Feb 16, 2015

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo WaltonJo Walton’s The Just City is about a group of time travellers from several periods of history setting up Plato’s Republic on a Mediterranean island with the help of the goddess Athene, and with her brother Apollo hiding in mortal form among the city’s children so he can learn about “volition and equal significance”. Even if this wasn’t by Jo Walton, one of my favourite authors, there was no way I wasn’t going to be all over a novel with a premise like this.

The Just City is narrated by three characters: Maia, a Victorian who struggled with the constrains society put on women like her, becomes one of the Masters of the Just City after praying to Pallas Athene in Rome in a moment of despair; Simmea is one of the thousands of ten-year-olds who are bought as slaves to be raised in the city as its first generation, and it’s mostly through her eyes that we see what it’s like to be raised according to Plato’s system. Lastly, there’s Pytheas, the god Apollo in mortal form. After struggling to understand why the nymph Daphne would rather turn into a tree than be raped by him, he realises he has to engage with the idea that women are individuals whose will matters as much as his own. Among the City’s inhabitants are also renowned men like Cicero or Marsilio Ficino — and, a few years into the experiment, Sokrates himself appears. His willingness to question the premise of every argument slowly begins to expose the assumptions behind the Just City, and the results aren’t exactly what the Masters had imagined.

The Just City is by far my favourite read of the year so far. It’s a novel of ideas where the characters feel like real people, and it’s one that’s very much concerned with the gap between idealism and the practical implications of living on a day to day basis with what seem to some like just principles in the abstract. However, it’s neither a cynical work nor one that’s defeatist or dismissive of the impulse to build a fairer society. The Just City turns out to be a horrifying place on many levels, but the novel addresses this with a willingness to ask honest and tough questions about what people who for the most part genuinely want to create a better world can get wrong, rather than by scoffing at the impulse altogether.

Of course, the Masters are individuals, which means their motivations, cultural baggage and ideological outlooks are far from uniform. The Just City is doomed not because there’s something inherently foolish about radically changing how society is organised, but largely because the Republic relies on a power differential than can’t be wished away. It puts a group of people in charge of pulling all the strings and keeps another in the dark, allegedly “for their own good”. What follows is what you’d expect: The Just City deals with freedom and consent, social engineering and political systems, and how a utopia can turn into a dystopia. The problems that plague the Just City become more and more marked as the experiment runs its course, and include slavery and sexual violence, eugenics, heteronormativity, lack of reproductive rights, and censorship, just to name a few. If by now you’re thinking “eek”, I would say “indeed”.

Gender inequality is one of the novel’s strongest thematic strands, and it is present in all three point of view characters’ storylines. Maia, born Ethel, was denied a higher education because of her gender, and struggled a lot with her lack of options. As she puts it,
I was a woman, a young lady, and this constrained me in everything. My choices were so unbearably narrow. If I wanted a life of the mind, I could work at nothing but as a governess, or as a teacher in a girl’s school, teaching not the classics but the proper accomplishments of a young lady — sketching, watercolours, French and Italian, playing the piano.
At first, The Just City seems to be everything Maia hoped for and more — a place where gender will never hold her back — but little by little she notices that not everyone is committed to gender equality. And largely because this is not something that’s ever explicitly discussed, the Just City still defaults to patriarchal power dynamics. For examples, Maia realises the following:
Most of the older people and all of the famous ones were men, but most of the people who understood technology in any way were young women. Though we had nominal equality, there were always those like Tullius who would not accept us as equal. In addition I saw in other women and detected in myself a tendency to defer to older men—as I had always deferred to my father.
And also this:
The committee on technology was almost entirely composed of young women, with only one man, the Dominican, whose name was now Ikaros. Somehow, imperceptibly, because of this, technology came to be seen among the masters as feminine and unimportant.
Unfortunately that’s not all — Maia is raped one evening by Ikaros, a man she trusted up until then, and when she discusses what happened with her friend Klio it becomes obvious that victim blaming is just as prevalent in the Just City as it is in our world. The certainty of being dismissed encourages the women to develop a system of whispered warnings: not all citizens are equal after all, and they know no justice is available to them. So the only recourse they have is to discreetly warn one another about the men who have a history of disregarding consent.

