The question that was uppermost in my mind as I finished Jo Walton’s new book, releasing January 13, is why isn’t it July yet? Because July is when her follow-up, The Philosopher Kings, is being published, and I’m dying to know where the story is going. But like Walton’s Apollo who experienced life in the Just City by giving up his status as a god and lived within time, so must I move through time and wait until this summer to see what happens to the people of Kallisti as their experiment in Platonic living becomes … something else.
Kallisti, home of the Just City, was founded by the goddess Athene as an experiment. People from across the ages who wanted to live the life laid out in Plato’s The Republic were brought to the doomed island of Atlantis build just such a world, with Athene’s help. Smarting from his recent rejection by the nymph Daphne, Apollo decides to become incarnate as a human and live in the Just City so that he can learn more about free will and equal significance. He comes to Kallisti along with the hundreds of slave children who are brought there and given their freedom and made members of this new world set up according to Plato’s instructions.
If you’re noticing a slight contradiction in that last sentence—given freedom and made members—you’re not wrong. One of the great things about this book is how the flaw in the system sneaks up on you and builds. The book’s three narrators—Apollo; Maia, one of the city’s founders; and Simmea, a slave child who grows up in the city—all chose to abide by they city’s rules. Apollo was there by choice. Maia prayed to Athene to come, without even knowing it was possible. And Simmea finds freedom and comfort that she’d never have had as a slave girl. In fact, both Maia and Simmea benefit from the insistence that women be equal in the Just City.
Of course, it’s one thing to set up lofty rules and another thing to deal with practical realities. And those practical realities keep nosing their way in. How, for example, can the city be truly just if most of the people there were given no choice in whether to come? The city’s founders assumed the slave children would love the city and forget their pasts, but even children have ideas and desires of their own. Plus, it becomes evident that Plato’s system may not take human desires sufficiently into account. This is especially true when it comes to his notion of one-day marriages solemnized at regular festivals as a way to populate the city.
Although the city does at first seem like a paradise, all of the problems in Plato’s philosophy, as well as the way the city’s founders applied that philosophy, reveal themselves more and more starkly. Sokrates, brought to the city after its founding to teach some of the most promising children, is particularly adept at drawing attention to what isn’t working, largely by getting the children to think for themselves.
I don’t know much about Plato or Socrates or any of the real-life historical figures who populate this book, but I do know a little something about people. And it’s people and our messy natures that drive the action in this book. Human nature can’t be made to abide by some artificial, sometimes arbitrary system, no matter how well it is meant and no matter how much many of us want to follow it.
The way Maia and the other city founders attempt to use Plato’s Republic to build their city got me thinking about how some people today attempt to use the Bible as a rule book for setting laws. Walton’s characters realize that The Republic is open to interpretation, and although they all read the same book, they could not all agree on how to apply it. People who love these books tend to focus on their favorite parts and find ways around the less comfortable parts. In Walton’s Kallisti, many of the city’s founding men, who generally come from patriarchal places and times, can’t get used to women being equal. Many of the women, often coming from times closer to our present, don’t know how to cope with the injunction to leave “defective” children out to die of exposure. Both ideas are in the text, and both groups treasure that text and want to follow it.
Many times, particularly in the earlier chapters, I felt the book was getting preachy, as the main characters expounded upon their ideals and why Plato was so worthy of reverence. But those speeches get subverted again and again by the reality of their lives in the Just City. Yet as murky as the morality behind the Just City proves to be, there is also much about it to admire. Even as the city’s people become increasingly confused about the role of free will among the children and as the children become aware of the way their lives have been directed, the people will act when presented with an obvious injustice regarding the city’s Workers, even when they don’t know what the implications will be. One of the things that makes this book terrific is the way Walton lets that confusion exist. I can only hope that she keeps it up with the next two book in the series, that follow future generations in the Just City.
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.