When you’re Apollo, son of Zeus, and a nymph prefers to turn herself into a tree rather than have sex with you, you know it’s time to think seriously about the life you’re leading.
After asking his sister Athena why the nymph Daphne didn’t want to have sex with him, a notion that perplexes him initially (for, as a god, Apollo isn’t used to people not wanting to have sex with him) he decides to reincarnate in the body of a newborn child to become a part of Athena’s latest experiment: An actualized version of Plato’s Republic run by people from all human eras who have dreamed of living in Plato’s creation, and populated by thousands of 10-year-old slaves bought at slave markets to be modeled into the perfect citizens of the Republic.
Thus is the just city constituted, a city where “you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.”
The Just City, Jo Walton’s newest, is told through the viewpoints of Apollo, as one of the slaves bought in the markets, going by the name Pytheas (as in, Pythian Apollo); Maia, one of the Masters of the city; and Simmea, one of the girl slaves brought to the city and the character which the plot revolves around. The Just City can be confusing at first as the viewpoints shift in different chapters and jump back and forth. This is the case in the initial Maia chapters, where the story of the building of the city is told (Maia is one of the founders of the city), but those initial chapters provide an interesting inside view on what it took, and takes, to make the just city run. Her inclusion as a viewpoint also helps those who have never read Plato’s original work, such as myself, to know foundational things about the workings of the republic which the children are not allowed to know, but which are of paramount importance to understand what’s happening throughout the city, such as the reason why the children are not allowed to read The Republic, the work on which their entire lives are modeled around.
The way the plot in The Just City is developed is reminiscent of Jo Walton’s previous novels, notably her Hugo award winning novel Among Others. As such, it shares the same issues that novel has. The best way to describe it would be that the plot develops in the background, as the characters go on living their lives, interacting with one another, learning more about the world around and within them. As if the plot develops itself as an undercurrent to the characters’ lives, it permeates and influences them, but is never fully acknowledged and you have to guess at it by reading between the lines. I won’t go as far as to say that there is no plot in The Just City, but I wouldn’t attempt to dissuade those who are of the opinion that there isn’t one.
A plot, as a purposeful progression of logically connected events, necessitates that the main characters in the story be engaged in the pursuit of a purpose (e.g. finding a lost treasure, defeating the Dark Lord, escaping from a dangerous situation), and it cannot be said that the characters in The Just City are in pursuit of one such goal. However, in my view, this dilemma is solved if you see past the characters and focus on the city itself. It’s the just city that’s the main character in this novel, its purpose being the actualization of Plato’s ideals.
This view is further supported by the observation that The Just City becomes quite more engaging and interesting when a new character is introduced in the middle of the book. I won’t spoil who that character is, though you could easily find out his identity online if you want to, but it will suffice to say that his inquisitive nature shakes the very foundation on which the just city is built, and where once you could the see the cracks permeating the entire city, now you realize that those aren’t mere cracks; they are the sinkholes under which the just city is doomed to be buried.
This is a personal quibble of mine, but I was quite disappointed over the noticeable absence of Plato’s infamous student, Aristotle. Though his absence is understandable given their differing views on almost everything philosophical, and who is to say he won’t appear in a later novel, the way he is dismissed by everyone residing in the just city genuinely upset me. It was as if everyone lived in a bubble in which Aristotle’s contributions didn’t exist, and his existence could be simply swatted away because his views on women are poorer than Plato’s, which is seen as sufficient reason to dismiss that philosophical giant (even though the just city isn’t exactly a model city when it comes to equality between different people.)
I do however need to make a small addendum: While The Just City is set in an actualized version of Plato’s Republic, which is by definition a philosophical topic, it would be a slight exaggeration to say that this is a philosophical novel; it isn’t that substantive an exploration. Jo Walton is not interested here in exploring the nuances of Plato’s philosophical work; she just uses it as a backdrop to explore another theme, that of consent, which is made explicitly visible by the various examples of sexual violence, mild and major, seen throughout the novel.
The Just City is an atypical book to read and recommend. Though not without its fair share of flaws, there is, I believe, a subset of readers that will genuinely enjoy it for what it is trying to do, as I did. Readers who have enjoyed Jo Walton’s previous novels know what they are getting themselves in to, so no recommendation is really needed. Those interested in exploring the concept of utopia, independence, and the evil of denying another’s chosen actions, in a fantastical Earth with Greek gods, robots from the future, in the future city of Atlantis, might want to check The Just City out.
It will be interesting to see what Jo Walton has for us next, with the second novel in the series, The Philosopher Kings, coming out this June.
Thessaly — (2015-2016) “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.