Simmea, in her turn, struggles with the Just City’s system of forced reproduction: young men and women are paired off every few months in a system that’s supposed to be random but relies on dubious principles that are clearly inspired by eugenics, and the women don’t get to say no until they’ve had two children. Simmea struggles horribly with post-partum depression after the birth of her first child, and she knows that’s not something she’s willing to go through again. But the Just City makes no allowances for individual circumstances, and it’s this that finally encourages Simmea, one of its staunchest defenders, to break the rules by seeking out contraceptive herbs.

And then there’s Apollo, who is reborn as a mortal so he can attempt to undo the effects of several millennia spent believing that women are not quite as real or as human as he is. This is, of course, every bit as difficult as it sounds. His storyline is an effective examination of male privilege and of the tough questions men who are truly committed to supporting gender equality must be willing to ask, not only of themselves but of the men around them.

The novel addresses the pernicious idea that if only we’d focus on a single aspect of justice or equality and put ‘in-fighting’ aside, everything else would eventually fall into place and a fair world would emerge. Identity politics, the argument goes, are merely a distraction from the ‘real’ issues everyone should be devoting their energy to. The trouble is that whatever aspect of justice you choose to privilege will inevitably serve some people better than others. As The Just City shows, if the specific power structures that make life unfair for different groups of people (be they based on gender, race, sexuality, etc) aren’t overtly addressed, it’s all too easy for the same old inequalities to reassert themselves.

The Just City deals with the notions of freedom and informed consent not only in relation to gender and sexual agency, but also in a wider political sense. For example, Simmea and her peers are brought into the city as slaves. In fact, we’re told that the Masters’ habit of buying slave children around the age of ten has created the kind of demand that encouraged more slave raids. The Masters are willing to overlook this — after all, they were only buying the slave children to free them and give them an idyllic upbringing. But not everyone who was torn from his or her family shares this outlook. The young citizens of the Republic were taken there against their will and routinely have decisions made on their behalf — how could this ever be the basis for a just society?

Lastly, there’s a subplot involving Sokrates and artificial intelligence which is just as interesting, and which raises many of these same questions. The goddess Athene, who has access to the past, present and future, brought robots into the Just City to do the hard work of building and maintaining it. These robots are known as Labourers, and until Sokrates’ arrival no one thinks of them as more than tools. But when he attempts to engage them in dialogue, it surfaces that at least some of the Labourers have developed sentience, which means that the Just City relies on slave labour. The fact that this might have gone uncovered if not for Sokrates’ willingness to question the premises of everything highlights the risks we run if we’re not suspicious of our own biases and blind spots.

You may have heard by now that The Just City is part of a planned trilogy, and that this first volume ends on what could be described as an abrupt note. I’m glad Fence warned me beforehand, because I can imagine being taken aback by the ending if I was expecting a full resolution. But then again, reading My Real Children last year showed me that Walton is very good at writing ambiguous endings that ask questions which are far more interesting than any attempts at clear, definitive answers could ever be. The final words of The Just City moved me:
On my temple in Delphi there are two words written: Know Thyself. It’s good advice. Know yourself. You are worth knowing. Examine your life. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellent has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Life the best life you can, and become the best self you can. You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends. Know yourself.
I’m very much looking forward to The Philosopher Kings, which comes out in June and picks up the story thirteen years later. I can’t wait to engage further with all the ideas in this series.

They read it too: In the Forest of Stories, Shelf Love, Necromancy Never Pays, Mysterious Bibliophile, Susan Hated Literature, The Emerald City Book Review, you?

33 comments:

  1. Glad you liked it! Jo Walton is amazing at idea-driven stories that are still compulsively readable. I hope volume 2 is really out by June. My review was here: http://www.emeraldcitybookreview.com/2015/01/new-release-spotlight-just-city.html

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    1. It didn't even occur to me that it wouldn't be! I'm pining for it already :P

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    2. It will be out. Here's a link to photos of ARCs of it. https://twitter.com/torbooks/status/568489190146629632/photo/1

      Book 3, Necessity however, is still being written, and it'll be at least a year from when I finish it.

