Book Review: The Just City
by Jo Walton
Tor Books: 2014
Jo Walton’s best work as a writer and critic has always profited from her explicit debts as a reader. She is an articulate fan: her essays on science fiction and fantasy, collected in the volume What Makes This Book So Great, are capable of stirring the interest of the most steely-hearted naysayer. Her two best novels are each a kind of fan art. Tooth and Claw, written early in her career, is patterned after the novels of the great Victorian writer Anthony Trollope, though all its characters are dragons. More recently, Among Others has a young reader of science fiction as its heroine, which allowed Walton to write many plot-appropriate tributes to her favorite books. Among Others deservedly won the Hugo Award in 2012.
Walton has been well-served by this sort of book — which makes it all the more surprising that The Just City, her next in the same vein, is so disappointing.
In an afterword, Walton states that “I first had the idea for writing about time travellers attempting to set up Plato’s Republic when I was fifteen.” Plato’s Republic is a philosophical dialogue about justice, featuring his teacher Socrates as the main speaker. In the central books of the dialogue, Plato has Socrates construct an imaginary “city-in-speech” to illustrate what justice looks like. Among classicists and philosophers it is — and always will be — an open question whether Plato really meant the city-in-speech to be an expression of his own views about justice. The dialogue itself points out in several places that this city possesses obvious deficiencies, and that it involves unworkable arrangements.
But Walton’s premise is that the Greek goddess Athene has decided to gather together all the readers of Plato’s famous dialogue who have ever prayed to her for the city in the Republic to be real. So we have Cicero and Benjamin Jowett, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Ellen Francis Mason, Boethius and Lucrezia Borgia, among others, rendered contemporaries for the purpose of building this utopia. Athene helps them collect the requisite 10,000 children — mostly by plucking them from slave markets throughout time. She also snatches some super-efficient robots from the future to do all the hard work. Meanwhile, Apollo decides to try out mortal life as one of the children to be raised in the Just City. Socrates teleports in halfway through and proves to everybody that the robots are sentient. It’s almost too many impossible things before breakfast.
But that cornucopia of conceits isn’t what ruins the book. Wild imagination is no crime in this genre. For example Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a sci-fi novel which also borrows heavily from Plato, proceeds for a thousand pages at the rate of approximately three wild ideas per page, and it works magnificently. What ruins Jo Walton’s book is her decision to follow Plato not just in terms of his utopia, but by trying to pull off some narrative philosophy of her own.
If The Just City were summarized — as we summarize Plato’s Republic by saying it is about justice, his Lysis about friendship, or his Euthyphro about piety — the topic would be freedom. The ethical problems Walton raises in the plights of her characters are things like rape, slavery, paternalism, the tyranny of love, and the problem of determinism — and she doesn’t merely show them, but spends a significant portion of the novel staging dialogues about them among her characters.
The book begins when the god Apollo is miffed that his sister Diana has turned the nymph Daphne into a tree rather than letting him rape her. So he goes to his other sister, Athene, to ask why in the world Daphne would prefer to be a tree rather than submit to his unwanted attentions.
“But it’s a game,” I [Apollo] said. I knew she wouldn’t understand. “The nymphs run away and we chase after.”
“It may be a game not everyone wants to play,” Athene suggested.
I stared out over the distant islands, rising like a pod of dolphins from the waves. I could name them all, and name their ports, but I chose for the moment to see them as nothing but blue on blue cloud shapes. “Volition,” I said, slowly, thinking it through.
“Equal significance?” I asked.
“Interesting. I didn’t know that.”
“Well then, that’s what you learned from Daphne.”
This discussion seems sketchy, because it is. Hand-waving in the direction of cliches too often stands in for real moral discussion. This wouldn’t matter except that the plot was clearly intended to be a vehicle for Socratic dialogue, with the inevitable comparisons such a form invites. But Walton approaches weighty ethical problems with the vocabulary of the self-help genre, the attention span of a june bug, and the moral seriousness of a sunday school teacher. The most often repeated phrase in the book is, “be your best self.”
I could almost forgive this kind of mush, ubiquitous though it is, because Walton salvages from her didactic setup and weak stabs at philosophical dialogue some genuinely gripping dramatic situations. Several storylines provoke real interest and real frustration when they aren’t worked out.
One of the slave children purchased to populate the city, named Simmia, falls in love with the disguised Apollo. Simmia, to complicate matters, is utterly devoted to the City and its ways, because without them she would still be a slave. The personal anguish caused by Simmia’s willing participation in lottery-determined assignations and pregnancies (as required by Plato’s Republic), while she loves a particular person, is fascinating to read about.
Likewise the story of Apollo’s sojourn as the mortal Pytheas provides the opportunity for all kinds of interesting situations and observations. Sometimes this promise seems about to be fulfilled:
Being a mortal was strange. […] Everything had to be done in time, immediately. Paradoxically, there was also too much time. I constantly had to wait through moments and hours and nights. I had to wait for spring to see blossoms, wait for Simmea to be free to talk to me, wait for morning. Then, when it came, everything would be hurtling forward in immediate necessity again, pierced through with emotion and immediacy and a speeding pulse. Time was inexorable and unstoppable. I had always known that, but it had taken me fifteen years as a mortal to understand what it meant.
But more often, Apollo’s mortal life appears to be wasted in the giving and receiving of Tony-Robbins-style platitudes. This is from the last paragraph of the book, where he sums up the lesson of the whole story in the most smarmy way imaginable:
Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellence has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Live the best life you can, and become the best self you can.
It’s not that any of these injunctions is bad or unworthy, but Walton hasn’t earned the right to pile them up in this casual way or done the work to make them appear hard-won answers to difficult questions. Apollo has exchanged the brutal amorality of the Greek pantheon for some 21st century platitudes with an ease and trite predictability that undermines the crucial seriousness of the abuse of power he represents.
Walton appears to have been so focused on arriving at this twee sermon that she neglected to really differentiate the voices of her characters or bring their troubles to fruition. Too often, in the middle of a chapter’s first-person narration, I would have to flip back to the beginning to see which character was speaking. Simmia’s and Apollo’s stories are cut off to make the point that ultimately this whole book has been about (unpersuasively) teaching a Greek god not to chase Nymphs:
Things did happen after that, lots of complicated things, and I’ll tell you about them some other time, but this is where this story ends, the story that began with the question of why Daphne turned into a tree.
The Just City feels like a missed opportunity. Perhaps Walton was trying to end the book with one of the famous Socratic “aporias,” blocks or unsolvable problems that serve to leave many of Plato’s dialogues in a state of ambiguity, resolving the narrative but provoking a reader to carry the philosophical problem forward on their own. But sadly, in this case the philosophy is all too pat, flimsy, and final, while the story itself is what remains unsatisfactorily unresolved.