Sunday, March 22, 2015

An Imperfect World

Alternate post title: Jo Walton is a brilliant genius.

Never mind her ability to write charming, fascinating, beautifully constructed stories that I love.  And don't just look at the incredibly different stories she takes on, from alternate 20th century history to Victorian dragons to domestic fantasy. (And I'm also not just saying that because she linked to my blog that one time.)

No, what makes me say "genius" is the kinds of enormous conceptual ideas she undertakes when she writes.  She tells stories that read as very feminine--personal, intimate, and based around the emotions and psychology of individuals and families, and that are often centered in the domestic sphere.  But she uses these stories to take on ideas that are every bit as big as any Great American Novelist might pick up (and my apologies to her for the comparison, as she's British; I don't know if the Great British Novelist is a thing). 

Lifelode was about love and family and complicated domestic relationships, but it was also about how time and memory work, and intimacy and geography and a lot of other things.  Farthing was a murder mystery with a charming, flighty aristocratic girl for a narrator, and also about the insidious appeal of fascism to the intellectual.  Tooth and Claw was about Victorian dragons, but it was also about how the strictures of culture are no less binding or real for being artificially constructed.

And now I'm reading The Just City (which I got as an advance copy from Netgalley thankyouverymuch) and it is blowing my mind.  Seriously, after Ancillary Justice I thought I'd met my quota of compulsively readable concept novels for a few months, but no, here's this gorgeous piece of work that has me wanting to read Plato, for crying out loud.

So the idea here is that in Plato's Republic, he outlined what the perfect society would look like.  The goddess Athene decided it would make a cool experiment to try it out, so she got some people throughout history (if you ever prayed to Athene to let you live in The Republic, you're in) and they started setting it up.  Children raised from age 10 (acquired from slave markets and ancient Greek orphanages), duties assigned according to skills, technology and art from across the ages come together to create an ideal world, with the hope that, raised on a diet of all that is Good and Right, the best of their generation will grow up to be philosopher kings.

What would happen if these ideas were put to the test?  Well, a lot of things, from disagreements to entrenched sexism, to ten-year-olds maybe not being quite as blank-slatey as Plato expected.  To Socrates himself showing up and turning things on their heads.

I was about to talk about all the themes, but so many of them come back to choice and consent and personhood.  This is stated very bluntly by Apollo, who shows up to learn about exactly these things, but it's reflected in so many ways throughout the story.  Slavery is a big one, since most of these children were bought.  The shadow of slavery hangs over things, from the robots who do the menial tasks (can a city claim to be egalitarian if someone still has to do the gruntwork?) to the children bought from slavery who, in different ways, don't leave it behind.  

The more specific ideas of consent and equality turn up, unsurprisingly, in the experiences of women.  Although Plato's society has women as equals, not everyone believes everything Plato said with equal ferocity.  The place of sex in society (because eros is inferior to agape and philos), the ways women have to deal with their own concerns (because if you tell everyone he raped you, they won't believe you and they'll look down on you afterwards), and the difference between the lives of the adults and the world they're constructing for the children (sex/procreation by lottery, anyone?) are all complicated and invite you to think your way through a logical society until the logic starts to fall apart under the constant footsteps of normal, flawed human beings, all trying to do their best.

I love the Socratic dialogues.  I love the different information you get when you switch points of view, and see Apollo's take on the masters, and the children's take on their world.  I love that Socrates keeps trying to get the robots to talk to him (I'm only halfway through the book, but I'm pulling for a robot uprising led by Socrates).  I love everything about this book, and I'm thrilled that the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, comes out in June.  I'm absolutely preordering it.

1 comment:

Nat said...

I LOVED this book. Jo Walton does this thing in which her novels (or at least the two I have read) seem to be built in a big universe in which everything is complex and different, and yet she 1) doesn't force you to spend half the book attempting to grasp her ideas, 2) focus her questions in small acts that don't depend on her setting. It's marvelous. I love it.