“I think the issue you may be missing with Daphne, with all of this, is to do with consensuality. She hadn’t vowed virginity, she might have chosen to give her virginity up one day. But she hadn’t made that choice.”
“I’d chosen her.”
“But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.” Athene shrugged.
“But it’s a game,” I said. I knew she wouldn’t understand. “The nymphs run away and we chase after.”
“It may be a game not everyone wants to play,” Athene suggested.
First, a warning. As you may gather from the quote I’ve selected, The Just City is not lacking in rape scenes and discussions thereof. The book draws a lot of its more obvious inspiration from ancient Greek philosophy and mythology alike, and it’s fair to say that the ancient Greeks had quite a bit of rape-based mythology. We begin with Apollo begging Athene for an explanation: why, when he tried to have sex with her, did Daphne instead pray to turn herself into a tree? Consent is a huge theme throughout the narrative, with examples ranging from this initial and very explicit instance, through social structures such as slavery, and into a number of grey areas.
Being gods, Apollo and Athene have more options than most when it comes to testing their world and its truths, and Plato’s Republic gives them a schematic from which to build their own city. Apollo lays down all his divine powers to take on mortality for a natural lifespan, while Athene meanders through time, plucking out a collection of like-minded humans to build the city of Platonic dreams.
In the same way as Plato’s dialogues provide a framework for examining a set of ideas, so you could argue that to write any work of speculative fiction is to conduct a form of thought experiment: how would people behave if the world were thus? In The Just City, Walton presents a thought experiment more specifically and explicitly situated around the question of what would happen if people — well-intentioned, philosophically-minded, yet imperfect people — tried to establish the city-state of Plato’s Republic in the real world.
“There isn’t an end point to excellence where you can have it and you can stop. Being your best self means keeping on trying.” — Apollo in The Just City
Although she allows the human ‘masters’ to make most of the decisions, it’s Athene who drives this project forward: without her ability to step outside of time, and thence between the centuries, the dreamers’ dreams would have remained just that. She elects to establish the city in a time period a little before the Trojan war, choosing an isolated island off the Greek coast where her meddling might go without notice. Our point-of-view characters are Apollo, primarily in his young human form; Maia, a young woman from Victorian England who sees the potential of Plato’s ideas and is one of those recruited to help; and Simmea, a slave girl purchased to populate the incipient city.
The initial acquisition of Simmea and her compatriots provides the first glimpse of injustice in the blueprint: by buying children of a certain age group, throughout the Mediterranean and through the years, the masters create a demand that slavers don’t hesitate to fill. Simmea, however, is quickly won over by the city itself. She embraces the opportunity to immerse herself in the study of philosophy, art, and gymnastics. Her friendships form the backbone of the story, giving concrete examples of relationships which we (and she) can compare to Plato’s concepts of philia, agape, and eros. She argues with Kebes, a fellow freed-slave who hates the city and its founders from their very first day. She befriends Pythaeus, not knowing he’s actually Apollo. And when he arrives in the five-year-old city, she attracts the attention of Socrates himself.
Featuring both flesh-and-blood gods and various historical figures (from Cicero to Marsilio Ficino), this setup could easily have become a farce, but the tone tends more towards tragedy than comedy. Although Simmea loves her city, she’s smart enough to identify the darker undercurrents within the system. Apollo, experiencing mortality for the first time, learns more than he’d imagined about time and pain and helplessness. Maia dreamed of the possibilities of true gender equality, but finds herself too often dismissed by many of the men who supposedly signed up to the same philosophy. And the inequality of childbirth is inescapable.
Through the extreme structures proposed by Plato, we are able to examine the concept of societal (contrasted with personal) compulsion. Take the Republic‘s proposal of ‘marriage’ as a temporary union. Partners are allocated by the state, the brief relationships existing only for the purpose of procreation, and the ballot manipulated for the purpose of eugenics. When a couple consent to sex because duty demands it of them, though neither of them wishes it, is the result any less cruel than when one party individually decides to rape the other? Similarly, the city’s children are to be raised communally, whether or not their parents actually wish to give them up. By contrast, the benefits of personal excellence are highlighted and celebrated, along with agency and equality. Through it all, the question remains: to what extent should societal good overwhelm personal wishes? Although Walton doesn’t offer answers, she provides illustrative glimpses of many sorrows resulting from Plato’s arrangements, and a book that has stayed with me long beyond the final page.
Jo Walton is an award-winning author, writing across the speculative fiction genres. The Just City is her eleventh novel.