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    3. I saw that on Twitter and was very excited! So looking forward to it, and to Necessity whenever it comes out.

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  2. I'm not sure if my comment got eaten or just held for moderation somewhere, if so, feel free to delete this one :)
    I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to June & book 2 (and then of course the wait for book 3 but you know .. ). As well as a good, entertaining read I found it just plain interesting.

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    1. Eaten, it looks like - I'm really sorry! Do we know anything about book 3? Probably unreasonable to hope for another surprisingly short wait...

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  3. I so appreciated how she let the Just City be both wonderful and horrible at the same time. Your point about not dismissing the good impulses behind the work is so true---the fact that the dilemma about the Workers comes up so late, after the system cracks are showing, really brought that home to me. It's a wonderfully complex and satisfying book. One of my favorites of the year so far as well.

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    1. Yes, absolutely. It shows that it's possible to engage honestly and still get things wrong, and I appreciated that a lot.

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  4. One of the things your review makes me think is that Jo Walton gets the tone just right--the tone of a puzzled man in a society trying to do what is right and examine gender inequality but who doesn't really get it yet. This is the tone of a lot of lower-level academia, where I work in the margins.

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    1. It did ring very true to me, and it was so interesting to follow along as Apollo (and others) puzzled things out.

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  6. I have this. I just need time to read it!! As a result I have been only glancing at reviews because I don't want to spoil anything. :)

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    1. Looking forward to hearing how you like it, Kelly!

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  7. This sounds incredible. After reading My Real Children last year I am now in awe of Jo Walton and need to read more of her books. I will definitely keep an eye out to see if my library has this one.

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    1. Fingers crossed that they do! This wasn't quite up there with My Real Children, which quickly beame one of my absolute favourites of her books, but still so great.

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  8. Excellent review! You always do such a great job with tackling these exceptionally thematically rich novels. I loved this novel too, and I enjoyed reviewing it. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. Of course, I knew you would.

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    1. Aw, thank you! So looking forward to talking about The Philosopher Kings with you and all my blogging friends.

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  9. This sounds freakin' incredible! But I have to admit that I worry that it's too smart for me. I don't say that to be self-deprecating, I really wonder. Like how familiar do I have to be with Plato's Republic to start with?
    Oh my, but I still can't believe I haven't read Among Others yet. It is going on my March pile! As is something by Diana Wynne Jones, but I'm not sure which book yet.

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    1. I won't say that knowing something about Plato's Republic wouldn't deepen your read but I have only a very passing knowledge of it and didn't really feel the loss. I was, at the time I read The Just City, tempted to read The Republic, but haven't gotten around to it quite yet

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    2. Thanks! That's about how I would describe myself--as having a passing knowledge. This makes me happy to hear, because the book really does sound fantastic!

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    3. I agree with Fence - I've studied Plato and read a few of this works, but The Republic was not one of them. I'm sure having read it would have made this a richer novel for me, but I didn't feel at a loss at all with the knowledge I do have.

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    1. I think you'd like this a lot, and Walton's work in general.

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  11. Wonderful review, Ana! This looks like such a wonderful book. I have never read a book by Jo Walton. I want to start with this one. I loved this sentence from your review - "The trouble is that whatever aspect
    of justice you choose to privilege will inevitably serve some people better than others." It is such a beautiful and complex insight and though it makes things look a bit bleak, but it is also very true. Thanks for this brilliant review :)

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    1. This is as good a place to start as any - do let me know what you think!

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  12. I just finished My Real Children and I'm looking forward to reading more Walton.

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    1. Her stuff is so great - you have some excellent reading ahead of you!

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  13. You had me at "time travel"

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    1. It's used to such great effect here.

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  14. I am seriously going to the library TODAY to get a book, any book, by Jo Walton.

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    1. This is an excellent plan - let me know what you find :D

      PS: You've inspired me to request a few more Moomin comics volumes from the library and actually start reading them!

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  15. I had The Just City out from the library, but I didn't read it cause I was nervous about all the rapey stuff. That situation persists! I am nervous about it. I really want to read the book and I am really nervous that it will be too upsetting for me.

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  16. This book had me reading Plato, and reading up on Plato/Socrates. Jo Walton always seem to have that reaction from me.

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