Saturday, March 28, 2015

What we're reading: Fiction and Philosophy

The Just City is the latest offering from Jo Walton, science fiction and fantasy author of My Real Children and Among Others, previously reviewed here. I am so at a loss for how to describe this book that I am going to borrow a paraphrase of the excellent summary from the Booklist review:
Together with 300 scholars plucked from 25 centuries, the goddess Athene sets out to establish Plato's Republic and build the Just City on the backwater island of Kallisti, known to later generations as Atlantis. To populate it, she imports 10,080 10-year-olds, among them the slave girl Simmea. Another of the children is Pytheas, who is secretly the god Apollo in human form. Simmea and Apollo serve as two of the story's three narrators; the third is a young woman, Maia, who hails from mid-Victorian England. The children's reason for being is to pursue excellence, to become their best selves and ultimately--if all goes well--Plato's philosopher kings. Somewhat incongruously, providing food and doing the work necessary to maintain the island's life is the role of robots imported from the distant future. Five years into the experiment, Socrates is brought to the island against his will to teach the children (now teenagers) rhetoric, and that's when things get...interesting.
I really enjoyed reading this book, but just like Walton's Among Others, the audience needs to have at least some knowledge of various subjects in order to understand and appreciate the story, so I'm not sure to whom I would recommend it! In that case it was a copious knowledge of science fiction; in this case, it's philosophy, specifically Socratic and Platonic, which makes this a somewhat esoteric experience! But the mix of old ideas with fresh interpretations, and the first-hand experiences of naive participators in a theoretical plan for societal excellence proved to be a thought-provoking and entertaining read, especially after the gadfly Socrates arrives on the scene. One warning: The book has a rather abrupt and weird ending. (I discovered on the very last page that there is a sequel planned!)  I hope the right people for this series discover it, because if you like this sort of thing, it's wonderful.

You can find The Just City on the New Books shelf at the Central Library.

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