I love the creation of worlds that is part of various types of science fiction. I love the way reading science fiction makes you pick up clues about extraordinary places and people, and how to use those clues to re-examine your own life. For example, there’s this moment in A Wrinkle in Time when travelers from Earth realize that children on an alien planet are bouncing balls, the way they do on Earth. But in the novel they are bouncing their balls in time with one another, “playing” with obsessive, rigid uniformity. When one child falls out of rhythm his mother reacts with terror. That planet is not a good place to be. Conformity can have a high price.
Science fiction is full of these harsh, dystopian societies. The communities exist, but they struggle with horrible, pervasive problems, and the underlying cause of these problems is the same: human nature. Well, either human nature or a zombie apocalypse. Dystopian stories let us see what happens when flawed people, people driven by pride, or fear, or greed, set up communities.
Science Fiction is full of these bad places. But what about the reverse? If we have so many works of Science Fiction that show us human flaws writ large, where are the good places, the hopeful places? Where are the places that show human curiosity and compassion? Where are the places based on our universal yearning for justice? How would places built on human strengths work? Could they work? Sometimes the hardest thing to do isn’t to point out problems in our own society, but to try to envision a better society. It is difficult to envision a good place, or a just city, and imagine actual human beings living there.
Amongst the people who’ve tried to do this is Plato. In his Republic he attempted to imagine an ideal community. Throughout history people have read The Republic, in ancient Rome, the Victorian era, today, and people will be reading it in the future. So long as there are introductory philosophy classes people will be reading Plato’s Republic. For everyone of us who read it, snorted and thought “No poets? That doesn’t sound like my kind of place!” there was someone else who would have loved the chance to live there, to build that city. In The Just City, by Jo Walton, all of those people, from throughout all of time and space, finally get their chance. Philosophers and dreamers from the entire span of human history are plucked from their lives by the incarnations of the Greek gods and taken to live in Plato’s city to see if, working together, they can make a just city. There are gods and dreamers. There are rebellions and revelations. There is a group of people who earnestly want to build a better world. There are the compromises and mistakes they make in the course of that quest. There are also robots, giant robots. And Socrates (Sokrates) shows up. He argues about the giant robots and tries to argue with them. After all he’s Socrates, and he woud argue with everyone and anyone. Through fictional characterization, set within the philosophy of an ideal city, The Republic, Walton sets up an imaginative and exciting dialogue.