Review – Walton, “The Just City”

Jo Walton, “The Just City” (2015) (read aloud by Noah Michael Levine) – This is a weird one! A compelling premise: the goddess Athena uses time travel to try to create “the just city” as described in Plato’s “Republic”! She finds three hundred Platonist “masters” from across time, including his names such as Cicero and Marsilio Ficino (no word on if Leo Strauss made the cut- he may never have prayed to Athena, which was part of the deal). She buys ten thousand and change slave children who can speak Greek! Her masters raid time for books and inspiring works of art, and they get some robots to do a lot of grunt work. They set up on the Mediterranean island that would inspire the Atlantis myth, way back BC, and then they just go to town!

Jo Walton, a stalwart of the scifi/fantasy world with numerous acclaimed books to her name, gives us three viewpoint characters. One is Maia, who starts out as a classics-loving Victorian spinster and gets zapped to the Just City to become a Master. The one who gets the most screen time is Simmea, who we see go from a terrified slave girl to one of the Guardians destined to become a philosopher queen. And then there’s a few chapters from the perspective of Apollo, who consults with Athena about her scheme and, for reasons of his own, manifests as a mortal child and gets picked up into the city to be raised with the other kids.

I’m all about people with too much power and too many ideas trying to instantiate their loopy visions and stepping on the rake of circumstances. This is sort of that. Really, things go better for our Platonist friends than you’d have any reason to expect. Sure, it’s hard to keep 10,080 (Plotinus insisted, it’s a magic number) ten year olds in line, but it’s easier when you have robots to help, and the kids are grateful for not being slaves anymore (mostly). The kids develop mind, body, and soul in the Plato-approved pattern. They live in beautiful gardens and dorms named after “the great cities of civilization” with artworks time-zapped to the island before they got destroyed (one wonders what artworks they grabbed for “Novus Erboricum” — all Latin and Greek here! — before the big apple bought it, or if it wasn’t considered “civilized” enough). Life’s not too bad.

But there’s questions… questions of freedom. I try not to reduce these reviews to ideological critique. And I try to appreciate what various ideologies can bring to the literary table. I think it’s fair to say that Walton hails from the moderate wing of the geek liberalism that dominates the speculative fiction field, comfortable within its walls but always peering over them at the wild chuds outside, after winning the “puppygate” conflicts a few years back (around the time “The Just City” was being written). Truth be told, a lot of these people are sore winners, quite capable of being as vindictive — complete with internet harassment campaigns — towards people who don’t toe their line as the “puppie” factions were. We used to associate extreme behavior with fans of extreme culture. Now, the nastiest fuckers fight and fuck people over for anodyne culture: for SUVs and child beauty pageants on the chud right, for Whedon quipfests and corporate pride on the useless liberal center. Weird time.

Anyhoo! I don’t know how much any of that is Walton’s scene- her big intervention during the Puppygate era was an extended series of essays on the Hugo’s histories, which I dipped into and found even-handed and completist- old-school geek virtues, and the woman is an old-school geek. The point is, the questions in this book circulate around a framework that I think manages to, at one and the same time, speak to the issues of freedom such an experiment would involve, place her firmly in the zeitgeist of the contemporary geek-liberal camp, and also miss a fair a few points while really “grokking” others. 

This, of course, is consent. Apollo joins the project because he doesn’t get why a nymph would disdain his attentions so bad she’d pray to his sister, Artemis, to become a tree. Artemis doesn’t say, so he incarnates as a human boy to play Athena’s game. The slave kids might be “free” once the masters buy them- but A. the masters still buy slaves, supporting the Mediterranean slave market and B. the kids can’t leave, or really go against the masters’ platonic program. Most of them don’t want to, but some of them do, and more and more of them resent the program as they get older. Some of the masters don’t get consent very well, as an encounter between Maia and a Renaissance figure shows, in a harrowing scene that doesn’t seem to amount to much after it happens?

I think that, in any encounter between classical civilization and people from considerably further down the time track — like us as readers — consent, and the different valuations we put on it, is an important thing to consider. Sometimes, I wonder if “golden age” scifi doesn’t hit like it does because, whatever else it had, it had sort of a shruggy and smirky attitude about consent in a way that I think a fair few of the writers would have thought was following fine classical fashion (when it wasn’t doing straight up rape fantasy, like the Gor novels). It’s too much to say that the Athenians of Plato’s time had no concept of consent. But it did not have the same valuations as it has here and now. This is something I tend to think of as an improvement between now and then. 

Walton takes the conversation into some interesting places, and some less interesting ones. Not much happens to people who undertake sexual assault in the city. Half of the masters are women — as Walton points out, there’s good reason for women in eras where they weren’t allowed to do much intellectually on their own to be attracted to Plato’s vision, which did not formally distinguish between male and female masters — and you’d figure maybe they’d do something when one of their own was assaulted? But nothing happens with that. 

In another set piece on the consent question, once the kids are sixteen, the masters follow the recommendation in The Republic: they divvy the kids up into classes, led by the Golds, the ones who could become guardians, philosopher kings, steer the city. In each class, the kids are then randomly chosen to have sex during fertility rituals. This is meant to secure a supply of children. You’re supposed to be more or less celibate except for that! You can do platonic “agape” but not any kind of erotic business. It’s weird! All these kids doing it (or not) out of “duty.” What the kids don’t know — they’re not supposed to read The Republic until they turn fifty! — is that the masters do a “noble lie” and match the kids up via eugenical scheming, only saying it’s random. Of course, kids go out to the woods to do their illicit liaisons. 

At around this time, who shows up in the city but Socrates! It was unclear to me, but apparently Athena summoned him there to teach the kids rhetoric. Of course, he does his Socratic thing, asking questions. He actually thinks his student Plato was a bit of a weirdo. And also, the robots — called through most of the book “the workers” — start acting a little odd. Our man Socrates learns to communicate with them, because it turns out some of them have become conscious! Uh oh! 

As it turns out, it’s all about consent and self-actualization, for people, and robots. Everyone wants a chance to be their own best self, as the Just City promises, and they also want to choose to do so, and decide what their best self actually is And here’s the deal: I absolutely agree! Here’s the other half of the deal: not the most interesting point you can make and ignores the presence of beings who can literally reverse time, among other powers! To say nothing of basing your whole civilization on a dude with distinctly different ideas, and having a lot of your leaders come from that end of the timeline. It’s not clear exactly what Athena, Apollo, and the rest can and can’t do. They’re not omnipotent, like YHWH supposedly is. Their dad might be, but they aren’t. But still! 

It’s not so much that I think the existence of gods obviates consent, either for sex or for labor. Any god you like could say it didn’t, and I would tell any god you like that I live according to what I think is right, not them. I just think you’d get a different set of arguments other than Socrates owning the goddess with Reason and Logic until she resorts to force, in this situation. This dynamic — not isolated to the last confrontation, but in a few other places too — undermines the more intriguing elements of the book, in my opinion. Not fatally, but enough to make me wonder. Anyway! I’ll probably pick up the sequel, some time. ****

Review – Walton, “The Just City”

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