Review: The Just City by Jo Walton Just City by Jo Walton (Tor Books, 369 pages, 2015)

I admit that I usually don’t choose to read novels classified as “fantasy” (preferring hard-scifi or space-opera), but when I saw the description of Walton’s latest, I HAD. TO. READ. IT. After all, it includes all of the following: time-travel, Greek gods, Sokrates, an experimental community (makes me think of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance), and robots. As I said to everyone to whom I recommended The Just City, it only lacked dinosaurs. Sokrates riding a dinosaur- that would really be something.

But I digress. The Just City is unabashedly ambitious and experimental in its own right, as Walton imagines what would happen if devotees of the goddess Athene were gathered up across the centuries and placed on a (volcanic) island to set up Plato’s idea of the “Just City,” as described in his Republic. The goal of the inhabitants would be to “become [their] best selves…[to] learn and grow and strive to be excellent.” Later in the story, Simmea, one of the main characters, starts re-examining that goal, to which Pytheas/Apollo explains:
Plato wants perfect justice, in a city or in a soul. In a practical way what they want to produce is philosopher kings: people who truly understand the Truth, and agree on what it is, and pursue it and keep the city in pursuit of it.

Pretty quickly, even before Sokrates comes to stir everything up, we learn that things in the Just City are far from “just” (a loaded and never-truly-defined-or-definable term, anyway). First, only those scholars and thinkers who prayed to Athene were brought to the city because they wished it. They are later classified as “Masters.” The thousands of children who are then gathered up and taken to the city (also from across the centuries) were never given a choice. Many of them had been slaves, and the Masters and Athene who brought them to the island assumed that the children would only have a better life there. But as Apollo learns when he takes human form, and as the city’s inhabitants realize later on, isn’t “choice” a key component of justice?

Into this heady atmosphere of ideas and ideals, scholarship and debate, Athene and the Masters bring priceless works of art (saved from destruction across the centuries) and build period replicas of Greek sleeping and eating houses. The children flourish in this atmosphere of (apparent) freedom, exercise, and debate, and Simmea eventually falls in love with Pytheas, not knowing until much later that he is actually the god Apollo. Athene brings “workers” or robots to do much of the initial heavy-duty work of building and farming. Committees are formed to discuss all of the minutia involved in setting up the “Just City,” and even though everyone knows that, eventually, the volcano will erupt and erase all trace of this city, they hope that the legend of it will live on and inspire people around the world.

As the children grow up, though, things get a little tricky. For instance, festivals are scheduled in which they are “randomly” chosen to pair off and be married for one day. All babies born from these unions are automatically taken to a communal nursery, since in the Just City, family units are actively discouraged. Despite this rule, young men and women pair off in secret all the time, and when babies are born, their mothers voice their desires to know their children and care for them. So while on the surface, the city is following Plato’s (often vague) blueprints, in reality everyone is pursuing their own desires and agendas in secret.

And then Sokrates arrives, against his express wish, and does what Sokrates always does: question, question, and question. In teaching Simmea, the always-disgruntled Kebes, and others how to think logically and debate deftly, Sokrates encourages them to question everything they’ve been told by the Masters and even insist on actually reading Plato’s Republic, something they’re not allowed to do until they turn 50. But just when you think things are getting interesting, Walton ups the ante and focuses our attention on the nearly-invisible inhabitants who live on the edge of the city but who do much of the physical labor: the workers. Before Sokrates, no one had paid much attention to them, and even those skilled enough to keep the robots running knew little about them. Then, Sokrates starts talking to them and makes a startling discovery: these robots might just be sentient (!!).

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in The Just City, and I haven’t even described the detailed and fascinating debates and conversations that take place among the characters on nearly every page. Walton describes the city from the perspectives of three main characters (Pytheas/Apollo- a god, Simmea- a former slave, and Maia-a Master and 19th century scholar), alternating among them and offering very different takes on the work being done. This kind of narrative technique is itself an attempt at “just” or fair storytelling: giving the reader more than one point of view so we can better assess the motives and actions of the characters. After all, The Just City is itself a text based on Plato’s text, and Walton asks us to both understand her novel’s critique of the Republic and how her story addresses the issues of justice, choice, and the Ideal.

It is also because so many debates are going on and so much begins unraveling at a fast pace that, at times, the narrative loses its cohesion, leaving the reader floundering for a bit about where the story’s going next. Not surprisingly, I wanted MORE discussion of the robots, and also much more on characters like Aristomache, who was based on the 19th-century scholar and translator of Plato, Ellen Francis Mason. Indeed, each of these pieces could have been their own novels. But as I discussed earlier, The Just City takes up difficult ethical and moral questions- a worthy endeavor.

So if you’re the kind of reader who keeps Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Plato’s works handy at all times, and enjoys contemplating hard-core questions of sentience, justice, and free will, I’m confident that you’ll love The Just City. And even if you’re more into time-travel and utopias, you’ll still enjoy this book. There’s something for everyone.

(first posted on SF Signal 1/22/15)

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