"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 futureall 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 Romeand, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.
Meanwhile, Apollostunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he doeshas 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 arrivesthe same Sokrates recorded by Plato himselfto ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.
About the Author
JO WALTON won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012 for her novel Among Others. Before that, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. The novels of her Small Change sequenceFarthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crownhave won acclaim ranging from national newspapers to the Romantic Times Critics' Choice Award. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.
Read an Excerpt
The Just City
By Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Jo Walton
All rights reserved.
She turned into a tree. It was a Mystery. It must have been. Nothing else made sense, because I didn't understand it. I hate not understanding something. I put myself through all of this because I didn't understand why she turned into a tree — why she chose to turn into a tree. Her name was Daphne, and so is the tree she became, my sacred laurel with which poets and victors crown themselves.
I asked my sister Artemis first. "Why did you turn Daphne into a tree?" She just looked at me with her eyes full of moonlight. She's my full-blooded sister, which you'd think would count for something, but we couldn't be more different. She was ice-cold, with one arched brow, reclining on a chilly silver moonscape.
"She implored me. She wanted it so much. And you were right there. I had to do something drastic."
"Her son would have been a hero, or even a god."
"You really don't understand about virginity," she said, uncurling and extending an ice-cold leg. Virginity is one of Artemis's big things, along with bows, hunting and the moon.
"She hadn't made a vow of virginity. She hadn't dedicated herself to you. She wasn't a priestess. I would never —"
"You really are missing something. It might be Hera you should be talking to," Artemis said, looking at me over her shoulder.
"Hera hates me! She hates both of us."
"I know." Artemis was poised now, ready to be off. "But what you don't understand falls within her domain. Ask Athene." And she was off, like an arrow from a bow or a white deer from a covert, bounding across the dusty plains of the moon and swooping down somewhere in the only slightly less dusty plains of Scythia. She hasn't forgiven me for the moon missions being called the Apollo Program when they should have been called after her.
My domain is wide, both in power and knowledge. I am patron of inspiration, creativity, poetry and music. I am also in charge of the sun, and light. And I am lord of healing, mice, dolphins, and sundry other specialties I've gathered up, some of which I've devolved to sons and others, but all of which I continue to keep half an eye on. But one of my most important aspects, to myself anyway, has always been knowledge. And that's where I overlap with owl-carrying Athene, who is goddess of wisdom and knowledge and learning. If I am intuition, the leap of logic, she is the plodding slog that fills in all the steps along the way. When it comes to knowledge, together we're a great team. I am, like my sister Artemis, a hunter. It's the chase that thrills me, the chase after knowledge as much as the chase after an animal or a nymph. (Why had she preferred becoming a tree?) For Athene it's different. She loves the afternoon in the library searching through footnotes and linking up two tiny pieces of inference. I am all about the "Eureka" and she is all about displacing and measuring actual weights of gold and silver.
I admire her. I really do. She's a half-sister. All of us Olympians are pretty much related. She's another virgin goddess, but unlike Artemis she doesn't make a fetish of her virginity. I always thought she was just too busy working on wisdom to get involved with all that love and sex stuff. Maybe she'd get around to it in a few millennia, if it seemed interesting at that point. Or maybe she wouldn't. She's very self-contained. Artemis is always bathing naked in forest pools and then punishing hunters who happen to see her. Athene isn't like that at all. I'm not sure she's ever been naked, or even thought about it. And nobody would think about it when they're around her. When you're around Athene what you think about is new ways of thinking about fascinating bits of knowledge you happen to have, and how you might be able to fit them together to make exciting new knowledge. And that's so interesting that the whole sex thing seems like a bit of relatively insignificant trivia. So there were a whole host of reasons I was reluctant to bring up the Daphne incident with her.
But I really was burning with the need to know why Daphne turned into a tree in preference to mating with me.
I went to see Athene, who was exactly where I expected her to be and doing exactly what I expected her to be doing. She fights when she needs to, of course, and she's absolutely deadly when she does — she has the spear and the gorgon shield and she knows everything about strategy. But most of the time she's in libraries, either mortal libraries or Olympian ones. She lives in a library. It looks like the Parthenon in Athens on the outside, and on the inside it looks like ... a giant book cave. That's the only way to describe it.
