Review: “The Just City” by Jo Walton

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Review: “The Just City” by Jo WaltonThe Just City by Jo Walton
Published by Macmillan on January 13th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 368
four-stars

"Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent."

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.
Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

The Greek gods become bored, as they so often do, and Athene, spurred on by the prayers of many a philosopher, decides to set up Plato’s Republic and see how it goes. Run by an assortment of scholars, scientists and great thinkers, populated by thousands of ten-year-old children purchased from slavers throughout history and assisted by a series of robots, the society shall stand as an experiment of much debated ideas that will become the stuff of legends. Or at least that’s the plan.

The first in a trilogy, The Just City has enough of the markers of science-fiction to qualify as an addition to the genre – time travel, robots, good old utopias gone wrong – but it’s more focused on the cerebral and philosophical than the speculative. The curiosity of gods and passions of man become the ultimate project for humanity: A perfect city for justice and self-improvement.

Told from three points of view, the story unfolds from the city’s origins to its development and ultimate fate: Child slave Simmea is brought with thousands of others to the city in the hopes of a new life, Victorian lady Maia is brought along as a master to mould the city that will allow her to pursue her scholarly fantasies, and Apollo, confused by Daphne’s spurring of his less than consensual declarations, becomes mortal to live amongst the city. The character driven piece – there’s really not much plot to speak of – focuses its energies on exploring the limits of such a society, and how the theoretical succeeds or fails when combined with something as simple as human emotions. Some thrive while others struggle to see the greater good in being bought to fill up the numbers. The variety of perspectives – committed student, conflicted idealist and the god dealing with human life – offer fascinating questions to the reader on free will and our own limits.

Sokrates himself turns up to stand as the ultimate challenger to Plato’s ideas – ones he’s less than keen on – and his gleeful dismantling of the theories his followers have spent their lives working on is both fascinating and a little painful. If your patience for chapters of discussions on the nature of man is limited, this probably won’t be the book for you, but for others there’s a real challenge in dissecting this world, and real pleasure too.

Unfortunately, the almost cavalier ways in which Walton uses sexual violence to challenge these utopian ideals quickly grates. While in this instance it is at least integral to the plot’s themes and not used luridly, I began to yearn for Walton to find another way to explore the conversation of volition and responsibility. The inclusion is undeniably thematic, yet no less problematic for its particular depiction.

The abrupt ending feels like an editorial cut-off for the upcoming sequels, yet I find myself less bothered by that than I would normally be. The sheer potential for the rest of the series leaves me excited for more. The Just City is a slow burner of a novel, one imbued with the spirit of the classics yet told from a more interrogative perspective. Bring on the sequel – more robots, please.

four-stars

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