Book Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

5110avaFj9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How on earth did Jo Walton manage to make a riveting page-turner out of a book which consists almost entirely of philosophical discussions?  I could not stop reading The Just City, which since I was in the middle of packing for a trip and meeting a ton of deadlines was very inconvenient.

In The Just City, Athena and Apollo decide to set up a real version of Plato’s Republic, tucked away in a timeless city that is destined to be destroyed by a volcano.  This city is founded by Athena, who forms the first generation out of people who pray to her to live in The Republic.  The second generation is made of children who are brought to the city our of their own timelines, in which the children are slaves.  The next is children who are born in the city during randomized fertility rites and raised communally.

Apollo chooses to experience the city as a mortal.  He is baffled, because he pursed a mortal, Daphne, for sex, and she choose to transform herself into a tree rather than sleep with him.  Apollo is not deliberately cruel, just totally obtuse.  How could Daphne not want to sleep with him?  Wasn’t she just playing?  Athena explains the concept of choice to him, and he decided to become mortal to learn about “Volition. Our equal significance”.

The Just City is at once a utopia and a dystopia, depending on the speaker’s point of view.  Two slave children are brought to the city together – one lives his life blaming the masters of the city for taking him away from his life, while the other sees the city as a refuge.  The realities of childcare, sex, birth, and work overwhelm the city’s founders.  There are cruelties and injustices, but most involve good intentions.  The cracks in the system are what give the book so much tension, and the tension is more interesting because there’s no one right or simplistic way to look at the city.

When Sokrates shows up, he shakes up everything, of course.  Above all, he questions Athena’s intentions.  Can a city be just if no one can leave?  Can a city be just if children were brought to the city against their will, even if they like it here?  As the book progresses, people experience conflict primarily over relationships.  No one is supposed to have a special attachment to one child or one lover, yet these attachments occur.  Everything is supposed to be fair, yet the city’s founders cheat in order to make things work.  It’s not as simple as a horrible dystopian nightmare.  Many people love the city and thrive there.  But others suffer because of the absence of volition and equal significance.

I’ve admired everything Jo Walton has written, but nothing has been as amazing to me as Among Others, a book that was so luminous I expected it to give off a physical glow.  The Just City was a different experience – it’s not designed to make you glow but to make you thing.  Among Others was a celebration of reading.  The Just City is a celebration of talking and thinking. Walton’s earlier books were celebrations of history and fantasy.  The common thread in her books is that our shared humanity is the most important thing – our volition, our equal significance.  This book is the first in a planned trilogy and it ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that has me ripping out my hair, so be warned.

Even if you don’t read the book, read this passage by Apollo, and just tell me if it doesn’t make you want to be “your best self”:

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 excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it.  Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say.  Live 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.

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