Last week a British Head Teacher declared that children shouldn’t be allowed to read Fantasy novels because their darkness and violence damage “sensitive subconscious brains” and “encourage difficult behaviour”. He suggested that parents should read them Classics such as Shakespeare instead, which is odd if you consider the amount of darkness, violence and fantasy in Shakespeare’s plays. Can he ever have read “Macbeth” ? This is a man who clearly knows nothing of the range and depth of Fantasy fiction. In response, I’m going to recommend a Fantasy novel which is all about the right way to educate young minds – “The Just City” by Welsh/Canadian author Jo Walton. This came out in 2014 and is available in paperback or as an ebook.

At the start of this story the Greek god Apollo visits his half-sister, the goddess Athene, and learns about her project to help a group of humans found the ideal “Just City” described by the Athenian philosopher Plato (c.428-348 BCE) in his dialogue “The Republic”.  Athene uses her ability to travel through time to collect 300 people from many different eras who have all longed to live in Plato’s Just City. She brings them to the volcanic island of Kallisti (Thera) during the Bronze Age. This group, which includes some famous thinkers and scholars, are destined to be the Masters who will teach the first generation of children to love what is good and strive for excellence. Athene provides robots from a far future to build and maintain the new city and sends some of the Masters to collect great art and buy thousands of Greek-speaking ten year-old children at slave markets across the centuries. Apollo arranges to be reborn as one of these children because he thinks it will be interesting to experience this great experiment from a human point of view.

Among the children chosen by Renaissance philosopher, Master Ficino, is a clever Coptic girl from Egypt whom he renames Simmea. She is assigned to a dining hall called Florentia and a sleeping house presided over by Master Maia, who was born a clergyman’s daughter in 19th century England. Simmea loves her new communal life and the intensive education she receives but Kebes, a boy bought from the same slavers, resents the fact that he was given no choice about coming to Kallisti and that he is not allowed to leave. Kebes believes that he has a special relationship with Simmea, so he becomes jealous when she befriends an exceptionally handsome and brilliant boy called Pytheas.

As the children grow up it becomes increasingly clear that Plato didn’t know much about teenagers and that some of his ideas on how to achieve social justice are not working out as planned. Those ideas are questioned by Plato’s own mentor, Sokrates, when Athene has him saved from his execution in Athens and brought back in time to Kallisti. Among the children Sokrates chooses to teach are Simmea, Kebes and Pytheas, who are singled out as future Guardians – Plato’s ruling elite. They debate many issues, including whether it is worth building a society which is bound to be destroyed when the island’s volcano eventually erupts. Sokrates is also determined to find out whether the robots who have taken the place of human slaves are intelligent beings who should be treated as people. Some citizens of the Just City begin to follow forbidden forms of love; others plot rebellion and Sokrates prepares to challenge the power and wisdom of the gods…

The Head Teacher mentioned above complains that Fantasy fiction isn’t difficult or challenging enough to stimulate young minds. “The Just City” easily disproves that argument. I think you’ll find it intellectually stimulating whatever age your mind happens to be. Walton notes that she was inspired to write this novel by reading Plato when she was “way too young”. I’m glad to know that I wasn’t the only teenager to have imaginary arguments with Sokrates (I didn’t get out much). Plato, the original spinner of the Atlantis myth, can be seen as one of the earliest Science Fiction/Fantasy authors and the invented society he describes in “The Republic” is one of the most influential Utopias in literary history. For over 2,000 years readers have been both shocked and attracted by the revolutionary ideas expounded in Plato’s work – ideas such as the abolition of family units and equal education for women.

If you are now thinking that there is no point in trying to read “The Just City” because you don’t know anything about Plato, please don’t worry. Walton puts all the information you need into the story and the novel is cleverly constructed so that readers can identify with either of two contrasting groups of characters – the ones who are deeply influenced by “The Republic” and the ones who haven’t yet read the book that is shaping their lives. The children brought to Kallisti are not going to be allowed to read “The Republic” until they are 50, and then only if they belong to the “Gold” souls – the intellectual elite. If you want to read Plato’s dangerous book rather sooner, editions such as the Penguin Classics paperback are very easy to find. There are older translations which you can download from the internet for free, including one by Oxford Don, Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) who appears as a character in this novel under the name of Adeimantus.

You can probably tell from my synopsis that “The Just City” is stronger on concept than plot development. The story is told by three diverse voices – two human and one divine. The humans are represented by one teacher, Maia, and one pupil, Simmea. Maia is the least interesting of the three narrators. She does make a strong impression in her opening chapter as she longs for “a life of the mind” but is frustrated by the “unbearably narrow” choices available to Victorian woman. Maia is attracted to Plato’s work because in his Republic she could learn to be a philosopher. Once her prayer is granted by Athene, Maia’s life seems to become one long committee meeting – as you might expect in a society run by philosophers. The importance of women having true freedom of choice is one of the major themes of the novel but Maia is raped by one of her fellow Masters. This dramatic storyline doesn’t really lead anywhere and Maia sinks into the background in the latter part of the novel.

Many authors would have used the rebellious Kebes as their viewpoint character amongst the slave-children but obedient Simmea is a more subtle choice. She is grateful for the education she is offered by the Masters and keen to be a good citizen but, with Sokrates help,  she blossoms into a thinker who loves to question everything. Simmea may be plain but she is brave, intelligent and warm-hearted enough to impress Apollo himself. Early in the book it is revealed to readers that Pytheas is an incarnation of Apollo. He has the memories of an immortal deity but is experiencing the pains and joys of life as a human. Apollo gradually learns from Simmea that all men and women are of equal significance and that their choices must be respected. The Platonic love which develops between these two characters is the most touching relationship in the novel.

Like the Fantasy-hating Head Teacher, Plato was concerned that young people should only be exposed to improving fiction. One of his rules was that children mustn’t be told stories about bad behaviour and violent quarrels among gods and heroes – which excludes most of Greek mythology. Walton seems to be aiming her novel more at adults than older children, so she shows the Greek deities – even the goddess of wisdom – as having faults and limitations. Rather like this novel. Some of the chapters about the setting up of the city are rather dull and Walton lets the sub-plot about Sokrates and the robots overwhelm the individual story-lines of the three narrators. That’s the kind of thing which can happen if you allow a character as lively as Sokrates into your novel. Not everyone will like the open ending of “The Just City”, which leaves it unclear whether the Kallisti experiment will inspire Plato’s ideal Republic or only the legend of the doomed civilization of Atlantis. When reading this novel I often found myself thinking that I would have handled the material differently but that just shows how engaged I was with the central idea. This is a book which makes you want to examine your own life and join in the “great conversation” about the way the world should be. I can’t see that as being harmful to anyone’s mind. Until next time…


P.S. For another recommended Fantasy novel set on Thera see my post on “Travels in Elysium” (June 2013)