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Marissa Lingen

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The Just City, by Jo Walton [Dec. 24th, 2014|07:32 am]
Marissa Lingen

Review copy provided by Tor. Also the author is a dear friend of mine, and I read this book in manuscript before I read this published version.

This is a book about time travel, robots, and eccentric philosophers using ancient slave children to experiment with approximating Plato’s Republic, with the help of the goddess Athene.

It’s also a book about consent. Once you bring Platonism in this far to the front-and-center, theme is not going to be an optional extra that can sort of sneak up on you, and The Just City is not an exception to that rule. Consent–not just in a sexual context, also in a work and personal context–goes from first page to last. If you don’t want a book that’s dealing with consent (and with historical figures and Greek gods not always having a great grasp of it), then this is not the book for you.

I think substantially because I never had a Mediterranean focus, I never had the, “I want to live there!” or “I want to try that!” reaction to Plato’s Republic–which makes it more fun to watch it twist and disintegrate than if I was a hard-core Platonist, I think? There may be hard-core Platonists about who can give me the report on the experience from their perspective. But mostly I got to enjoy Simmea and Maia striving so hard for this strange thing that kept shifting under them, and what I do like that it was like is the kind of utopian commune experiment that 19th-century America was chock full of. Um. What I do like to read about. Because I would not live on one for love nor money. Really: no. Really really: no.

One of my consistent complaints about fantastic fiction is that it’s hard to find books that treat the Greek gods as genuinely not very nice. This is a definite exception. The Greek gods in The Just City are not horrible brutes, but they are definitely not your pals–they take some of the worst aspects of being human and being alien, without becoming nuance-free monsters. I also enjoyed how thoroughly Socrates was rolling his eyes at people’s reactions to Plato. Also just structurally, the last sentences of the chapters are so very well done. But my favorite thing is probably the robots, actually. I like the robots quite a lot, and all the stuff around them, most of which is spoilery. More robots. Robots yay.

Please consider using our link to buy The Just City at Amazon.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-12-24 03:53 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I agree and disagree.

First, while nobody has ever tried it, you can see the fingerprints of it all over things like Fourierist compounds. Reading Plato was ubiquitous for the educated of that time, and you can watch them getting to various bits of The Republic and doing exactly what the masters in The Just City did: deciding that something was not feasible for either practical or philosophical concerns, and then replacing it with something else--but often not something notably more sensible. So I struggle a bit with the lack of one specific "we're building Plato's Republic!" example as evidence of the general good sense of people because of their own nonsensical ideas they swapped in for Plato's.

Regarding familial, romantic, and sexual relationships, I think there has to be some kind of bias built in for people to try to set things up as universal that have worked for them. You see this in people who are not building a utopian city, too. Correct answer seems to me to be not to set up familial, romantic, and sexual relationships with one universal mold, but hey, monkeys. Getting The Right Answer is really appealing.

And while I think that Plato mostly wanted to make people think and examine their assumptions, the fact that he set the Republic up so that people roughly like him would be in charge of it makes me think that he would not have been entirely displeased by the other thing he did, which is to set the parameters of conversation pretty thoroughly. One of the great things about getting more non-Western cultural influence is that it upsets the places where one person or a handful of people have set the parameters on who and what counts for "real" discussion. And your Socrates seems to notice this, trampling on Plato's assumptions of who was important and how you can tell, rolling his eyes whenever people in the text treat Plato as The Guy To Listen to instead of a guy with some interesting thoughts.
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From: tournevis
2014-12-24 04:09 pm (UTC)
*nodding vehemently*

Also, the robots are the best.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-12-24 04:51 pm (UTC)
I realized sometime after reading the Republic that I had first encountered some of its ideas in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet: The Patrol's motto, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, is commonly read as alluding to it, and the Patrol is clearly Heinlein's attempt to describe a fit set of Guardians (note that their education starts with mathematics, but centers on ethics and epistemology). But beyond that, Heinlein's discussion of the three human motivational types—the merchant who seeks profit, the soldier who seeks glory and pride, and the professional who seeks a code of ethics—is taken straight from Plato's discussion of the three classes of human beings in his ideal city, and of their crucial virtues: temperance, courage, and wisdom. It seems fitting that Walton is looking at the same topic, given her respect for Heinlein, and I'm looking forward to reading this book.

Plato is often taken as advocating a totalitarian state, and there are things in the Republic that can be read that way. But it struck me more recently that it's also possible to take it as having a libertarian message. To start with, Plato discusses markets and seems to understand the key point that voluntary exchange makes both participants better off; his Guardians and Auxiliaries are there for the purpose of protecting his city against robbers and thieves attracted by the prosperity of its markets. And the communism and strict discipline he enjoins for the Guardians are specifically intended to keep them from using their powers for their own private enrichment, at the expense of justice; that is, they're an attempt to avoid rent-seeking and other forms of corruption. I don't find his proposed solution ideal, but then I don't think anyone has found a really good solution to that problem—with all due respect to the efforts of James Madison.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-12-24 05:09 pm (UTC)
I will be interested to hear what you think when you get to it.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2014-12-24 05:18 pm (UTC)
Your mention of the theme of consent made me more interested in reading it. I've been thinking a lot about consent lately, in a political context.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2014-12-26 12:54 am (UTC)
I think the handling of the consent theme gets subtler and better as the book goes on. The way it's first introduced seems to me a little bald and abrupt.
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[User Picture]From: lydy
2014-12-25 07:25 am (UTC)
I really loved this book. And yes, ROBOTS! But so many other things as well.

When I was a young, impressionable pre-teen, I ran into a fairly bowdlerlized version of the Greek myths, and I fell so completely head-over-heels in love. When I got older, and ran into the considerably less bowderlized versions, I had, um, issues. The gods are worse than problematic. But a vision of a world where the axis isn't good vs. evil, but some other thing, something maybe like nobility vs. depravity, I'm not even sure, whatever that was, it stuck with me. I love the value that the Classic places on beauty and truth, in a way that my own upbringing did not. There are images in the Greek myths that speak to my heart and bypass my brain in ways that no other symbol-set ever has.

And _The Just City_ totatally scatched that itch for me, but didn't ignore the ways in which the Greek gods were absolute, incredible dicks. It grappled with a bunch of problematic attitudes and behaviours in ways that I am so very impressed by.


And, yes, Socrates rolling his eyes at Plato is absolutely worht the price of admission.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-12-25 01:23 pm (UTC)
Well, and one of the things I particularly liked is that when fantasy authors have gods with their actual mythical warts on, it's often the gods they don't like. It's like, okay, Ares is unpleasant because hypothetical author X thinks of him as a meathead, but non-meathead gods are sweet and reasonable.

And in The Just City, Athene is Athene. She is not only the goddess of wisdom, she's also the goddess who turned Arachne into a spider for beating her. And there's no wibbling of the sort that "wellllll, but only if Arachne was kind of a jerrrrrrk...", like it's okay to turn people into spiders if they're kind of jerks. And yet Athene is also the goddess who is interested in social experiments and philosophers and like that. She's still a run-find-out kind of goddess. She hasn't been recast into only pouting over being beaten in a weaving contest.
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