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The Just City
by Jo Walton
TOR Books; $29.99; 368pp
Published: January 2015

Walton says she was spurred to write this by reading Plato’s Republic when she was fifteen, inspired to do so by author Mary Renault. So here, she, basically, has time travelers setting up Plato’s Just City on the Greek island of Kallisti (modern day Santorini) the island that eventually blows up and where many think Atlantis may have been. The destructive volcanic explosion is, I believe, a good thousand years in the future and Mycenae and Minos are the dominant civilizations in the Mediterranean.

The gods Pallas Athene (Walton chooses to spell Athena this way) and Apollo decide to establish the Just City because they both admire Plato and his ideas in the Republic (and his other writings.) So Athene kidnaps a lot of young children around the age of ten and from different time periods mostly from slavers, figuring their lives could only be improved by being taken to the Just City instead of living the brutal short life of a slave. Anyone who has prayed to Athene sincerely and with conviction to save them from their ignorant environment is also taken to the Just City---and a great many of these are women including an exceedingly intelligent Victorian woman who lives the shadowy dull life of an unmarried genteel woman on the edge of poverty.

Philosophers from several ages are taken just before their moment of death, including to everyone’s delight (but to his consternation): Sokrates (Walton uses a “k” instead of a “c.”). Sokrates really doesn’t want to be in the Just City but its structure, the debates and the intelligent planning intrigue him. He’s a wonderfully imagined character here.

The novel switches POV from a slave girl named Simmea, to Maia (the aforementioned Victorian lady), to Apollo, occasionally to Athene who in the Just City is known as Septima and mostly hangs out at the library.

What Athene also does, is rescues great works of literature (especially most of the destroyed libraries at Alexandria and Constantinople) and paintings, sculptures, etc. which have been destined for burnings or destruction in wars (lots of items from World War II,) There are even people from the 20th century---and even more fascinating, large worker/robots that do the heavy construction, the gardening and farming, street-sweeping, whatever slaves actually used to do. They are from an unknown place in the future. The city has electricity and plumbing but is still very Greek in appearance and everyone wears kitons.

Everything in the city is laid out. There are a fixed number of masters and children.  Everyone’s lives, their loves, their food and what they do are circumscribed by Plato’s teachings.

Apollo has an interesting conversation with one of the characters about the far future, even mentioning living on Mars. But there is not a lot from that time stream because people rarely call on the Greek gods---and of course the further you go, the less they are remembered. You have to call on Apollo and Athene or whomever to have them manifest in your life.

In this story, Apollo decides to become incarnate, meaning he is human, not a god and will remain so until he dies when he then can return to being an actual god. His name in the novel is Pytheas. And even a god can learn about the humans who are his votaries and loves.

This is a very low-key novel. It is about ideas and debates and the nature of the universe—even briefly religion—because there are a few Christians and how the Greek gods are fit into the Christian mythos are fascinating. One of the most interesting debates is whether the workers have volition and can think for themselves. And does that also mean they have souls?

And that’s the crux of this novel. Fascination. The idea of setting up a City so humans can reach for personal excellence, justice and the good life. An ideal life as imagined by Plato.

But is it indeed, ideal? If a goddess is manipulating things so they conform to Plato’s ideas—is this really what Plato wanted? More importantly, is strict adherence to Plato’s ideal in the best interest of humanity? The story ends on a big note and could lead to more books—or at least another novel.

This would be a terrific novel for a book club discussion. I wished I’d had it in my twenties when I could have stayed up all night and discussed all the ideas put forth here with like-minded friends.

Marvelous, satisfying stuff. It’s the kind of writing that opens windows and brings fresh air to your brain. ~~ Sue Martin

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