The Just City was the first idea I ever had.
I remember having the idea too. I was reading Plato’s Republic, and I got to the bit where he said that the way to do it would be to take over a city and get rid of everyone over ten, and I had two simultaneous thoughts. One was that I’d have loved it when I was ten. The other was that Plato didn’t know much about ten year olds if he thought they were blank slates where he could start from scratch. I knew a lot more about them. After all, I was still only fifteen. And I thought what a wonderful story it would make, time travellers setting up Plato’s Republic, and what it would be like being that ten year old. I wanted to write it.
It’s not that I was a particularly philosophical fifteen year old. I was reading The Republic because I’d read Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo and I wanted more Plato. I’m deeply grateful to Renault for this, because I read Plato the same way I read science fiction or whatever else I could get my hands on as a young voracious reader, and so I never had the problem some people seem to have with him. Plato is seen as being “high culture” and so supposed to be dry, difficult and perhaps a little boring. I was too young to know this, and so I just lapped it up. I read The Symposium first, as recommended by Axiothea in The Mask of Apollo (always take reading recommendations from fictional characters, because they’re the ones who really know) and I loved it, and I went on to read all the rest of the Plato available to me, except the Timaeus, which I didn’t read because it was the last one and I didn’t want to be done. (I didn’t read the Timaeus until 2013. It made a lot more sense of NeoPlatonism when I did!)
“The Just City” wasn’t the first thing I ever wrote. I had written several things before it, and some of them even had titles and characters (one was called The Loyalty Chain, which I still think it an awesome title) but none of them had ideas, not solid science-fictional ideas you could explain to people like “time travellers setting up Plato’s Republic”. They had people who could magically find paths, or people planning rebellions on space stations, but they didn’t have ideas. I was only a kid. “The Just City” now, that had ideas, and the ideas it had propelled me forward all one long summer holiday, writing by hand in the morning and copying it out, revising as I went, on a typewriter in the afternoons. Thessaly was the first thing I ever finished. It was technically novel length—just barely over 40,000 words long. I felt so pleased with myself. It had a beginning, and end, and a big mess in the middle.
It was about time travellers setting up Plato’s Republic, and everything not working out. It was very different from the eventual book I wrote as a grown up. It was entirely science fictional time travel, and the conclusion was some of the children who escaped from the Republic at the half way point decided to steal a time machine and set up their own version of the Republic at the end, only to realise that they had become the original time travellers and their younger selves were there and it was all a loop. (At fifteen, I thought this was the cleverest thing ever.) So it was different, but it had some similarities—the Republic, of course, and Ficino, Ficino was always in it.
I wrote it, and revised it, and even sent my precious typescript out to publishers, though of course I kept the carbon copy. They rejected it, of course, not being idiots. I don’t still have a copy, and it’s just as well. It must have been awful by any objective standards. But I learned a lot by writing it, and I didn’t obsessively rewrite it, I went on to write other things, and not write, and start writing again. I didn’t even think about it much, except whenever I read Plato, or talked about Plato, when I’d remember it fondly. I never intended to go back to it. I’d done it, I’d used it up, it was gone.
I was so confident that I was done with it that I put the moment when I had the idea for it into Among Others, when Mori reads Plato in exactly the same way. I wouldn’t have done that if there was any possibility in my mind that I was going to go back to it. I don’t go back to old ideas. I’m always having ideas. Ideas are the easy part, and I like new ideas. One of the reasons I write books that are in different subgenres is that when I’m done with something I am done. Usually, anyway. This surprised me.
One day in the spring of 2013, when I was forty-eight and had published nine novels and was in the middle of writing my tenth, My Real Children, Ada Palmer made a wonderful comment on her blog, Ex Urbe, about the value of discourse, in which she quoted Socrates on “the unexamined life is not worth living”. And I thought it was ages since I’d read The Apology, though I’d re-read The Republic (and talked about it here) not long before. So I re-read The Apology, and because I was reading the e-book I went on and read the things bundled with it that I never normally read, that I hadn’t read for years, the Phaedo and the Euthyphro and the Crito. And I was reading the Crito on the bus, and then I got off the bus and I was walking along downtown, on Rene-Levesque, and I was thinking that if I were Crito I’d have knocked Socrates on the head and dragged him off to Thessaly and let him argue later, when it was too late and his life was already saved. And then all at once, between one step and the next, I knew I really did want to write The Just City again, and this time it would be fantasy, and it would have Socrates in it.
I’d learned how to write in the intervening time. That ought to help.
I couldn’t wait to write it, but I had to, because I also really wanted to finish My Real Children. So I finished that as fast as I could—it was a book that needed to be written fast anyway, to keep it all straight in my head. While I was finishing it I re-read a bunch of Plato, and read a bunch of minor Plato for the first time, things that had never had a Penguin Classics edition but were now available on Gutenberg. Then I finished it, and the day after I sat down to start The Just City and there it was after all this time, my book about time travellers and Plato’s Republic, only this time it was fantasy, and it was exploring a whole bunch of consent issues that I’d never even thought about when I was fifteen.
It also had to have a different end, and that, of course, is why it’s now a trilogy.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Necessity. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here from time to time. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.