The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.
He goes to his sister, Athene, who explains the idea of consent. What Apollo terms ‘equal significance’ – of the volition of gods and mortals, and implicitly of men and women – is so novel and strange to him, that he decides to become mortal to try to understand. He joins Athene’s Just City as one of its founding children.
Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic becomes a real-life experiment on the conditions needed to live an excellent life. Hundreds of children are dropped on an island out of time and raised as the philosophers who will perfect the Just City when they grow up. Meanwhile, they are educated and subtly manipulated by a group of committed Platonists plucked from throughout human history.
But, as Jo Walton shows, this Just City neither escapes nor ever resolves its origin as a game predicated on overcoming the will of another. Rape is everywhere in this novel. There’s Apollo’s attempted rape just preceding the beginning, another about a quarter of the way through and, arguably, several hundred of them about a third of the way to the end. For a perfect society designed to create excellence, there’s an awful lot of rape in the Just City. If I were a pessimist, it would make me fear patriarchy is simply part of the human condition.
The other predicating condition for the Just City is slavery. Not only do the city’s founders buy children from slave markets around the ancient world, but the demand created for ten to eleven year olds causes some of the children’s families to be murdered and the children to be taken as slaves. Kebes, one of the stolen children, resolves never to fully submit to the excellence regime the city demands. It’s a pity his viewpoint isn’t featured more.
To avoid overt slavery in the Just City, Athene brings robots from the future to do the hard work. This allows the guardians to educate the children and for the female guardians to look after the thousands of babies the regime ultimately contrives. But eventually the robots become self-aware and get fed up of drudgery, and the humans have to accept that they rely on slaves. The sub-plot of the machines’ awakening to sullenness and its consequence for the economy of the city is very deft.
It is also very satisfying how Walton keeps threading the guardians’ shady decisions and deceptions through the novel. Some of the guardians try to gloss over or deny the Just City’s relationship with slavery, dismissing it as external to and not a necessary condition for the experiment. But slavery’s consequences keep coming back in the form of teenage recalcitrance, the withdrawal of labour and the threat of outright rebellion.
The system is corrupt from the inside out. Following the whims of the numerologists, the guardians impose a gamed class system on the children, and a programme of eugenics to boot. The moment the Guardians finesse the numbers to make the ‘right’ number of children gold and others silver and bronze, the principle of their judgement evaporates. But they fudge it and hope no one notices. And basically no one does.
Then there is the lot-drawing that decides who the children, now late teenagers, are required to have sex with (but only once every three months because Eros is unplatonic. Uh huh.). For reasons of the breeding programme, that, too, is secretly fixed.
Or there is the ongoing insistence of Cicero’s cadre of grumpy old men that women cannot be equal members of the Just City and cannot be debated with. The women – who Plato explicitly said can have philosophical souls – mostly shrug and let them get on with it. Everywhere you look in the Just City, un-excellent thinking is breaking out.
Before a major character is raped, she tries to argue her way out of it. She objects to being thought of by her rapist as one of ‘all women’, “a class of beings that are all the same”, that is to say, ‘a thing’. But the rapist is a rapist and he just wants what he wants. And anyway, she has come away from the city with him to discuss philosophy, so is obviously asking for it. He just knows she wants it, so there is nothing she can say to convince him she does not. She can’t get away, he says, so she might as well enjoy it. Afterwards, she can’t tell people because he’ll say she wanted it. Her word against his, as it always is, and his will carry the day, as it always does. Because who would choose to believe in such an awful every-day thing? And as so many women have done and will always do, she says nothing and withdraws from organisations or activities where she would see him. She doesn’t lash out at his bruised feelings at being ‘ignored’ by her. And she makes sure never to trust a man so innocently again.
(Funnily enough, his sorry-not-sorry present is a print of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat. It depicts an ahistorically ‘having it all’ Mary holding the infant Jesus while writing a book; the precise thing this character knows she can never do.)
