Book Review: The Just City

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to 4 stars than three.

A very difficult book to classify. One might say “The Just City” bears the same relationship to classical Greek philosophy that science fiction does to science.

It’s a story about an experimental attempt to create a city that embodies the ideals of Plato’s Republic, and the places where reality is simply incompatible with the ideal, thus illuminating flaws in that ideal.

It’s a sort of philosophical parable; the characters in the Just City (which include both adults from various times, and children/youths of ancient Greece) care and talk about justice, slavery, excellence, deception, and friendship. The practice of rhetoric is central in the way that the practice of science is in SF.

The viewpoint characters include a couple of Greek gods. Don’t let this put you off the book, or dismiss it as mythology: instead, accept them as real elements of the universe in which the book takes place. (Or, just consider them as aliens, if that’s more familiar.)

I liked the book very much, except for the treatment of one theme; but I also perceive that treatment to be a strength of the book (just, an unpleasant one to read).

The theme is rape.

Early on in the book, when they’re still setting up the Just City and deciding how everything will work, one of the women is raped by one of the men. After arranging to go for a walk with her in private, he tells her that he wants to have sex with her, ignores her refusal, tells her that she wants to, rapes her, and then tells her that she enjoyed it.

Afterwards, she tells some of the other women about it, and they discuss whether to bring the matter before the emerging city government: clearly, this violates the principles of the Just City.

But they’re legitimately afraid that it won’t be treated as obviously wrong, because the adult population is dominated by men from eras in which women had no rights. And they’re legitimately afraid that the controversy would doom the experiment — about which they all care passionately — from the start. Better to keep quiet, they decide. She’ll just avoid him in future.

And so from the beginning, the experiment is poisoned.

The whole book isn’t about this, but it keeps creeping up, breaking through, one way or another. It’s very well done, but very disturbing, which is why I think it’s a huge part of the point of the book.

This theme arguably serves as a concrete fictional example of the question often raised by feminist critique of the Western canon: if all the canonical writers are male, then what perspectives are thereby excluded from the canon? What problems, what themes, what practicalities won’t be considered?

It’s a very feminist book, in a very subtle way.

It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, but at the same time it’s the right place for a book about the Just City to end: when the city breaks down as a functioning social order. But it doesn’t resolve any of the issues that caused that to happen.

I may read the sequel (I assume there will be one); in terms of characters and plot, I came to be reasonably invested and curious. But in terms of the rhetorical substance of the book, it feels satisfyingly complete.

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2 Responses to Book Review: The Just City

  1. Andrew says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this book – I bought it several months ago

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for reminding me of this book – I bought it several months ago, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (a physical book would sit on my shelf, looking reproachfully at me, but ebooks haven’t mastered that level of guilt-tripping for me yet). I think it’s intended as the first book of a trilogy, and I’ve been looking forward to it, since I generally like books about attempts at utopian societies.

      P.S. You can delete my partial comment, if you’d like.

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