Monday, October 26, 2015

The Just City (Thessaly #1), by Jo Walton

Tor Books, ISBN 9780765332660, January 2015

In the aftermath of his pursuit of Daphne, in which she chose to have Artemis transform her into a tree rather than yield to him, Apollo seeks an explanation from Athene. The goddess of wisdom talks about puzzling concepts like volition and equal significance--it hadn't occurred to him that just because he wanted her, Daphne didn't necessarily want him. She then recruits him to a little project of her own: building Plato's Just City, from The Republic.

It's just an experiment.

They choose an island that will later be destroyed by a massive eruption, destroying the evidence of their experiment and leaving only the legend of Atlantis behind. The teachers, the Masters, are three hundred men and women from across time who have read The Republic in Greek, and have prayed to Athene that they be allowed to participate in building the Just City.

The one thousand and eighty children who will be raised in the Just City are bought at slave markets across the Mediterranean ant the Middle East, from times when slavery exists, and where the annual return of slave buyers looking specifically for ten-year-old children creates a demand which slavers of course work to fill.

Apollo wants to understand mortals better, and incarnates to become one of the children sold to become part of the population of the city, under the name Pytheas. Athene doesn't go quite so far, and participates in the planning and building as herself for the first few years, before transforming herself into the appearance of a child, taking the name Septima, when the children start arriving.

For most of the children it really is a better life than they would have lived. One of the girls, Simmea, a brilliant but not very attractive child, is thrilled to find herself learning reading, writing art, mathematics, music, and philosophy. Others, such as her friend, the boy Krebes, are not so pleased, bitterly resenting being brought there and kept there against their will, and by no means believe the Masters are good, trustworthy, or of good judgment.

As the children grow up, educated together and encouraged to strive for excellence, but also gradually fitted into Plato's theoretical scheme, complications arise. It's not quite so neat and tidy, dividing the children into the metaphoric metals of their aptitudes and characters, especially when it's important to arrive at certain proportions of gold, silver, iron, and bronze. It gets worse when the Festivals of Hera begin, when the children are deemed adult enough to start breeding the next generation, with one-day "marriages" with man and woman chosen for each other randomly--at least in theory.

Then Sokrates is rescued involuntarily from his date with death, and brought to the city to teach rhetoric. And he starts asking all sorts of awkward questions.

This is a wonderful exploration of ideas, of freedom and justice and autonomy, and of an attempt to make Plato's Just City real. It's also an exploration of some interesting and complex characters, and the clash between beautiful theory and messy practice when real people are involved.

The Just City is the first of a trilogy, but the second volume, The Philosopher Kings, is already out, and the third, Necessity, is due out in June of next year.

I found this a thoroughly satisfying read. Recommended.

I bought this book.