Throughout history, once people have had a degree of leisure, they have discussed the ideal society. Some have tried to live them. The communes of the 60s and 70s was an approach, as were the communist states of the USSR and China. The motives might have been good, but such experiments are not always ideal for everyone who lives in them. One person’s Utopia is another’s hell. Fantasy and SF authors have always written about different approaches to society, using them to point out the pitfalls. Many regard Sir Thomas More’s book Utopia as the beginning of this kind of speculative work but before that was Plato’s Republic.
The Philosopher Kings is a follow-on novel to The Just City. This is a world in which the Greek gods are real. Athene has the idea of testing out the theories in Plato’s Republic. To this end, a city is built, with the help of robots, to see if his society is viable and lasting. It is constructed on a volcanic island which is destined to explode, wiping out all traces of the experiment and incidentally giving rise to the legends of Atlantis. It is populated with people from all ages of history who have an affinity with Plato’s work, along with ten thousand ten-year old children rescued from certain death in their home period. The god Apollo has incarnated as the human Pytheas and possesses no supernatural powers.
By the time this novel begins, there are already cracks appearing in the original society. Not everyone has the same interpretation of Plato’s work. There are now five cities, all trying to follow the premise of The Republic but in slightly different ways even though they are all aiming for the same philosophical outcome. Another splinter group, led by Kebes, has sailed out into the islands. Other than philosophy, the other contention between the cities is the possession of art. When the city was first set up, art works from various ages were acquired. Now, some of the splinter cities think they should have a fair share of them. The result is art raids where groups of youths try to steal the art from the holder.
As The Philosopher Kings opens an art raid steals the head of Winged Victory of Samothrace and Simmea is killed. She is the wife and beloved of Pytheas. As a human, he can do nothing to save her but he is convinced that Kebes is responsible. A decision is taken to sail out to explore the other islands. Initially, the grieving Pytheas is looking for revenge. With him go some of his children, including his and Simmea’s daughter, Arete. What they find is not what they expect.
While this book is a philosophical exploration of the structure of societies, it also highlights the problems that people have with the interpretation of religious texts – and in the context of this set-up, Plato’s Republic can be regarded as a religious text as it is the script that they are modelling their society on. The results are not as extreme as can be seen in modern society, though it is worth remembering that schisms of the past have shaped the way we live now. For Apollo, as Pytheas, this is a learning experience. He discovers the depths of human emotions and what drives mortals to follow the paths they do. Arete and her brothers discover their heritage as the children of a god.
The book is told from several first person narratives allowing the reader to sample the fears and expectations of some of the characters. Whatever else this book does, it is a starting point for contemplation ab out the nature of society and what justice is. It is of the same high standard as Walton’s other books.