This whole novel is a bit of a thought experiment about people enacting a thought experiment: what would happen if people travelled through time to make Plato’s thought experiment of the Republic real, with the help of the Greek goddess Athene, the participation of her brother Apollo, and the addition of robots to do the hard work. There are multiple points of view: Maia, one of the readers of The Republic who comes to the city to found it; Simmea, one of the 10-year-olds recruited to be the first generation raised in the Republic; and Pytheas, the god Apollo incarnate in human form as another of those children. Those three perspectives together give us the City, from start to… well. The end of the book.
It’s really fascinating reading about the arguments for setting up the Republic, the way the Masters (Maia’s generation) interact and react to each other — because of course, very few people read The Republic and think that Plato’s suggestions should be implemented exactly as he says, but most people disagree on what things are right. And Walton has fun with who might plausibly be part of setting up the Republic: Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Lucrezia Borgia… along with other people real and fictional.
(It’s especially fun going back to this after reading Lent, and seeing two different…ish takes on Pico!)
It’s also fascinating following Simmea and Pytheas, seeing the way they pursue excellence not only for themselves but for each other. If there’s an ideal love affair in fiction, this might be it: while there are physical elements to their relationship (more implied in the second book than actually seen here), that’s not the basis of their love for each other, and they’re never static. Right to the end, they’re always pushing at each other, demanding excellence of one another, and it’s lovely.
And then of course there’s Sokrates, brought into the City in its fifth year. With him comes change: greater freedom for Simmea and others like her who are deemed to be ‘golds’, or budding philosophers, and greater questioning of what Plato meant, what will work, and of almost every assumption the Republic has been founded on. I’d have loved to see more of Crocus and the other robots and their developing intelligence and sense of self.
Really, I could delve into several different aspects of The Just City, have it all in much greater detail, and be pretty happy.
Before writing this review, I deliberately refused to look back at what I thought when I first read it until I finished writing this. It’s… a quite different review, from a different me, and probably also worth reading; I still agree with it, but I experienced the book differently this time!