Monday, April 27, 2015

The Just City - Jo Walton

I read Jo Walton's love letter to science fiction, Among Others, in 2011. That was my first encounter with Walton's fiction. The book is not autobiographical but it does borrow elements from Walton's life. Most notably her reading habits. Walton read an awful lot of science fiction and Among Others is riddled with references to them. One of the things that stood out in that novel, is a number of references to the works of Plato, to which she was pointed by Mary Renault's historical novel The Last of the Wine. Plato must have impressed the young Morwenna/Jo because in The Just City we return to him. It's another novel that is hard to categorize. It contains philosophy, Greek mythology, robots and time travel. Sounds like a book that is very hard to market to me. Tor thinks they can do it though. The Just City is the first in a trilogy and the second book, The Philosopher Kings, is scheduled for publication in July. Walton is currently writing the third volume, Necessity, which is expected for some time next year.

The Just City is based on Plato's idea of an ideal city-state. He put it forward in his most famous work: The Republic. Athena, the Greek god of wisdom, takes an interest in these ideas and decides to start an experiment. In a time before the Trojan War, she founds a city on the island of Thera and populates it with people who have read The Republic in the original Greek and prayed to her. From all over history, people are taken to the city to lay the foundations of Plato's ideal and become the teachers for the first generation of citizens. Then thousands of 10-year-old enslaved children are taken to the city to grow up in a community unlike any other in history. Their goal is to pursue arete, which Walton translates as excellence but more commonly translated as virtue. Plato's ideals are not without their flaws though. Gradually, cracks begin to appear.

Walton tells the story from three different points of view. The first is Apollo, god of the sun and brother to Athena. After his adventure with Daphne, a nymph who chooses to turn into a tree rather than have sex with him, he decides there are things mortals can teach him. Reborn as a Greek boy he is taken to the city to live among the children of the Just City. Maia, is a 19th century woman and talented scholar who after the death of her father wonders what to do with her life. Society makes it impossible for her to pursue a career in academia and so she prays to Athena to take her to Plato's utopia. The goddess takes her to become one of the masters in the Just City. One of her pupils is Simmea, freed form slavery some time between the 6th and 11th century in Egypt. Scarred by her experiences as a slave, she thrives in the city which stimulates her curiosity and challenges her to excel. She is not blind to the discontent around her though.

These three points of view show us Plato's ideal and its problems, or, to put it in other words, show us Walton's reaction to Plato. The author has done a very good job of keeping the book accessible. I have read a bit of Greek mythology but as far as philosophy goes, I've never progressed beyond Sophie's World which does contain quite a large section on Socrates, another important figure in this novel, and Plato himself. I had no trouble following the story although you might get more out of it if you do know a bit more about the source material. What the novel did do was have me look up a number of references to artworks that are scattered throughout the text and read up on the historical figures that populate the city. I probably spent more time on that than reading the actual book. There are quite few historical characters, usually under a name adopted when they joined the Just City, making their identity a bit of a puzzle for the reader. Walton knows how to trigger the reader's curiosity, that is for sure.

The novel is something of a dialogue in the Socratic sense. It is not so much about the characters rather than the position they take in the debate. And that is what the Just City is, a long-running debate. Walton's two major criticisms of Plato's ideal are in essence that a 10-year-old is not a tabula rasa as he supposes and that he severely misunderstands human sexuality. Pile on top of that all the little practical things The Republic does not mention and you can see the whole thing start to slide from the very first moment. That is not to say they don't achieve anything, but Plato's ideal seems a long way off by the end of the book.

Sexism is the most obvious obstacle in achieving Plato's ideals the book tackles. The situation is a bit curious to put it mildly. For most of history across many societies women were not seen fit to pursue careers in art, science or the military and that attitude is shared by many of the teachers Alhena brings to the city. Plato (and Socrates) argue that in utopia such discrimination would not exist and so the city teaches both genders the same things. That doesn't change the attitude of many of the men present in the city however, something the female main characters run into time and again. It is not always out in the open but throughout the book examples of how the opinion of women are not taken as seriously can be found and how the women have to find a way around it to get things done. Walton's portrayal of the position of women in the Just City is one of a more subtle kind of sexism than what most of the characters would have encountered in their own time but it is still depressingly obvious.

Where Plato's ideas on equality were revolutionary, his ideas on relationships and sexuality and raising children are plain odd. This is a hugely complicated part of the novel as the ancient Greeks use terms like love, affection and friendship in different ways than we are used to. Walton uses the Greek terms agape, eros and philia in the novel to keep apart the various relationships between the characters. There is a fourth word in ancient Greek to describe love, storge, but that kind of love plays a minimal role in the novel. These four kinds of love, and especially agape are later used by Christian philosophers in a slightly different context than the ancient Greeks did and that muddies the waters a bit.

The idea behind the city is that people do not form pairs but that procreation is arranged in such a way that the strongest possible offspring is produced. The children are then raised communally and not by their parents. This idea is very distasteful to the modern readers in the light of Nazi racial theories but most of the characters are from earlier times in history and they don't see it that way. It does disrupt the desire to form families and, not surprisingly, the restrictions the city imposes on sexual activity and relationships are broken by just about everybody. Being forced to have sex with people selected though a (rigged) lottery results in some positive but also, inevitably, negative experiences for both sexes. It is without a doubt the most problematic element in the Just City. Walton uses it to discuss issues like birth control, upbringing of children, rape (including a scene where Apollo is forced to do something despicable), sexual freedom and relationships. It would seem that the Just City cannot come about until humanity settles these issues, which makes me wonder if it ever will.

The Just City is without a doubt one of the most interesting books I've read in ages. It combines a story that is highly readable with an enormous amount of food for thought. I could probably go on for quite a while on all the influences, history and philosophy that went into it. I haven't even discussed the importance of art for instance. Or the debates on what constitutes intelligence. Or the ever present question of how much of Socrates' teachings is Plato putting words into his mouth. It's quite clear that Walton is not finished with this creation and that there is plenty of material left for the second and third book. While the novel itself ends with a satisfying climax (a debate of course, it could hardly have ended another way) I look forward to delving deeper into Walton's thoughts on Plato's Just City. The Just City is one of the 2015 books you do not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Just City
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 368
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3266-0
First published: 2015

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