For Maia, a natural intellectual who has escaped genteel poverty in Victorian England, the Just City is a life she dreamed of only for half a second. As a guardian, she has the responsibility to flesh out Plato’s slightly daft ideas with day-to-day wisdom to help her charges live a just life. The point of the guardians is to manage the city justly, but that is precisely what they fail to do. The Just City is built on godly injustice, joins to that the injustices peculiar to the guardians’ own epochs and cultures and, as Larkin would have it, ‘adds some extra, just for you.’
Like every cult, the Just City regulates access to women’s bodies, even while pretending to ignore them under ungendered kitons. The next generation is the goal. The kidnapped children are just the beginning of the epigenetic turn to perfection. Dining under Botticelli paintings and literally sitting at Socrates’ feet count for little when the teenaged heroine is forcibly impregnated – what can consent possibly mean when everyone you know says it is your duty? – and then has her baby taken away to be raised collectively. The inevitable result – profound depression and myriad ill health – is magicked away by Athene. At least for this one character, this one time. But the unshakeable Simmea truly believes the Just City is helping her to become her best self.
(The forced sex of the ‘one-day marriages’ is shown as sometimes equally excruciating for both young men and women. Apollo, in a rather pleasing not-quite-symmetry, has to muster every bit of willpower he can to perform terrible sex with a woman who detests him.)
Collectively, the guardians seem to have the same instrumental and affectless attitude to childbirth and child-rearing of George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith. Or maybe it’s just Plato’s odd ideas about children that are so off-key. The Just City model denigrates parenting, farming it out to low-status workers so that the biological parents can achieve their individual excellence. This seems to promise much, taking away from the heroine the burden of domestic labour that, even in this paradise, would fall only to her. But it leaves her a shattered wreck, a broken mother who cannot mother, an individual with no path back to the uncomplicated excellence she enjoyed before childbirth.
Which prompts one of the questions at the heart of Plato’s Republic. It’s part-prescription for a virtuous city in which individuals can achieve their best selves and, from that, build the true Just City. In the novel The Just City, the Republic isn’t so much a conception of justice as one of excellence through self-actualisation. With teenagers. No wonder it all goes horribly wrong.
The Just City is built on and shot through with rape and slavery. Walton shows them as simply the gender and class-based instantiations of a deeper view of other humans as mere instruments. The trick is, here it’s not just the gods who think they can play with human lives.
Can you achieve a Just City if you systematically lie to and manipulate children, carry out eugenics projects on them and pretend that food comes for free? Of course not, and The Just City shows precisely why not, albeit with a true-believing protagonist at its heart.
Although The Just City is a refreshingly a-Christian take on Platonism, it nicely illustrates Augustine’s conception of original sin. Original sin means on the one hand simply the fallen human condition, and on the other the idea that the sins of the parents and grand-parents will be visited on the children. Is it possible to expunge? Yes, say so many political theorists, but only if you get rid of families.
Families are profoundly impervious to political philosophy. No wonder Plato wants rid of them. Whether it’s an agrarian peasant paring off slithers of common land for his son, or a Conservative politician sending her offspring to private school while slashing social spending, parents play the system to benefit their children and screw everyone else. The screwing everyone else part can be hard to see, buried as it nowadays is under great big buttery wodges of middle class guilt and the vinegary narcissism of attachment parenting. But it’s still there. If even mediumly well-off people were to do just a little less ‘for their family’, we’d be well on the way to tackling inequality. So I feel for Plato. I really do.
But people are more important than systems and ideas and what-if social experiments. Always have been, always will. Even the unphilosophical ones. Even the venal ones. Even the rapists. The Just City’s stolen children long to recreate the families they were stolen from, and Simmea may be destined to end up a highly philosophical nappy-changer. It’s messy and unsatisfying and the hurt done more insidious and harder to escape. But people must come before ideas. If the twentieth century didn’t already teach us that, The Just City just might.