book reviews by Althea

The Just City – Jo Walton ***

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An interesting book about an interesting project.

As an experiment investigating human nature, the goddess Athena decides to set up a ‘Just City’ based on Plato’s ‘Republic.’
To do this, she zaps every human being who ever prayed to her that they could live in Plato’s ‘Just City’ (there are more than one might guess, from widely varied times and locations), and collects them all in ancient history, on the remote island that’s sometimes been known as Atlantis. Their prayers are answered: with the goddess’ help, these people will get to create a city based on Plato’s writings.

To do this, first, they need to collect citizens. Children purchased from slave markets will do the trick. Athena’s brother Apollo, as well as Artemis, think the idea is interesting, so they get in on the action. And Athena likes Socrates, so he gets collected too, even against his will.

What transpires is less a novel, and more of Jo Walton’s response to Plato. In many ways (and intentionally) reading this book is similar to reading Plato. Characters exist as mouthpieces for certain points of view, and they agreeably talk about just what the author wants them to. There’s very little action, and quite a lot of exploration of various ideas.

Walton’s main themes in the book concern free will and volition, the nature of intelligence (including the possibility and ramifications of artificial intelligence), the ethics of power and truth, human nature itself, and whether or not utopia is even possible.

The details of many of the issues brought up in the discussion of many of these issues are very contemporary in feel – more so than the characters’ purported backgrounds would seem to indicate. I also got very little sense of many of the characters, except for the few main viewpoint ones, which was a bit of a shame, considering the premise of their widely diverse backgrounds. But again, this isn’t a character study – it’s a work linking current thinking on women’s rights, consent issues, &c. with Plato’s writings.

If an extended treatment of these ideas sounds interesting to you: you will love this book. If you expected a sci-fi or fantasy novel: you may be slightly disappointed. I felt that it was worth reading; but doubt that it will touch so many people emotionally the way ‘Among Others’ did.

Much appreciation to Tor Books and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book.


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