The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just CitySo, let’s be real. I barely skimmed the description of this book before reading it because a) Jo Walton and b) Greek gods. Sold. I knew there was something about Plato going on, but other than that I was Jon Snow.

You may want to know a bit more before going in.

So, okay, if you’re like me and you’ve only read My Real Children, the first thing is that this book is almost nothing like that one except for the wonderfulness of Walton’s writing. But oh, how wonderful it is.

The conceit of the book is that the goddess Athena has heard enough prayers across time wishing for a chance to live in the Just City of Plato’s Republic that she’s like, you know what, let’s do it. She collects those who prayed, recruits the willing, commandeers Atlantis, and starts building a city. She and the “masters” of the city then collect a bunch of ten-year-old (or “ten-year-old”, as these things go) slaves to educate in the style of the Just City. The story of the city is told from three points of view: that of Maia, a master of the city; of Simmea, one of the children of the city; and of Apollo/Pytheas, who has made himself mortal to experience the city as one of the slave children as well, for a reason I will talk about more in two paragraphs.

It is very interesting to see how these three narrators interact with the city; they all love the city for different reasons but recognize its faults, and because they’re all wildly overeducated they talk about it a lot. And then they talk about it even more when Socrates shows up. My god, that man asks a lot of questions. Really, once he shows up the whole book is just a giant Socratic dialogue about the role of the Just City and what Plato might have thought about this literal embodiment of it. It is fascinating to the point where I want to want to read The Republic but I know that’s never going to happen. At least I know this much about it!

I like that part of the story, the pretty much whole part of the story, but there’s another thread running through the book that you may want to be aware of, which is practically a discourse on rape. Right at the beginning, we learn that Apollo has no idea why Daphne would rather turn into a tree than have sex with him, and his lady god siblings are like, you are so stupid. He literally does not understand that women have, like, minds and bodies of their own, and so he takes on this life in the Just City to learn to comprehend this basic fact of existence. (The gods not knowing everything is another thread in this story.) Later in the book there is a rape scene between two regular humans with much the same thought process, and then even later there is more or less sanctioned rape as the children are paired off by the masters at procreation festivals. There is a lot of sex going on, and it is all quite problematic, and because this is a book with Socrates in it there is a lot of discussion of problematic sex, is what I’m saying.

So, to sum up: this is a super thinky book with lots of thinky things to think about. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I will be reading its sequel as soon as it comes out, and then like everything else Jo Walton has ever written because if she can make me like Socratic dialogue she can do anything.

Recommendation: For wildly overeducated people, lovers of Plato, and people who just like to think a lot.

Rating: 9/10

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