‘The Just City’ by Jo Walton

TheJustCity_coverA new Jo Walton is something to be celebrated. Her last two novels have been very special indeed. Among Others and My Real Children are two of the books I have loved the most since starting this blog.

I had some initial trepidation about Walton’s latest. It’s essentially a thought experiment about Plato, and I don’t know very much about Plato. A bored Apollo and Athena decide to set up a city that is run by the precepts of Plato’s The Republic.  They do so in ancient Greece, inviting several famous philosophers and thinkers from throughout history and even future history (though there a host more who don’t get invited). They are placed on an isolated island, which is significant in a small but entertaining way.

Athena also brings in some robots to help with the menial tasks. Robots. Hmmm, my sense of unease went up another notch. Next they need to populate the island, not just with great brains of ageing thinkers, but also some bright young things that can be brought up in Plato’s enlightened manner. Having done so they unleash their experiment and see how Plato’s Republic might have gone down. Needless to say it turns out to be a total shambles, filled with egos, sexual appetites and slavery. Clearly Plato had never watched When Harry Met Sally.  Thinking about life is not the same as living life.

The society generated is heavily male dominated and Walton picks this apart in the name of womanhood, making many valid points. Despite being poles apart, the female characters here are reminiscent of those in Among Others and My Real Children. There are moments when the book feels like it’s about to burst into life, but much as it pains me to admit it, it never really gets going. Not for me anyway.  The beauty of Others and Children, is that they are other-worldly, yet fresh and real. This feels too much like a contrivance to make a few points.  

This is more a thought experiment than a narrative; a vanity project, even. The central question in the novel turns out to be whether the AI that sits behind the robots means they have Free Will and therefore, whether they are in fact being treated as slaves. There’s some discussion, between the ancient and modern philosophers as to whether slavery is bad (yes it is). This discussion is interesting, as is the wider unposed question as to whether society always relies on indenture in some form to propagate a philosophical, inquiring culture. Unfortunately, the set up with the robots, that allows Walton to hold this discussion, feels very arbitrary.

I suspect that if you know more about history of philosophy than I, particularly about the Greek philosophers and their central tenets you would probably find much greater depths to The Just City. Yet, if compared to the accessibility of Walton’s previous two novels, which can picked up an enjoyed by almost anybody (I know this as I’ve recommended them to all sorts of people with great success), her latest offering would seem to have a narrow scope.

As an avid Jo Walton fan it’s painful to admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy her latest offering. Walton is a great writer but this one for me is little more than Okay. It says in Walton’s author bio that she hopes to write a book a year, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I find another book to fall in love with. A quick bit of searching for an image for this piece revealed that there is already a sequel ‘The Philosopher Kings’ available. Whilst the end of Just City is a little vague, I hadn’t particularly noticed the need for another volume. Indicative perhaps that I wasn’t paying enough attention. 

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me this book. 

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