There's one short stumpy pillar just inside, where the owl sits napping with its head curled around under its wing. Generally the spear and shield and helmet are leaning against that pillar. There's also a desk, where she sits, which is absolutely covered with scrolls and codices and keyboards and wires and screens. There's exactly one beam of sunlight that comes in between two of the outside pillars and falls in exactly the right place on the desk to illuminate whatever she's using at the moment. The rest of the room is just books. There are bookcases around the walls, and there are piles of books on the floor, and there are nets of scrolls hanging from the ceiling. The worst of it is that everything is organized — alphabetized, filed, sorted, even labelled, but nothing is squared off and it all looks like the most awful mess. I never go in there without wanting to straighten it all out. It bothers me. If I'm going to see her, often I ask her to meet somewhere comfortable to both of us, like the Great Library, or the Laurentian Library, or Widener.
As I said, we make a good team — but we generally make a team as equals. I don't tend to go to her as a suppliant. I don't tend to go to anyone as a suppliant, except Father when it's absolutely unavoidable. It's rare for me to need to. And with Athene, on this particular subject, it made me deeply uncomfortable.
Nevertheless I went to her library-home and stood in the beam of light until she realized it had widened to the whole desk and looked up.
"Joy to you, Far-Shooter," she said when she saw me. "News?"
"A question," I said, sitting down on the marble steps outside, so I wouldn't have to either hover in the air or risk treading on a book.
"A question?" she asked, coming out to join me. She lowered herself to the step, and we sat side by side looking out over Greece spread out before us — the hills, the plains, the well-built cities, the islands floating on the wine-dark sea, the triremes plying between them. We couldn't actually see the triremes from this distance unless we focused, but I assure you they were there. We can go wherever we want, whenever we want, but why would we stray far from the classical world, when the classical world is so splendid?
"There was a nymph —" I began.
Athene turned up her nose. "If this is all, I'm going back in to work."
"No, please. This is something I don't understand."
She looked at me. "Please?" she said. "Well, go on."
As I said, I don't often come in supplication, but that doesn't mean I don't know the words. "Her name was Daphne. I pursued her. And just as I caught her and was about to mate with her, she turned into a tree."
"She turned into a tree? Are you sure she wasn't a dryad all along?"
"Perfectly sure. She was a nymph, a nereid if you want to be technical about it. Her father was a river. She prayed to Artemis, and Artemis turned her into a tree. I asked Artemis why, and she said it was because Daphne wanted it so desperately. Why did she want to become a tree to avoid me? How could she care that much? She hadn't made a vow of virginity. Artemis told me to ask Hera and then said maybe you would know."
Grey-eyed Athene looked at me keenly as I mentioned Hera. "I thought I didn't know, but if she mentioned Hera then maybe I do. What's at the core of what Hera cares about?"
"Father," I said.
Athene snorted. "And?"
"Marriage, obviously," I said. I hate those Socratic dialogues where everything gets drawn out at the pace of an excessively logical snail.
"I think the issue you may be missing with Daphne, with all of this, is to do with consensuality. She hadn't vowed virginity, she might have chosen to give her virginity up one day. But she hadn't made that choice."
"I'd chosen her."
"But she hadn't chosen you in return. It wasn't mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn't ask, and she certainly didn't agree. It wasn't consensual. And, as it happens, she didn't want you. So she turned into a tree." Athene shrugged.
"But it's a game," I 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." Athene started to get up.
"I'm thinking about becoming a mortal for a while," I said, as the implications began to sink in.
She sat down again. "Really? You know it would make you very vulnerable."
"I know. But there are things I could learn much more quickly by doing that. Interesting things. Things about equal significance and volition."
"Have you thought about when?" she asked.
"Now. Oh, you mean when? When in time? No, I hadn't really thought about that." It was an exciting thought. "Some time with good art and plenty of sunshine, it would drive me crazy otherwise. Periclean Athens? Cicero's Rome? Lorenzo di Medici's Florence?"
Athene laughed. "You're so predictable sometimes. You might as well have said 'anywhere with pillars.'"
I laughed too, surprised. "Yes, that about covers it. Why, do you have a suggestion?"
"Yes. I have the perfect place. Honestly. Perfect."
"Where?" I was suspicious.
"You don't know it. It's ... new. It's an experiment. But it has pillars, and it has art — well, it has very Apollonian art, all light and no darkness."
"Puh-lease." (That wasn't supplication, it was sarcasm. The last time I used the word it was supplication, so I thought I'd better clarify. But this was sarcasm, with which I am more familiar.) "Look, if you're about to suggest I go to some high-tech hellhole where they've never heard of me because it'll be a 'learning experience,' forget it. That's not what I want at all. I am Apollo. I am important." I pouted. "Besides, if they think the gods are forgotten, why are they writing about us? Have you read those books? There's nothing more clichéd. Nothing."
