A raging worldbuilding nerdgasm in all its eruptive glory.
This means I should do my best to take this book on its own merits, which is just as much of a fool’s errand in all honesty. Texts are always in conversation with other texts, whether implicitly or, as here, explicitly. The Just City is, like its inspiration, a book-length thought experiment: What if people tried to make Plato’s Republic real? But with robots.
As we have discussed before, I generally have a fairly low tolerance for this kind of extended geekwank, which is something I recognize puts me at odds with a significant proportion of SF’s traditional audience. Focusing on ideas means you run the very real risk of losing aspects such as character or plot, and all the more so when that idea manifests as a physical place as opposed to something more abstract. That’s fine and all, but it’s also why I read textbooks; I’m looking for a little more from novels. In places this particular novel skates a very fine line. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that most of the dialogue here is of the Socratic kind, but when about a third of the way through a supporting character initiates a debate about a fucking cake (and, to be fair, the having and eating thereof), you can’t help but roll your eyes a little.
What did come as more of a surprise was just how rapey this book is. There’s a hell of a lot of coercive sex of, and this is the tricky part, various degrees of coercion. Given that ‘No Means No’ and that ‘Rape is Rape’, this muddying of the waters could have been flat out awful. I’m still not entirely convinced that Walton pulls it off, but it’s certainly been done with eyes wide open and the clear intention of critique, not perpetuation.
The core thematic concerns are of choice and volition, and these are examined through the twin lenses of slavery and rape. The latter is addressed far more directly than the former, and I’m still not sure entirely what to think of it, apart from noting the precedent of the garudas’ framing of rape as a crime of ‘choice theft’ in Perdido Street Station, and the less comfortably fictional incident of a recent Japanese court ruling that just because a woman had signed a contract with a porn company, that didn’t mean she’d lost her right to refuse sex.
The book opens with the god Apollo being confused that a nymph would rather be turned into a tree than have sex with him against her will. It turns out that his sister Artemis is planning a little experiment, wherein she’s going to collect Plato fanboys (and girls) from across time and see if they can build his Just City (which they christen ‘Kallisti’) on pre-submersion Atlantis. What a jolly wheeze. And, happily, one that would be a perfect chance for Apollo to learn more about humanity and choice and whatnot. He temporarily surrenders his divinity and joins the city as one of 10,000 children brought out of slavery to be raised in the pursuit of their best selves.
So far so good (except the encouragement of slavery bit, which is cause of the necessary angst to the relevant people). The grey area lies in the breeding programme the children are subjected to when the reach their teens. The ‘Festival of Hera’—a triannual shag lottery—is, as far as I can tell, compulsory for all these kids. Some are fully in accord with the principle, even if they aren’t particularly enamoured of the individuals they’re drawn with in practice. Most seemingly end up lying back and thinking of Kallisti. So they appear to have consented to the generalities but not the specifics, much like the reluctant AV star. And that’s the problem: setting aside the issue of brainwashing, it’s never entirely laid out what would happen if someone straight up refused. It is made perfectly clear that, despite the conditions on the island being much better than ‘slavery’, these kids are just as incapable of leaving: one of them is flogged for repeatedly trying to escape. How can you consent to something if that something is your only available option? And is your only available option due to the deliberate actions of other, more powerful people?
These more powerful people are the ‘masters’, the aforementioned Plato fandom gathered from across time. One of them is Maia, a scholar, victim, and murderer. She’s been plucked from her potential life of Victorian domestic tedium and it’s through her eyes that we see much of the messy reality of trying to bring a rhetorical device to actuality. It’s through her eyes, also, that it’s made abundantly clear that most of the masters, in which the more Kool Aid fancying children invest so much trust and faith, are little more than dilettantes: ivory tower idealists with neither the training nor the experience to effectively educate or manage 10,000 kids suffering from PTSD.
The other two PoV characters are Apollo in his human form and Simmea, an Egyptian girl who rises to be one of the ‘golds’. These are the anointed intellectual elite who will eventually run the city, and this is the second point I’m less than convinced by. Simmea is, like all the best YA heroines, of unprepossessing appearance yet through her own special specialness manages to not only rise to the top, but also to win the admiration and affections of the coolest boy in the class (who also happens to be a god). The narrative perspectives are all top-down. All from people who either do the choosing, or will eventually get to do so. There are various nods to the views of different subordinated groups—notably through Kebes, one of the few former slave children who refuses to forget his former life, and yet even he eventually becomes a gold—but their actual voices are conspicuous by their absence.
But then I’ve just written 1,000 words about this book in less time than it takes to watch a football match. It definitely makes you think, which I guess is the whole point. The first third is a touch dry, but Simmea (again, in the manner or the best YA heroines) eventually develops into a very engaging and (gods help me) likable character, as does Apollo. Unfortunately Maia never really grows beyond her narrative role as the raiser of the emerald curtain, but maybe that’s enough. No plot, decent characters, and a metric fuckton of interesting ideas. Two out of three ain’t bad.