island with the express intent of raising them entirely according to the tenets and ideas discussed in The Republic, using the dialogue as its operational manual. While the details of The Republic might not be familiar to all readers of The Just City, the very idea of purchasing children from slavers and bringing them to live in the city without any regard for their own wishes is a premise that extends far beyond the bounds of Plato’s book and raises questions of free will and autonomy that are universal. Similarly, even without any background knowledge of the arguments set forth in The Republic, the concept of individuals being bound to roles that they are deemed by society and custom to be suited for—even if they personally feel otherwise—is the kind of problematic thought experiment that science fiction was made to explore.

These issues of free will and self-determination give rise to compelling questions who whose answers are not only explored in The Just City, but help precipitate change and conflict in the novel. The novel’s points of view give us a strong focus on the female inhabitants of the City, giving us a pair of interesting protagonists in Simmea, a child of the ancient world sold into slavery, and Maia, a Victorian woman who was selected by Athena out of time and space to dwell there. This further lets the author explore the nature of gender roles, in an ancient society (specifically an “ideal” ancient society), as well as showing us the stratification of different social levels in that world. Oh, and then there is Apollo, whose point of view is used less frequently but remains crucial to the story, providing additional perspective on the plot as it unfolds. All three characters grow, change, and are tested throughout the novel.

The Just City Jo WaltonWhen Socrates (spelled “Sokrates” in the novel; also known as So-Crates to fans of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) shows up and starts analyzing, criticizing, and tearing apart the very nature of Plato’s Just City, he seizes immediately upon these thorny issues of free will. It is Socrates who asks about the Workers’ rights and desires. It is Socrates who holds up a lens to this society and questions its essential fairness, not only for the humans who have been brought here against their will and bound to its caste-like society, but also scrutinizing the robots’ plight and their place in this world. Readers who enjoy thorny, character-focused issues in their science fiction, with strong female characters to boot, will find a lot to love, here.

The Just City is a landmark of Walton’s writing, an intriguing and deep exploration of Platonic philosophy and how it might actually work if people with the power, means, and will to implement such a society decided to create their own world. But more than that, The Just City is a novel about people brought out of time to build a community, and about the children who are torn from their lives to be inculcated and grow up in a society not their own but forced upon them, and it is about the difficulties in creating a civilization from scratch. The Just City offers rich rewards for genre readers of nearly all stripes—go forth and enter into a dialogue with it.

Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels—The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity—are available from Tor Books.

An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).


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