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Book Review: The Just City

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The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City

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.

I discovered Jo Walton through Tor.com’s Rothfuss Reread. It’s among the most enduring and cited ongoing book discussions in the genre, and she’s shepherded it for years, now. Of course, she’s also written a dozen novels and won a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award.

I’m always excited when she releases a new book. She has a gift for sweeping the reader into other worlds and keeping them there. It’s always with a touch of trepidation that I risk the first page, knowing that I’ll be obsessed with finishing and dazed after I do.

The Republic featured prominently in the thoughts of the protagonist of her award winning Among Others, so The Just City feels like a natural step sideways in the imagination of the author. It opens with Apollo baffled by Daphne choosing to become a tree rather than submit to him. Artemis, equally baffled at his ignorance, sends him to Athene. She tries to explain consensuality and equal significance.

These are themes explored in The Just City through eyes of an incarnate god, a former slave, and a woman ill served by the attitudes of her time. The cast of characters includes some of the most famous minds of antiquity and the Renaissance. But lest you think this is a paean to Plato or anyone else, I assure you nothing’s safe from Socratic interrogation, including the premise itself.

In lively narrative and conversation, the implications of Plato’s thought experiment are explored with frank, often uncomfortable, directness. Compelled sexuality, survival, identity, citizenship, slavery, and responsibility are discussed openly. From children to artificial intelligence to divinity, the concepts of consent and freedom pervade the text.

And it’s never boring or didactic. Walton’s a fan of The Republic, but she’s also a student, and ultimately, appropriately, a in dialogue with it. She brings a daring, bold challenge to even the softest interpretation of Plato. It isn’t pretty. But how much ugliness can people withstand in order to achieve and ideal? A Platonic one. The Just City seems to pick up where Walton feels he left off, discussing the actual living in and with rather than the lofty should.

Recommended for fans of Ada Palmer, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Parthenius..

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One thought on “Book Review: The Just City

  1. Pingback: Jo Walton’s The Just City Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

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