On My Bookshelf: The Just City

the just cityTo begin with, I have enjoyed every book I’ve read by Jo Walton. I might have enjoyed The Just City, but if I did, it was just for the ideas.

I have not read Plato. I have no interest in reading ancient pagan philosophers, even if they’ve had some effect on Christianity or Western Civilization. Too often I find enough silly ideas to throw the whole figure of history into my box for skepticism.

In The Just City, the goddess Athene decides to put Plato’s Republic to the test. She recruits teachers from all ages, and children from ancient slave markets to assemble the title’s “just city.” But it’s not so just, after all: a teacher rapes a colleague, children are punished for running away, and as it turns out, the goddess is rather picky about how close she adheres to the book. And when people point this out, she gets really ticked off.

Ms Walton narrates this novel through the words of three characters: Maia, a Christian teacher from Victorian England; Simmea, a seventh-century Egyptian girl lifted from a slave market; and the god Apollo who thinks he needs a lesson in humanity.

The book is packed with philosophical discussions. When Socrates appears, the city begins to unravel, starting with the “golden” boys and girls as they mature into young adulthood.

If Ms Walton is presenting Plato, it’s a pretty poor system to be advocating. Most enjoyable in this book was the final scene where Socrates challenges and debates Athene with the entire populace in attendance.

Less enjoyable is the cartoonish presentation of pagan deities, though given what I have read in mythology, was not at all out of character. The two women are GLG*’s for the system, despite the prodding of Socrates and other people who suggest that the Just City is not all that just. For women who are presented as chief protagonists–and quite intelligent–they have massive blind spots where their beloved project is concerned. If women are elevated to equal consideration in this city, but seem to lack the perception of what is really going on, is that feminism?

The science fiction portion comes in through the Greek deities. Athene and her agents can travel through time at will. She decides to plant the city on this island in deep antiquity before the volcano blows. Except for the time travel theme, or perhaps in spite of it, the rest of the novel is decidedly a fantasy.

I suppose a fan of Greek philosophy might enjoy this book. It struck me as akin to Athene’s city: an experiment. A better novel would have done more with the characters.

* good little girls

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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