April 2015

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

The Ephemeral Good in The Just City

Despite Thomas More's Utopia being more satire than instruction manual, the genre that took its name from his imaginary land -- the utopian novel -- is usually thought of as severely didactic. William Morris, Edward Bellamy, and B.F. Skinner all wrote utopian novels that weren't so much about characters and story as they were intended to expound on political and social ideas about how the world could work better. For Bellamy and Skinner, in particular, criticism was included almost only as an excuse for explanation. Conflict was absent, or explained away as the influence of outsiders. When Ursula K. Le Guin wrote her "ambiguous utopia" and Samuel R. Delany his "ambiguous heterotopia," I imagine it was partly this lack of conflict they had in mind. The characters of The Dispossessed and Trouble on Triton both struggle against their societies, even as the novels consider utopian questions about how and whether the world might be made better.

Jo Walton's The Just City is an ambiguous utopia in the tradition of Le Guin and Delany. Her characters, including the Greek deities Athene and Apollo, have repaired to a backwater in history to create Plato's Republic. The inhabitants of this utopia, such as it is, are philosophers and dreamers from throughout (mostly Western) history who prayed to Athene, wishing they could live in the Just City. With robots from the future (yes, robots) to do the heavy lifting and 10,000 children bought in slave markets (yes, slave markets), they set about following Plato's guidelines in the hopes that Philosopher Kings will rise from among the children to rule the city into an ever after of perfect justice.

Unsurprisingly, things don't work out as planned.

The most obvious problem with the Just City -- what would be the rotten core if this were a dystopian novel -- is the purchasing of children from slave markets. This fact isn't hidden from the reader. In the second chapter, one of the children, Simmea, tells the reader how her family was destroyed and she was enslaved. Most damningly, the slavers instruct her to lie about her age so that the masters from the city will buy her. She tells us up front that the masters likely created a demand for children, and that she may very well have not been enslaved without that demand, a fact which undercuts the justifications we hear later in the novel. The justice of the city is built on children who do not have a choice in coming to the city and do not have a choice in staying.

But The Just City is not a dystopia. Simmea is also one of the most ardent defenders of the city. "How could I not have been happy?" she asks, at one point. "I was in the Just City, and I was there to become my best self." She is enthralled by the art in the eating halls. She reads philosophy, learns music and mathematics. Her passion is visual art and she is given almost free reign as she grows older to pursue that passion. Her love for the city is corroborated by the alternating chapters told by Maia, a woman from the 1800s who narrates the plans and discussions of the masters. Maia is also a defender of the city, for it is in the city that she can think and learn as she never could as the orphaned daughter of a clergyman. The descriptions of her life before her prayer to Athene are of constriction, despair, loneliness, and "unbearably narrow" choices, whereas the descriptions of her time in the city include conversation, wine, and camaraderie. When one of the other masters worries about their sacrifices for the city, Maia responds, eagerly, "But working hard is mostly fun, and all the children are our children." For both Maia and Simmea, the life of the mind is the essential element of the Just City and it brings them great joy.

The third narrator of the novel, whose chapters occur less frequently than those of Maia and Simmea, is the god Apollo. His perspective opens the novel and introduces sexual consent, or the lack thereof, as another repeated point of discussion and experience. "She turned into a tree," he says in the first line. "It was a Mystery." He is speaking about Daphne, the nymph who prayed to be a tree rather than be raped by him. In pursuit of understanding her decision, he decides to become human. He is born to a family in Greece and brought to the Just City among the children, where he endeavors to more fully grasp "volition" and "equal significance." For Apollo, this is a question to be explored, whereas for both Maia and Simmea the fragility of consent is a physical fact, witnessed and experienced. They discover what so many have experienced before: spaces that nourish passions can fall dreadfully short of recognizing the volition and equal significance of everyone who enters them.

But, I repeat, The Just City is not a dystopian novel. It is, at times, a difficult novel, and as with any utopia it contains the pieces of a dystopia within it. Walton does not shy away from those pieces. They are brought to the fore in the discussions and considerations of slavery, in the moments of sexual violence, and in the experiences of Simmea's friends, who are not as taken with the city and its rules as our narrators. I am curious to see where Walton may take these pieces as she continues to explore the city in the sequels that are to follow.

If the next novels are more dystopian, I hope they follow in the tradition of Octavia Butler's Parable books, in which the narrator is forever looking to how to adapt, how to survive, and how to change, with good results and bad. Butler's books acknowledge the many ways we fail each other, while also holding out the possibility of overcoming failure, if only for a short period of time. The Just City comes ready prepared with a similar understanding of the ephemerality of the good. Athene's site for the Just City? The island of Kallisti, which will be destroyed by a volcano. In time, nothing will be left of the city except rumors and legends.