"I haven't read them and they sound awful, and the only thing I want to get from high-tech societies is their robots," she said.
"Robots?" I asked, surprised.
"Would you rather have slaves?"
"Point," I said. Athene and I have always felt deeply uneasy about slaves. Always. "So what do you want them for?"
Athene settled back on her elbows. "Well, some people are trying to set up Plato's Republic."
"No!" I stared down at her. She looked smug.
"They prayed to me. I'm helping."
"Where are they doing it?"
"Kallisti." She gestured towards where Thera was at the moment we were sitting in. "Thera before it erupted."
"They're doing it before the Republic was written?"
"I said I was helping."
"Does Father know?"
"He knows everything. But I haven't exactly drawn it to his attention. And of course, that side of Kallisti all fell into the sea when it erupted, so there won't be anything to show long-term." She grinned.
"Clever," I acknowledged. "Also, doing Plato's Republic on Atlantis is ... recursive. In a way that's very like you."
She preened. "Like I said, it's an experiment."
"It's supposed to be a thought experiment. Who are these people that are doing it?" I was intrigued.
"Well, one of them is Krito, you know, Sokrates's friend. And another is Sokrates himself, whom Krito and I dragged out of Athens just before his execution. If Sokrates can't make it work, who can? And then there are some later philosophers — Platonists, Plotinus and so on, and some from Rome, like Cicero and Boethius, and from the Renaissance, Ficino and Pico ... and some from even later, actually."
I was suspicious, and a little jealous. "And all of these random people in different times decided to pray to you for help setting up Plato's Republic?"
"Yes!" she sounded wounded that I doubted her. "They absolutely did. Every single one of them."
"I have to go there," I said. I wanted to try being a mortal. And this was so fascinating, the most interesting thing I'd heard about in aeons. Plato's Republic had been discussed over centuries, but it had never actually been tried. "Where are you getting the children?"
"Orphans, slaves, abandoned children. And volunteers," she said, looking at me. "I almost envy you."
"Come too?" I suggested. "Once you have it set up, what would stop you?"
"I'm tempted," she said, looking tempted, the expression she has when she has a new book she very much wants to read right now instead of fulfilling some duty.
"Oh do. It'll be so interesting. Think what we could learn! And it wouldn't take long. A century or so, that's all. And it'll have libraries. You'll feel right at home."
"It'll certainly have libraries. What will be in them is another question. There's some dispute about that at the moment." She stared off at the clouds and the islands. "Being a mortal makes you vulnerable. Open. Love. Fear. I'm not sure about that."
"I thought you wanted to know everything?"
"Yes," she said, still staring out.
We didn't have the least idea in the world what we were letting ourselves in for.CHAPTER 2
I was born in Amasta, a farming village near Alexandria, but I grew up in the Just City. My parents called me Lucia, after the saint, but Ficino renamed me Simmea, after the philosopher. Saint Lucy and Simmias of Thebes, aid and defend me now!
When I came to the Just City I was eleven years old. I came there from the slave market of Smyrna, where I was purchased for that purpose by some of the masters. It is hard to say for sure whether this event was fortunate or unfortunate. Certainly having my chains struck off and being taken to the Just City to be educated in music and gymnastics and philosophy was by far the best fate I might have hoped for once I stood in that slave market. But I had heard the men who raided our village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me. True, I would never have learned philosophy, and perhaps I would have died bearing children to some peasant farmer. But who can say that might not have been the path to happiness? We cannot change what has happened. We go on from where we stand. Not even Necessity knows all ends.
I was eleven. I had rarely left the farm. Then the pirates came. My father and brothers were killed immediately. My mother was raped before my eyes and then led off to a different ship. I have never known what happened to her. I spent weeks chained and vomiting on the ship they threw me onto. I was given the minimum of bad food and water to keep me alive, and suffered many indignities. I saw a woman who tried to escape raped and then flogged to death. I threw buckets of seawater over the bloodstains on the deck and my strongest emotion was relief at breathing clean air and seeing daylight. When we arrived at Smyrna I was dragged onto the deck with some other children. It was dawn, and the slope of the shore rising out of the water was dark against the pink sky. At the top some old columns rose. Even then I saw how beautiful it was and my heart rose a little. We had been brought up on deck to have buckets of water thrown over us to clean us off for arrival. The water was bone-chillingly cold. I was still standing on the deck as we came into the harbour.
"Here we are, Smyrna," one of the slavers said to another, taking no more notice of us than if we were dogs. "And that was the temple of Apollo." He gestured at the columns I had seen, and more fallen pillars that lay near them.
