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.)
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).
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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