Series: Thessaly #1
Published by Tor Books on January 13th, 2015
Genres: Alternate History
"Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent."
Created as an experiment by the time-traveling 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.
Take Animal Farm by George Orwell, mix it with some ancient greek philosophy and mythology, add a pinch of the popular young-adult dystopian genre, and there you have it: The Just City by Jo Walton.
The book tells the story of a social experiment led by the Greek Goddess Athena: she decide to challenge humans into implementing the fairest society possible, just as imagined by Plato in The Republic. The city masters are adults from various times in history, who speak ancient Greek and who once prayed for Athena. The city population is then completed with about a thousand 10-years-old children, many of them slaves bought and brought on the isolated island. These are expected to work on becoming their best-selves and, ultimately, provide the city with philosopher kings. While the masters are already struggling with the practical details of raising a thousand orphans, Socrates is suddenly brought to the city without his consent, snatched away by Athena a few hours before his death. He is not happy.
First of all, I loved the idea of the book: I’m fond of Greek mythology and antiquity in general, and I enjoyed reading an attempt to implement The Republic: it was at times quite thought-provoking. Jo Walton made a nice work showing how theories can clash against reality and ideals against human nature. For instance, how the Just City’s strict natality plan conflicts with people’s natural ability to love. Also, the book nicely shows how the culture we’re born into influences our perception of “just”: for example, the masters, coming from various places in time and space, have conflicting opinions about slavery and men/women equality in the book.
The story is also griping and well paced. The narrator changes with each chapter, providing more depth and a variety of points of view. The book offers the very typical tropes of young adult dystopian novels (though I wouldn’t advice this book to young readers, due to a rape scene disturbingly left unpunished): on one side, you have teenagers in search of identity, possibly in conflict with the older generation and the mechanisms of society. On the other side, a wiser and somewhat marginal adult who will provide insights. An investigation will follow revealing the true nature of the society’s mechanisms and finally a call to action. It worked well in The Giver and Divergent and it works for The Just City too.
Unfortunately, I was much less happy with the use of Plato’s philosophy. First, I found that The Just City focused heavily on the obsolete and controversial aspects of The Republic (for instance the destruction of the family cell). Second, it ironically doesn’t focus much on politics: there are no real discussions about how, or by whom, the city should ultimately be ruled. Third, the subject of justice itself is only superficially treated: the novel talks about how The Just City might or might not be fair to the children as individuals (for bringing them in the city, for instance) but there’s no tribunal system. People live a life pretty much deprived of choices and responsibilities, and in the end it’s not really a functional city: it’s a giant philosophy summer camp.
Finally, a few characters failed to convince me. That can happen when you make use of Gods, like Athena and Apollo, and of the most known philosopher of all time, Socrates. The Gods are not grand enough (even though Greek Gods are famous for being petty) and Socrates is more of an orator than a philosopher. He’s less shown as an explorer of the Truth than as an unbeatable debater. This is too far from the Socrates I imagine, the one who was condemned to death after failing to convince in his trial. The one who started his speech (in The Apology) by stressing that he is not an orator.
Overall, The Just City is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel with an original setting and unusual, likeable characters. Telling a very accessible story based on a philosophy book is a laudable challenge, which I appreciated to read. Unfortunately, The Just City focused too much on the obsolete (and thus controversial) ideas of Plato, and very individual happiness and freedom, letting aside all the other aspects of The Republic (actual justice and politics).