"Artemis," one of the others corrected him. "Lots of ships here. I hope we're in time."
From the harbour they brought us all naked and chained into the market, where there were men and women and children of every country that bordered on the Middle Sea. We were divided up by use — women in one place, educated men in another, strong men who might serve to row galleys in another. Between the groups were wooden rails with space for the buyers to walk about and look at us.
Excerpted from The Just City by Jo Walton, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2014 Jo Walton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The premise is that the goddess Athene, for whatever reason, has decided to see if Plato’s idea will really work, or at least to discover how well it will work. Apollo, puzzled over why someone would rather die than sleep with him, decides to enter the world of humanity and be part of Athene’s experiment, being born into a mortal body though keeping his divine knowledge and memory so that he is fully aware of the implications of his actions and of the experiment. The masters running the Just City, as it’s known, are scholars and philosophers plucked from all over the timeline, people who would not be missed for various reasons (unappreciated women, those sentenced to die, etc) rescued from unfortunate circumstance and placed in a position where they make use of their love of knowledge and learning. Those locked in the experiment are the children, bought from slavers and rescued and given homes in the Just City, cared for and given educations so long as they’re willing to follow the meritocratic city’s laws. To keep masters and children from wasting time in menial labour, robots from the future are also brought in, to do tasks like cleaning and cooking and general upkeep. But as with any idea of a utopia, things do not exactly go as planned. Most of the children were happy and grateful to have been rescued from slavery and are glad to adopt the City’s ways, but some are bitter and resentful, and not at all willing to go along with the plan. There is friction between some of the masters, differences of opinion and interpretation on how the City should be run, and the situation forces them to deal with things Plato never laid down rules for because, well, let’s face it, Plato’s Republic didn’t originally involve robot servants or the intervention of a deity. Then the robots start to show signs of emerging sentience… Jo Walton has this amazing talent for writing a story in which there is little to no action but so much intrigue. She can make mundane life seem interesting, she can make pages upon pages of dialogue discussing the hypotheticals of a situation seem like the most engaging thing ever. I suspect that I could read an entire book of her describing what she did yesterday and I wouldn’t get bored, because she’d include dozens of insightful observations and speculative thoughts and witty commentary. She’s a wonderful writer and manages to put such life into this story, such diversity of opinion and character that it all feels very real. The Socratic debates alone, asking questions until you come to all the answers, could hold my attention for ages, because they’re all about issues that I find myself connecting with. It’s a fascinating idea behind The Just City. Not a terribly original one, since Walton is building off notions already set down by people in the past. It’s a though experiment about a thought experiment, and a tremendous work of fanfiction. And I say that without any negative connotations on the term, either; fanfiction is, at its purest, the notion of taking someone else’s idea and running with it in new directions, asking “What it?” and seeing where the idea leads. But even within the context of the story itself, interesting questions are being asked. How much should someone break the rules to keep the spirit of a place intact? Is buying children from slavery in order to free them just another way of keeping slavers in business? (A similar modern question could be asked about buying clothes made in sweatshops: if we stop buying those clothes, the sweatshop goes out of business, the workers are out of jobs and don’t make any money at all, so is it a greater evil to buy or not buy?) Will there ever be a society that will satisfy everyone equally? Is it worth a few malcontents in order to improve the lives of the majority? So many questions, and even if none of them get answered definitively (how could they?), Walton touches on them and highlights the issue. There’s a lot of thought-provoking content in here. Having Apollo incarnate as a mortal also allows for an exploration of humanity, the kind that really can’t properly be written about when you’re already human and that’s all you know. I admit, I’m a sucker for stories involving incarnated deities, and with Walton’s ability to reflect on complex issues in a manner that still entertains and doesn’t beat you about the head with heavy-handed morality, I knew I would, at the very least, enjoy the sections of the book from his perspective. There are some issues you can only see clearly from the outside, and I find this sort of scenario is really good for identifying them. And with consent and equality being major recurring themes, Apollo’s perspective was a good one by which to gain another view on the matters. I could go on and on about how good a book this is, how intelligent and insightful and entertaining it is, but like many of Walton’s books, any review I give really doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. It’s definitely a book for people who like to explore the “what if”s behind ideas, those who like to follow thoughts to whatever conclusion they end at, those who like to have their preconceptions challenged, and for that, I think very highly of this book. It’s not a book filled with action and fight scenes and high tension, but it’s still a book that keeps you turning the pages to see what develops next. Definitely for fans of Walton’s earlier works, and for speculative fans looking for something that’s different and thought-provoking.
I feel like this was a good experiment that didn't quite work.