Volume 33, Number 02, Winter, 2015

The Just City

By Jo Walton

Tor, 2015
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2015

In The Just City, Jo Walton (winner of the LFS’s Best Novel Award in 2008 for Ha’Penny) begins a close examination of perhaps the oldest known literary utopia: Plato’s Politeia (usually known as the Republic). In fact, what Walton seems to be undertaking is a systematic deconstruction of Plato’s imaginative creation, rather as Donald M. Kingsbury deconstructed Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Second Foundation in Psychohistorical Crisis. The premise of her story is a serious attempt to bring Plato’s ideal city into being.

Walton does not consider herself a libertarian, but some of her themes are entirely congruent with libertarian concerns. The novel begins with a brief framing narrative by the god Apollo, who is baffled at having his sexual advances refused by the nymph Daphne. When his half-sister Athene tells him that the issue is his failure to obtain Daphne’s consent, he decides that he needs to learn more about such concepts as volition and equal significance, and that the best way to do so is to become human. Athene promptly invites him to do so as one of the children who will be raised in a city modeled on Plato’s Republic, which she is founding to explore Plato’s ideas. He takes her up on it, and becomes one of the viewpoint characters of Walton’s story.

Volition, equal significance, and the necessity of consent are of course major concerns of libertarian thought! And in fact Walton systematically explores them. At the most personal level, there are two rapes in this novel, both of mortal women by mortal men; Athene recruits adults from all through history to be the city’s teachers, but though all of them admired Plato and sincerely prayed to her for his ideas to be true, the men and women didn’t all focus on the same ideas of Plato’s! All of the children who inhabit the city were purchased from slavers, and at least one of the boys bitterly resents this, regards himself as still a slave, and refuses his consent to the city. And over the course of the novel, the issue of whether Athene’s city has the actual consent of any of its residents comes more and more into question. It’s worth noting in relation to this that Plato explicitly recommended the division of his Republic’s people into a kind of castes, identified with gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and called for the city’s elders to lie to the young about how the assignment took place.

At a key point in the story, Plato’s mentor, Socrates, is brought to the city, to teach rhetoric. But Socrates’s presence is deeply disruptive to Plato’s ideals—which Socrates completely disavows, as something that Plato made up and made Socrates a spokesman for. Asked to teach, Socrates doesn’t confine his teaching to the gold and silver youngsters, but chooses the students he finds interesting. And even worse, he finds a way to engage in dialogue with the city’s robots, brought by Athene from some century in our near future to labor for it, and in doing so raising the question of whether they count as self-aware beings and whether it’s just to treat them as property. A great debate partly over this issue triggers the climax of The Just City.

The Republic is, in a sense, one of the oldest philosophical works advocating what economists call “central planning”: an economy and a society where all decisions about goods and services are made by a central authority of enlightened experts—and, in Plato’s vision, even decisions about sex and reproduction. In Plato’s vision, the guardians were to obtain the consent of the lesser citizens by lying to them and manipulating them, so that they didn’t know what they were really consenting to. Walton’s fictional vision explores the practical difficulties with sustaining this kind of deception, as well as the ethical questions about volition, equal significance, and consensuality that it raises. And she also hints at the difficulties of a planned economy, even one with robots doing most of the actual productive work—including the problem of capital replacement, as the robots stop working correctly or wear out, while various committees struggle to decide how to keep things going. Her concerns are strikingly reminiscent of those that Friedrich Hayek raised in his discussions of knowledge and its fundamental lack thereof in central planning (for example, in The Fatal Conceit).

I think that there may be other ways to take Plato than as an advocate of central planning. It’s striking that the Republic points out gains from trade and the wealth yielded by a market economy. And the collectivism it calls for seems to be limited primarily to the guardians, who are meant to protect that wealth and provide law and justice to their society and who are denied marriage and property to safeguard their impartiality; it doesn’t seem to be expected of the common people. Plato may be asking how society can be governed in the general interest, and not in the interest of factions. This seems to be how Heinlein took him in Space Cadet, which refers to Plato’s three virtues—wisdom, courage, and temperance—as appropriate to three classes of men, and makes the Space Patrol an embodiment of wisdom and thus a version of Plato’s guardians. But it seems fitting that Walton, an admirer of Heinlein, has made her own contribution to the further science fictional exploration of Plato’s Republic, which as a pioneering utopian work must be counted one of the wellsprings of science fiction as a genre; and that, in doing so, she has also told an interesting and well-constructed story about appealing characters, an example of the Renaissance maxim “instruct by pleasing” that guided Heinlein’s best work.

It appears that there are to be further volumes in this series. I looked forward to reading them

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