The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City is one of those novels that grabs your attention in a most unassuming manner.  I started reading not really knowing what to expect and at first wondered if it would be my thing.  This is quite a different tale after all.  There’s no high adventure or epic fantasy but the story simply takes a hold in the most unusual way.

I don’t really want to give away too much about the plot as I went into this as something of a mystery and I think that’s a good way to approach it.

At the start of the novel we have the Gods Apollo and Athene caught up in an intriguing discussion basically centred around Apollo’s confusion concerning the issue of volition.  This arose as a result of the latest nymph he was chasing praying to be turned into a tree (as opposed to being raped) – the story of Daphne, whose wish was granted, of course.  Apollo simply couldn’t understand why she would prefer this to simply giving herself to him.  Literally, he couldn’t comprehend it at all – he wasn’t feeling irked or angry he just had no idea why being turned into a tree would be preferable to him having his wicked way – surely Daphne wanted him really??  Really???  At the conclusion of the conversation Athene tells Apollo of an experiment she’s conducting.  She’s creating a ‘Just City’ as written about in Plato’s Republic and Apollo decides to take part in her little experiment and be reborn – as a human – to live through the experience and gain knowledge.

What makes this book so good is the amount of arguments it provokes as you read along – it’s just packed with thought inspiring concepts – and don’t get me wrong now, I’m not a philosopher by a country mile and I certainly don’t feel like I have some kind of high intelligence going on – it’s just the book guides you.

Here we have the ‘just city’.  It’s run by wardens who have come to the city after praying to Athene for escape from their own lives.  Children are also brought to the City – bought as slaves in the marketplace and transferred to the city through time travel.  Following the concepts laid out in Plato’s Republic the wardens begin to teach the children to be ‘their best selves’ and to excel.  The wardens look after the children and help to teach them to think and philosophise.  They create little cities and fill them with works of art so that the children can appreciate the finer things.  The City itself is also populated by robots from a future time, again brought here by Athene, to undertake the essential work required to maintain a city.  And of course there is Apollo – reborn as Pythias – and Athene, who has remained as a God but taken a human form.

The narration comes from three characters: Apollo, one of the children who we watch grow from the age of 10 – called Simmea and one of the wardens, Maia, who was something of an intellect herself but found herself restrained by the society into which she was born.

So, why is this so interesting?  There is just a wealth of ideas.  For example, as we watch the city grow over the course of the years we begin to see that some of the idealism that the wardens originally had has started to fade in the face of reality.

There’s the idea of Gods – well, playing Gods, with people’s lives for whatever reason – be it a genuine desire to improve things or simply on a whim to keep themselves entertained.  Strangely, and although it starts as quite the reverse I found myself warming to Apollo and beginning to dislike Athene a little!  Well, maybe dislike is a strong term but I never felt like she had any feelings for the people whose lives she had affected so massively and she in fact turned out to have quite a spiteful streak.  Whereas Apollo wanted to understand things more and came to develop feelings in the least expected places!

There’s this whole area of can you really create a utopia?  At the end of the day Plato’s idea was an ideal and difficult to put into practice, yes, he thought everyone should be equal, but then devised a system for ranking people as Gold through to iron depending on their achievements and thereby raising those afforded gold status above all the others – is that really just after all?? Exactly who did Plato foresee doing all the backbreaking labour?  He wouldn’t have had access to robots from the future after all – and there’s another twist to that particular element of the story that I won’t go into here.

Then there’s the whole question of choice – upon festival days the older children are paired with each other in a one day marriage – in this way they remain unattached.  Any babies that are born as a result of these pairings are placed into nurseries to be looked after by everyone.  Only, this doesn’t result in all round happiness – and is the choice process really as random as everyone thinks?  Plus, the children – even when they come of an age to marry and bear children they’re not permitted to read Plato’s Republic which again, was irritating – why shouldn’t they be able to read it?  Surely they might have valid opinions to offer or is it that only older people have valid opinions – some of the wardens were not 30 so why did they have access to the book?  Double standards.

This book is like a thought explosion set within a well told story – so many avenues to go down.  It set my mind racing.  I’m not really doing a very good job of articulating it but this is a such a good read.  It would be perfect for a book club that’s for sure as there would be no end of possible areas for discussion and debate.

Is it possible to really have a just city?  Ideals are great in theory but in the end putting them into practice can be trickier than expected.  All I’m going to say is look at Animal Farm as a perfect example.

Anyway a great exploration of equality and I think an excellent read if you want a bit of a food for thought and something a little bit different.

I received a copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.