May 28, 2020

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Plato's Republic put to test in novel

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/3/2015 (1909 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Some working writers answer the question of what's on their nightstand with a rather boring copout: they're so busy with their own projects that everything they read is research.

But Welsh-Canadian Jo Walton has been a voracious bookworm for decades, and even as she's become a major force in publishing, she continues to read voluminously, to write about what she's read, to review, to blog, to revel.

But it's not only as a writer and fan that Walton straddles worlds. She also straddles the genre divide, happily describing herself as a genre author (it's difficult to be more specific, as she co-mingles genres habitually) even as she draws heavily on modern mainstream and classical literary traditions.

It's the opposite approach of someone like Margaret Atwood, who handles her science-fictional elements deftly but with a trace of reticence, as if in fear of losing some kind of literary credibility. Walton has the potential for tremendous cross-audience appeal but appears uninterested in pandering or writing to type. Nevertheless, simply by writing what interests her, she produces such powerhouses as The Just City.

The premise is simple, and audacious: The Just City is the story of Plato's Republic, the 2,400-year-old philosophical treatise that intended to describe how all human society should be run. The setup: Athena, goddess of wisdom in ancient Greek mythology, decides to try the Republic as an actual live experiment, travelling through time and pulling likely candidates from history to populate a city that will exist outside of causality or civilization at large. The city operates under the aegis of the wise and just Athena, with the support of robots from the future, which take the place of the otherwise-necessary, unseemly underclass that would be at the base of the city's day-to-day functioning.

The Republic is one of the earliest, most-studied works in political philosophy; unlike Karl Marx or Adam Smith, Plato's ideas have never been tested in real government. As an intellectual idea, Walton's thought experiment of a thought experiment is intriguing; to imagine a precariously balanced political structure populated with actual people rather than hypothetical uber-citizens makes for brilliant fiction.

Even with magic and the best technology the future has to offer, it seems the maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy also holds for would-be utopias. The enemy in this case might be human nature -- or maybe it was just a mistake to invite Socrates to this social experiment.

The story rotates through well-developed first-person perspectives in alternating chapters; protagonists include a young Victorian woman, a child slave from ancient times, and the sun god Apollo.

Using the trademark philosophical dialogue that has ever since borne his name, the 70-year-old, larger-than-life Socrates questions assumptions, illuminates contradictions and shatters pretenses.

Socrates alone would be worth the price of admission. Walton has managed to write the equivalent of several new pitch-perfect Socratic dialogues as set pieces within the larger plot -- an amazing feat. That her original characters and plot are equally charming is a bonus.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

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