Jo Walton’s novels are always so creative and refreshing, and The Just City is no exception. This book stretched my mind and my imagination just enough without overwhelming me with the philosophy. Perhaps the best part of this book is how Walton plays with the Greek gods (primarily as inspired by Homeric tradition) while simultaneously acknowledging their rapey tendencies in a very real way. This is a challenge for authors who want to play in historical or mythological sandboxes in our increasingly progressive, reflective society, and Walton rises to the occasion.
The Just City refers to the hypothetical city laid out by Plato in his famous Republic. The Greek gods are real, and Athena decides she wants to actually make this thing happen. So she grabs a bunch of people from across time who have prayed to her (she can do that) and places them on Thera, just prior to the eruption of the volcano that devastated the island and inspired the myth of Atlantis. Athena charges these people with the task of developing Plato’s Just City, and when they are ready, she helps them buy thousands of child slaves to raise as the first true generation of citizens. Meanwhile, Athena’s brother Apollo decides to be incarnated into human form—i.e., no powers, none, not until he dies—so he can experience this for the first time and hopefully figure out why Daphne chose to turn into a tree rather than have sex with him.
The story is primarily told from the point of view of three people: Simmea, one of the children raised in the city; Maia, originally Ethel from Victorian England and now one of the masters who built the city; and Apollo, living a mortal life as Pytheas. All three have slightly different perspectives on the city as an experiment given their different backgrounds, and this proves key to the philosophical exploration Walton undertakes in this novel. A great deal of the novel is dialogue—often involving Sokrates, who basically steals the show—into the nature of justice, self-determination and autonomy, etc. It’s a highly didactic novel, but the philosophy never threatens to overtake the characterization, and though I’ll freely admit it seems to overtake what little plot there is to begin with, the novel ends with a rather satisfying eruption—just not of the volcanic type.
As an aromantic and asexual person, I spend a lot of time talking about my platonic relationships. So the fact that this book meditates a lot on what Platonic relationships actually are was very intriguing for me. Walton approaches sexuality, romance, and friendship in a philosophical way as well. I wouldn’t necessarily describe this book as heteronormative, but I also wouldn’t call it queer: it takes a very Greek view to the notion that men can enjoy a more fluid sexuality than women tend to; that being said, we’re somewhat restricted because our two female viewpoint characters are both not particularly interested in sex. So there’s a dearth of queer representation, both in terms of sexuality and gender identity, which is rather essentialist. Walton spends a fair amount of time trying to reconcile Plato’s relatively equitable ideas about women with the fact that he didn’t seem to actually, you know, know many educated women. But it just left me wondering, really, where I, an aroace trans woman, might fit into this imagined version of the Just City if Athena had plucked me from 21st century Canada.
I also found Apollo’s apparent journey of self-discovery somewhat unsatisfying. Dude doesn’t understand consent and self-determination and the principle of equal significance, so he decides to live as a human, fine. But Walton spends most of the novel telling us he’s learning things rather than really showing us. This is one example of my principal criticism of the book, which is that it drags at points. It’s not that the book is ever truly boring or uninteresting—I was never tempted to DNF it like I have with a couple of others recently. But I kept wondering when something would happen, something other than endless scenes of conversations and deliberations.
So at the end of the book, I was left kind of wondering how satiated I was. I don’t really want to read the second book—but the description for the third book is so very intriguing! Maybe I will just skip a whole book! Maybe I will make myself read the second one too. Who knows, I’m just unpredictable that way! Regardless, The Just City is a good read for anyone who likes Greek mythology, Greek philosophy, and science fiction that really doesn’t bother to hide how much of a thought experiment it is.