Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Just City by Jo Walton

Book Cover
Through good fortune and a large dollop of generosity, an uncorrected advance reading copy of the upcoming novel 'The Just City' has found its way into my hands. I was incredibly excited - and knowing it'll come out next year makes the wait for the next instalment somewhat agonising. (Apparently, this is likely to be the first book in a series of three - but it is a self-contained novel, not ending on a trilogy-cliffhanger).

The Just City is a novel not really designed to be summed up - or rather, if you sum it up, it sounds a bit silly. Greek Gods try to get philosophers to build a utopian city on Atlantis with the help of robots from the future? Umm...

...but the thing is, it's a fabulous novel. It all starts with Apollo, perplexed why a nymph would rather be turned into a tree than suffer rape at his hands. He does not even understand the concept of rape - to him, there is a chase, then there is sex, and it baffles him that this might not be welcome, or that it could even be a thing of horror to the recipient of his affections. Asking his sister Athena for some explanation, he ultimately agrees to become human for the span of a lifetime - in an experiment she is setting up, where philosophers and fans of Plato from all ages are tasked with setting up a model Republic (based on Plato's book & ideals), by acquiring 10-year-old children and turning them into model citizens in a Just City, and thereby creating generations of Philosopher-Kings.

Told through the eyes of Apollo (as God, and later, as youngster), and one of the women Masters of the city (Maia), and one of the girl slaves-turned-apprentices (Simnea: the heart and soul of the novel), we follow the experiment for several years. The children grow, and grow up, while the Masters try, somewhat bumblingly, to create a perfect society. After a few years, Socrates is thrown into the mix, and Socrates is not too happy about the experiment. Above all else, Socrates likes to question things...

I imagine this novel would be, if anything, more amazing if I had had a classical education. Some of the characters are famous (Cicero, Socrates, the Gods), some are slightly more obscure, and I suspect that if I were able to spot references, there would be all sorts of clever things and 'a-ha!' moments that may well have been hidden in the text. As it was, even with my lack of knowledge of the ancients, I enjoyed the book immensely.

This is a story about thinkers and debaters and people striving for excellence. Once Socrates appears, it is lively with thoughtful dialogues and superb investigations of their situation. Before Socrates, it is largely a novel of children and their relationships with each other (and the perplexing and artificial ways the adults are shaping their lives). After Socrates, it is a delightful intellectual dance (as well as a story of relationships and coming of age and developing sexuality and more). Above all else, there is a warmth, sense of humour, and joyfulness at the heart of the book: there are no villains, everyone has the best intentions, and even when people do stupid, callous, or (rarely) when they do terrible things, they are making mistakes rather than consciously chosing to be evil. Most have the capacity to learn. As a reader, I might cringe or be amused by their folly, but it's rare for anyone to act with ill intent, and so I can empathise with most characters (except perhaps Ikaros). This is a novel where spitefulness is in short supply.

There is one aspect of the novel which has taken me aback. Rape is a theme in this novel - and it's handled in a very matter-of-fact way. This is in contrast to the things I have been brought up to believe about rape. I don't really know what to think about this. I was raised with a notion that rape is the worst thing imaginable, an act that crushes and breaks people forever, something worse than murder. This is not the first novel I have read where rape is an unpleasant, but not character-defining thing, and, like other novels that take a different approach, it makes me wonder whether casting rape as a an act that defines the victim (whether through destruction of their soul, or by being THE thing they've had to overcome) is perhaps a notion that adds to real victims' suffering, rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder whether a slightly less fatalistic view of it (while still acknowledging its seriousness as a dreadful violation against a person) may be more healthy or at least more realistic, in fiction and in reality. Still, it's not a topic I can ever feel comfortable with, and I find it quite challenging to encounter in fiction, no matter how it is treated.

For all the seriousness of some of its themes and ideas, The Just City is an enormously playful and accessible novel. Even without knowing much about philosophers or history, it was a delight to read, and it sparks and fizzes with ideas, discourse, creativity and joy in its thought experiment. The characters - humans and gods alike - leap off the page and dazzle. I'd heartily recommend the novel to anyone, and can't wait for the sequel...

Rating: 5/5

2 comments:

  1. Aaaahhh I want it. It sounds amazing. *flails*

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  2. This is not the first novel I have read where rape is an unpleasant, but not character-defining thing, and, like other novels that take a different approach, it makes me wonder whether casting rape as a an act that somehow defines the victim (whether through destruction of their soul, or by being THE thing they've had to overcome) is perhaps a notion that adds to the victims' suffering, rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder whether a sightly less fatalistic view of it (while still acknowledging its seriousness as a dreadful violation against a person) may be more healthy or at least more realistic, in fiction and in reality.

    Have finally properly finished reading The Just City, so I came back to look at your review again. I think you're right, and what's more, I very much appreciate the way Jo Walton portrays rape. I think we do need that: we need to stop acting like rape is something that changes you in some fundamentally different way. Yes, it's a crime, one that usually combines violence and the taking away of choice. And that may well change who you are and how you react to the world. But it doesn't have to; some people are more resilient than others, it doesn't mean the same thing to everyone, and we shouldn't judge the awfulness of the crime by how the person recovers or not, but on the act alone.

    She's also done this in the Sulien books, where her main character is asexual as well; possibly one of the key things that taught me I wasn't alone in being ace, nor was I doomed to keep fighting memories of being assaulted as the defining trauma of my life. There was a time when I felt that to cope with life at all was to somehow prove that the act wasn't that bad, and that to be able to say it matter-of-factly meant either that it wasn't really sexual assault, or that I was defective in my response to it. None of which is helpful in figuring out emotions around this stuff.

    Now I think about it, it might be Jo in a way that's taught me to talk about awful things that have happened to me without worrying over whether I'm showing the right emotions. I think very like Mori, and I'd love to think I think like Simmea.

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