Not The Prometheans: The Just City Part 1

As many of you will have seen, I’ve been working for a while on a series of essays on books that won the Prometheus Awards. I believe this essay series, when it’s completed, will be an important work, at least by my standards — it’s dealing both with literary criticism and with political thinking. And I am determined to complete that work.

But… it’s also a bit of a slog. Some good works have won the Prometheus, but not many did in the early years, and ploughing through these endless slogs about how affirmative action and desegregation are anti-liberty, about how the gold standard is the only rational monetary system, and about how Thomas Jefferson was totally better than boring old Alexander Hamilton, has led me to slow down my reading to a crawl. Later on we’ll get to some books by genuinely good writers — people like Jo Walton, Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross, and Neal Stephenson — and the “hall of fame” entries also get more interesting once they stop being dominated by Ayn Rand (who I detest) and Robert Heinlein (with whose writing I have a more complicated relationship, but who is definitely vastly overrepresented in the Prometheus), but right now, The Prometheans is *hard work*.

So, I’ve decided to do an in-depth dive into a book that didn’t win the Prometheus, but *was* shortlisted for it last year, Jo Walton’s The Just City. I’m also going to read the two sequels, which I’ve not yet got round to (The Philosopher Kings and Necessity), and try to find stuff to say about them. This is going to be quite a long series of essays (I’m currently thinking about five, but that may change) and I’m going to stick these in as an appendix to the finished Prometheans book.

For those who haven’t read it, the basic high concept of The Just City is one I’m amazed hadn’t been done before — the goddess Athene decides she’s going to set up Plato’s Republic to see what happens. She gathers everyone throughout history (including the future) who’s ever prayed to live in the Republic (including famous people like Boethius, Pico della Mirandola, Lucrezia Borgia, Plotinus, and Cicero) from the moments before their death and places them — along with a few robots in place of slaves — on an island in the distant past; one that’s due to be destroyed in a volcanic eruption later and fall into the sea so it won’t leave evidence that will mess up history (and, as Apollo says to Athene, “Also, doing Plato’s Republic on Atlantis is . . . recursive. In a way that’s very like you.”)

From there, we see the story of how the people taken out of time first set up their society according to the rules Plato laid out, and later find that their utopia is broken in ways they couldn’t have foreseen.

There are two reasons I’m going to look at The Just City in depth. The first is… well, if you must know, it’s quite a silly reason, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since The Good Place came out over here in September. Not only are the titles similar, but there are other interesting similarities — both are about people being taken to a seeming utopia at the time of their death; both feature a great deal of discussion of philosophy; in both the people in the utopia are actually being experimented on by godlike figures; and in both the experiment does not go as planned at all.

I’d been thinking of doing a compare/contrast of the two for a while — and possibly throwing in other books that make for an interesting contrast (I’m thinking in particular of Of the City of the Saved… by Philip Purser-Hallard, Permutation City by Greg Egan, and some of Borges’ work) and I may still talk about some of that stuff in a future post. But then the Weinstein scandal and the various subsequent outings of powerful men as being sexual predators made that less topical than a discussion of the book in itself, because this is a book which, while it’s thematically dense and rich with meaning, is more than anything about consent, about how to deal with predators who otherwise have admirable qualities, about how to navigate social rules that cause harm, and about the way powerful men can be abusers without even realising it.

One of the reasons I’m writing The Prometheans is that in recent years the science fiction community has been slightly ahead of the curve in having these issues come to the fore — just as the Sad and Rabid Puppies used propaganda and finding loopholes in systems to subvert a democratic vote to promote fascism a couple of years before Donald Trump and the Brexiters did the same thing, and can be seen as a rehearsal for those nominally-democratic fascist takeovers, so the way that the SF community has been dealing (and notably not dealing) with prominent abusers is now being reflected in the news about larger society too. And Walton’s book seems, at least in part, to be a reaction to those scandals.

So it is *not* a book I can recommend unreservedly. There are numerous rape scenes in it, some of them deeply disturbing. One of the three viewpoint characters, the god Apollo, is a rapist and enters the story (and largely causes the story) because he doesn’t understand why rape is bad or that consent is at all necessary. And yet he’s portrayed sympathetically. So there may be many people who simply shouldn’t read this book if you’re someone who has had to deal with sexual violence and doesn’t want those painful memories bringing back to the surface.

But if you can cope with that, there is a huge amount here to be enthralled by. This is a book with the trappings both of high fantasy (gods and magic) and science fiction (time travel and robots), but one which also does what all good books in either genre should do, but which too many don’t — it deals with important ideas, about society, about people, and about the nature of reality. And it does so in a way which demands active engagement. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how.

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