The Just City by Jo Walton
Series: Thessaly #1
Also by this author: The Philosopher Kings
Published by Macmillan, Tor Books on January 13, 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Also in this series: The Philosopher Kings
"Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent."
Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.
The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.
Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.
Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.
A very thought provoking and insightful book that makes you question the way things are in the world, as well as how they could be (and if that “other way” would really be better or worse).
The Just City is an experiment carried out with by a Goddess. Her goal was to create perfectly balanced society where its citizens are judged solely on their own merits and abilities. There is to be no preferential treatment, people there should want to be their best selves and strive to do right by the city. If everyone lives by this code, then the city should thrive.
The adults (or “masters”) in the city were all prayed to Pallas Athene for exactly this opportunity. They expressed a desire and interest to come to this. Many of them are people famous for their ideas and efforts during their times in history.
The children however, were brought to the city under different circumstances. The city needed children for the experiment to work, but there was controversy over how to best do this. How can you best populate a new city with over ten thousand 10 year olds?
It makes for an interesting dynamic. Since the masters had all prayed to Athena specifically to join this city, there was not an equal representation of people through out all of time. And there was a greater percentage of men from periods of time where women held less status. And not much representation from the modern age, as Athena is not generally a goddess of choice any more. It is interesting to watch the women masters in this and how they handle being given such responsibility and being valued for their intellect and desire to learn, something rarely seen in their prior lives. But also having to deal with some of the male masters from a much older time period that were not quite as open to equality of the genders.
The story is told through three POVs. One master, one child and one god incarnate. I really enjoyed all three. Maia is a master, one of the younger females chosen to come to the city. She came from the mid 1800s in England, a time where women did not have the freedoms of today, but her father nurtured her mind, feeding her love of knowledge and intellectual discourse. Did as much for her as he could. She was quite disappointed she could not attend Oxford, but the Just City seems to have provided her a tremendous opportunity.
Simmea is one of the children. She is not beautiful like many protagonists, but I think her soul is beautiful, her beauty is in who she is and who she tries to be. Unlike the masters, none of the children asked for this, and least not actively or consciously. But Simmea thrives! She sees the value in everything she is asked to do, and her drive to become her best self and also to serve the city as best she can really makes her shine in this environment.
And then there is Apollo (incarnate). The others don’t know who he is, they think he is just another mortal child. He excels at many things, but often has trouble with, basically, being human. Because of this, he does not initially have a great deal of real friends. Apollo may be a god, but since he is incarnate, he has no godly abilities in this life. This forces him to see things differently and allows him experiences he would never otherwise have had. It allows him to grow and learn.
Even Sokrates makes an appearance, though years after the children have been brought there. He is not quite a master, but is definitely not a child. But the questions and insights he brings to the City, while may seem almost silly at times, are absolutely critical.
The book also examines the nature of thinking beings and question what constitutes a person. There are issues of choice. And with a society of so much structure, you can’t help but notice there are some fundamental choices that are taken away. Can a society be “just” when it’s citizen’s lack the freedom to choose? Just a small sampling of the philosophical questions you can’t help but examine while reading.
This was my first book by Jo Walton, but it certainly won’t be my last. This was a very powerful and addictive book. Usually books that I have a hard time putting down are often faster paced, but while this was not “action-packed”, it was fully absorbing. Highly recommend.