Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
The Just City opens with Apollo deeply perplexed. Why wouldn’t Daphne dally with him? He’s a god! Why would she rather be turned into a tree by Artemis? Athena tries to explain that humans care about making their own choices, but that doesn’t make sense to Apollo’s god-brain way of thinking and he really wants to understand, so when Athena suggests he temporarily take on mortal form and join her philosophical experiment to create the Just City described in Plato’s Republic, Apollo is all in.
It’s a huge project, but fortunately being outside temporal constraints herself Athena has the ability to time travel people and supplies around. After choosing the isolated, ancient island of Atlantis as the setting, Athena retrieves advanced robots from our distant future to act as laborers, brings in thousands of 10-year-olds purchased in bygone Mediterranean slave markets to be educated as per Plato, and whisks away hundreds of idealistic adults (some of them actual historical figures) from just about every human epoch to become instructors and administrators.
The story is told through first person narratives of three characters who, like everyone in the Just City, are working at becoming their ideal selves. Apollo has incarnated as an unnaturally gifted but socially clueless former slave boy seeking to understand the ways of humans. Helping him with that is Simmea, another of the city’s 10,000 children. She started out life sometime between 500 and 1000 AD on her family’s farm in North Africa, but after being captured and then sold into slavery Simmea relishes the unexpected, goddess given opportunity to cultivate her mind, strengthen her body, and create art. The third narrator, Maia was living in Victorian times deeply frustrated by the many restrictions placed on women when she prayed to Athena and was transported through time and space to Atlantis. Now she’s one of the adults teaching the Just City’s children and helping to make decisions about how to bring Plato’s vision to light.
There are problems to work out in the Just City--Plato has some awkward ideas about procreation for instance and sometimes instructors from vastly different historical eras have trouble coming to consensus--but everything is going along fairly smoothly. Then five years into the project Athena imports Socrates to teach the children philosophy, and true to form he starts stirring up trouble by questioning everything, from the Just City’s underlying principles to the treatment of the robots. Socrates quickly became one of my favorite characters--who else would try to turn robots into lovers of wisdom?
It sounds wacky and there is humor, but for me the story was completely gripping. The characters have strong but sometimes clashing emotional investments in Athena’s project and I was completely fascinated by all the machinations that went into their joint attempt to create Plato’s Just City.
I read Plato’s Republic in college, but that was decades ago and I don’t think having studied it is a prerequisite for enjoying this book if it sounds interesting to you. Most of what you need to know is in the story, and you can read a quick summary of The Republic on the internet if you want more. This is my first Jo Walton book, but I will definitely be reading others. She won Hugo and Nebula awards in 2012 for Among Others, so that may be next.