Review – The Just City by Jo Walton

Just City coverAuthor: Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 13 January 2015

Length: Novel (368 pages)

Format I read: eBook

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Just City was created as an experiment by the goddess Pallas Athene to see if Plato’s thought experiment, as set out in The Republic, could work in real life. How would the idealistic but strange rules he sets out work when they come up against imperfect humans? A few hundred adults, one thousand ten-year olds, a bunch of futuristic robot helpers, and two gods in human form. It’s the recipe for some fascinating times.

The story is told by three characters: Pytheas, who is secretly the god Apollo trapped in a child’s body and vulnerable to the emotions and imperfections of mortal life; Maia, formerly a Victorian lady trapped by her social position and now fighting to impose equality in the Just City, and Simmea, an intelligent child eager for knowledge who embraces the Platonic ideal and befriends Pytheas.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives to ask all the troublesome questions that both Plato and Athene would really rather you just wouldn’t.

Jo Walton is one of those writers that you can happily recommend to people who love SFF and people who think they don’t. Her novels are always something different (she’s a  genre blurring genius) , something special and something that will leave you with a lot of thinking to do.

If you’ve ever read any of Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novels (The Solitaire Mystery, The Christmas Mystery, Sophie’s World) then this book will feel somewhat familiar. Obviously the gods and their divine intervention put this in the fantasy field but the real meat of the novel is in the philosophical exploration. It pulls apart Plato’s ideas and examines the problems within it – How would you correct for people’s preexisting ideas? How would the proportions of children to adults work? How do you deal with the necessity of work? How do you populate the city? It’s full of intriguing questions and also explores, through the actions of the characters, things like equality of work, slavery, misogyny, rape, political power, and the importance of individual agency versus the importance of the state. That’s some big things to cope with.

But it does so well. Jo Walton has this effortless-seeming light touch to her writing. You’re just swept along, happily enjoying the story before suddenly realising that you’ve learned significant amounts about philosophy, engaged in socratic dialogues about the ethical basis for society, and had a thoroughly good time doing it. Her characters are, as ever, wonderful: witty, intriguing, flawed and wonderful. And I loved being able to see how the society both helped and held back our three protagonists with their very different viewpoints. And the robots. You’re going to love the robots.

All I can say is that I’m glad there’s more to come. The adventure continues with THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS in July 2015 and NECESSITY soon after that.

Rating: 4 .5 out of 5 stars


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