Saturday, 27 December 2014
Review: The Just City
The Just City by Jo Walton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Utopias are a fascinating idea, and not to be undertaken lightly. Jo Walton here pulls off not only a book that works both as a novel of ideas and as a novel, but also an impressive feat of research and scholarship.
Let me first reemphasise that it completely works as a novel. The characters have depth, agency, growth, change, things they strive for and things they achieve. There are several viewpoint characters, whose plot arcs intersect, but the book opens in the viewpoint of Apollo, who is confused about why Daphne would rather be transformed into a tree than have sex with him. He decides to become incarnate in order to learn about "choice and equal significance", basically the idea that all thinking beings have agency and ought to have the opportunity to pursue agency, and that each person's choice is valuable. This becomes the major theme of the book, and as Apollo learns, so do a number of the other characters, who confront the same question from multiple different viewpoints.
That, by itself, would be a great story, but then there's the audacious setting. The gods, who are outside time, can move people around in time if they want, and Athene has decided to run an experiment. She's going to set up Plato's Republic at a time and place where no traces will later be left (because of the volcanic eruption that destroyed half of the island of Thera, before Plato's time, and gave rise to the legend of Atlantis, neatly looping round into the Republic again). And she's going to populate it first with "masters", scholars who, at some point in history, prayed to her to be part of establishing the Republic - many of whom are women, since Plato proposed female equality. Famous Neoplatonists and translators of Plato are gathered alongside more obscure devotees, and then they collect, again from various times, more than ten thousand (approximately)-ten-year-old children to form the population of the Republic. As these children grow to adulthood, the grand experiment must deal with conflict over means and ends, the fact that Plato didn't understand interpersonal relationships very well, and the rise to sentience of the robots that Athene has brought from the future to take the place of slaves.
And also with Sokrates, that kind, ugly, wise man, the gadfly, the teacher of Plato, who has been brought to the Just City (against his express wish) in order to teach the children rhetoric. The Republic wasn't his idea, he doesn't approve of it, and, in the end, he engages Athene in public debate over the rightness of the experiment, with remarkable results.
I'm no classical scholar - I have read Plato, but as a teenager, more than 30 years ago, and I don't remember much - so I can't speak to how accurate the research is, including the historical people. That's probably a good thing, because it means I can't nitpick any inaccuracies there may be. What I can say is that as a story, this is very good, and as a piece of thinking, it's even better than that. It touches on concerns of power, free will, informed consent, equality, and what is good and right to do in pursuit of a well-ordered society, and does so on levels that span from the intrapersonal through the interpersonal to the level of the state, and from multiple complementary angles. We end up with something much more like a sculpture than a painting, and a sculpture that repays close attention to its details, as well.
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