September 28, 2022

Gabbing Geek

Your online community for all things geeky.

Geek Lit: The Just City By Jo Walton

Two Greek gods try to set up Plato's Republic to see what happens.

I read author Jo Walton’s book Among Others  back in 2015.  I largely liked the book, and it was a different sort of fantasy novel.  Rather than showing quests or large scale battles or something along those lines, it was about a young girl in 1970s England who loved sci-fi and fantasy novels who could, depending on the reader’s interpretation, maybe see real fairies.  Much of it was more about the girl growing up over a six month period before a final confrontation that, again, may or may not have been real.

Anyway, I liked Walton’s style enough to give another of her books a try, namely The Just City, the first in a three-part fantasy trilogy about some Greek gods trying to figure out what it means to be human.

The book opens with a chapter narrated by Apollo.  He’s confused and perplexed.  He’d been out doing as Greek Gods are wont to do by trying to seduce a comely maiden, but the nymph in question prayed to Artemis to turn her into a tree rather than  mate with Apollo and give birth to a hero.  Apollo can’t understand this.  No mortal woman has even refused him before, and while Artemis isn’t really explaining anything, his wise sister Athene offers a simple idea that Apollo had never considered before:  the idea of consent.  And Apollo is outright fascinated by this idea.  It’s really something that has never occurred to him before, and while the book makes it clear he’s never engaged in any sort of sexual behavior without a willing partner before, he likewise never stopped to think about his partner’s agency before.  The only solution there is for Apollo to conduct an experiment:  make himself mortal without his godlike powers and see what it’s like.  Athene, herself something of a scientist, also decides to do this, only she decides not to go as far as Apollo does and retains her divinity for the course of the experiment.  Furthermore, the two decide the best way to do is to set up Plato’s Republic on the far side of Atlantis so there will be no evidence for later generations to discover when the experiment ends.

That’s the set-up.  What follows are chapters narrated mostly by two women:  Simmea, a young Coptic girl bought from slavery to be raised into a philosopher ruler/guardian within the Just City; and Maia, a Victorian-era woman who was brought to the city through time to act as a guiding “master” to see if the city could be set up.  Apollo also gets some chapters, but not as many as the two women.

So, I have read Plato’s Republic, and I couldn’t say I was much of a fan.  The original work is a dialogue between Socrates and various students of his, where Socrates poses a question and the student, well, always agrees that he’s right.  It’s frustrating.  The students offer few if any insights into the construction of this fictional city, and even the ones who try to disagree with Socrates end up agreeing with him depending on what questions he asks.

So, what does Walton do to make this a more interesting work?  For one, since Maia and the other masters (including some famous philosophers from ancient Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance) are more inclined to thinking than anything else, they decide things based on committees and working things out as logically as possible.  Simmea knows a few of the young charges who actually resent being brought to the city against their will, and that makes for what amounts for most of the conflict in the book:  what does it mean to give consent to anything?  If your intentions are to make someone’s life better, do you still need to give them the choice to go along with what you are doing even if these are people who theoretically have no say in the matter?  It is questions like this, not whether or not there is some sort of foreign invasion or a problem because the children are barred from reading the actual Republic until they reach the age of 50, that is the central theme of the book.  That is underlined further when Sokrates shows up five years into the experiment.  Now, the real Sokrates never really wrote down anything, and much of what Plato put into the mouth of Sokrates was more Plato’s own opinions rather than his former teacher’s, but Sokrates is nothing if not a man who will question everything.  This is truly a book where the climatic final battle, if you want to call it that, is a simple debate that is almost written in the style of a Platonic dialogue than any sort of armed conflict.

That said, I did have a hard time keeping track of many of the supporting characters in the book. Walton’s characters, for the most part, take ancient Greek names instead of their own, coming as they do from throughout time, and aside from the big important ones, I wasn’t really able to keep track of everyone in the book in terms of who was who.  Plus, this was the first book in a trilogy, so the ending is mostly there to set up future problems for the characters.  I’m actually interested enough to read some more, but it may not be any time soon.  I have a lot to read on my plate at present.  9 out of 10 conversations that may or may not solve anything.

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