Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: The Just City - Jo Walton

The Just City, by Jo Walton

This story is delightful. The goddess Athene decides to run an experiment - a real-life city based on Plato's The Republic. Athene brings 300+ adults, all intellectuals, from different times spanning thousands of years to help set up and run the city. 10,000+ children, including an incarnate Apollo, are brought to the city to learn and become their Best Selves. Robots. Time travel. Impending doom - the Just City is situated at the feet of the rumbling volcano on Kallisti. And of course, because humans and Greek gods are imperfect creatures, there are flaws in the experiment.

More thoughts, with spoilers, behind the cut. If you're at all interested in reading the book, I'd suggest reading it before being spoiled further!

Also, don't forget to tell me what 2015 SFF has been blowing your socks off! OK, on to The Just City spoilery thoughts:

First, I have to confess. I have never read The Republic. I'm not sure I've actually read ANY Plato. I have a feeling I would have gotten more out of The Just City if I had.

Even without that context, this story was delightful in so many ways! Many of the adults brought to the Just City are completely fictional, but quite a few of them are historical figures - philosophers, translators of Plato, and others. Again, probably lots of interesting Easter eggs that went right over my head because of my lack of classical study. These intellectuals are brought to the City from times ranging from Sokrates' time through to a little bit in our future. Because of the time travel constraints on the gods, people (and things) can only be removed from their time when they will no longer influence history. As a result the men are mostly older, brought right before their deaths. Many of the women are younger intellectuals who would not have been able to live a life of the mind in their own times. Objects are rescued from fires or other destruction.

When the children are old enough to be able to appreciate him, Sokrates is also brought to the Just City to teach rhetoric. Sokrates, of course, is going to do what Sokrates does, rather than exactly what you want him to do. Sokrates opines about Plato's versions of his dialogues. We get Socratic dialogues with children, gods, and historical figures.  We get Socratic dialogues with newly sentient robots whose only means of communicating is etching in stone, so the streets of the Just City are literally being paved with Socratic dialogue. We get to experience Sokrates' delight with the concept of Zero, and we get to watch him suss out whether the robots really are sentient. And of course, we get to watch him stir up trouble in an already flawed experiment.

The story is told through rotating perspectives - one of the children brought to the city, one of the adult women brought to the city, and Apollo. Beautifully done. You experience the city, and the secrets, from each of the major groups' viewpoints.

Also, yes, you read that right. 300+ adults. 10,000+ children, approximately age 10 at the beginning of the experiment. Think about that for a minute.

Jo Walton is a master storyteller and is very funny. I know I've already said delightful twice (thrice, sir), but I'm going to say it again. Seriously, delightful.

The sequel is out - The Philosopher Kings. As soon as I finish this short story compilation of Liu Cixin's that was Kindle-loaned to me for only two weeks, I'm pouncing on The Philosopher Kings.

Will I nominate The Just City for a Hugo? This is very high on my list of possible nominees, so far. Yes.

ETA: I'll make another post with some detailed spoilers on the flaws in the experiment, as it gets a little intense and involves some trigger warnings for some.

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