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Book Note: Jo Walton, The Just City

I read this book about 10-Jun-2017. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2015. This note was last modified Wednesday, 14-Jun-2017 21:34:55 PDT.

This is book 1 of the "Thessaly" series.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


I'm a bit behind, just getting to this (and two to go).

I don't have Jo's deep familiarity with (or love for) classical authors and especially Plato, but that hasn't intefered with finding this book really engrossing. No doubt there are things she's doing in that area that I miss that would make it even better if I caught them.

We see some Masters recruited (people who pray to Athene for something like this perfect philosophical city), and some children (bought in slave markets mostly). The requirements of the setting, basically the limits of Athenes power, pretty much require it not to leave a trace, so they can't just grab people visibly at random, but slaves disappearing is fine. The Masters will appear to have died roughly when they disappeared; again, not people who will leave a huge hole (sometimes scholars near their historical deaths, for example, so they may have huge achievements in their past).

One of the children, Kebe, really hates being sold into slavery, and it kind of looks like everything else that ever happens to him in his life. He's not inclined to be content, and he takes against the Just City because they aren't giving him a choice (though he's nominally free, and he's not being worked as a slave; so improvement in material conditions but not in actual freedom as he sees it). He's shipped near Simmea, who does appreciate the improvement in material conditions and the intellectual freedom, but also notices that the slavers were specifically looking for 10-year-old children; there was a special demand for them, from the Masters buying them for the city (ten thousand some).

Maia, from Victorian England, desperately wants a life of the mind, and realizes gradually she's not going to be able to have one there. She's a bit surprised that her prayer to Athene results in her immediate translation to the city, but it's by far the best thing that's ever happened to her.

Apollo decides to participate as a mortal, and goes back and has himself born so he'll be 10 when children are being recruited, and gets Athene to arrange a famine so his family will have to sell him. He doesn't then think about what that means to his parents and neighbors and so forth. He's just had a bad interaction with the nymph Daphne (who chooses to be turned into a tree rather than accept his advances) and feels he has to learn about equal significance and volition. Smart of him, actually; he's really puzzled about why she preferred to be a tree, since running / pursuing is a standard game and many nymphs seem to want to be caught.

There are also the Workers, robots from some time beyond my own. They aren't well understood by anybody in the city, including Athene, and all the Masters are from before the era the Workers are from. They understand spoken commands, but do not speak, which becomes important later.

Time travel is always an issue with me, but this one invokes god-level capabilities to do it, and even they are limited (by Fate and Necessity, among other things) in what they can do. So this just lets them rescue art and books and people that were being destroyed, and avoids having to worry about time paradoxes.

So, what they're doing is attempting to actually create Plato's Republic, The Just City of the title. They know it's never been tried. They know it will take several generations to remove some of the outside influences, and that the Masters, while needed to start it, will be a hindrance, the Chilcren won't become proper philosopher kings until after the Masters have died and a future generation of children is in charge. But the Masters all do seem to be committed to Plato's goal, not just in it for the power (some, of course, want both).

Their big mistake, of course, is importing Socrates to teach rhetoric. They grab him, against his wishes, just as he's going to drink the hemlock, and bring him not to the setup time, but when the children have been there 5 years and are thus old enough to learn rhetoric. The Masters all revere Socrates, but bringing him in then rather than earlier confirms that those in charge know perfectly well what a loose cannon he is.

So he goes around talking to people. To everybody, at all levels. He also talks to the Workers. After a while, one of the Workers answers him by planting bulbs in a flower bed to spell the word "no" (apparently the robots speak English). He also becomes something of a focus of the people who thin Plato's idea of temporary marriages by lot is a good idea, and the dividing the children into the four "metals" permanently.

The people of the city actually respond rather well to the Worker crisis. They support communicating with the ones that are conscious, and treating them as free, and educating them. And the workers seem to be interested in learning and in continuing to work (and getting their electricity). So that part is good, nobody is accepting the idea of slavery.

It seems to me to end a little abruptly. Socrates challenges Athene to a debate, and annoys her enough that she turns him into a literal gadfly. She then disappears. And the children and even the masters then run off in all directions, and it looks kind of grim. Though they only have two ships, so they may well not cooperate enough for a lot to actually leave. We'll see where the next one starts.

Overall, it's fascinating, the questions are interesting, the characters are engaging. I generally like Jo's work, even though it's more varied than pretty much any other author I read.

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David Dyer-Bennet