Book Review: THE JUST CITY by Jo Walton: When robots take over – take over a story, that is.

(This is really for people who have read the book. Semi-spoilers throughout).

There is quite a lot of repetitive exploration/dialog in the book—where some topics are reexamined over and over just to get to a new point about said topic. That could have been chiseled down, but I get why it was done. This book deals with the Socratic method, after all.

The robots—or, as they are called in the novel, the “workers”—seem to be explored way too much. They are a subplot that wasn’t necessary. I found it hard to believe that a goddess (Athena), who could see and visit the future, wouldn’t foresee robots becoming self-aware at one point. Sure, gods could (theoretically) overlook things, but… Really, the whole robot plot point could have been removed from the book entirely and it would have made more sense (I mean, keep the robots, but ignore them becoming self-aware),

They seemed like just an excuse to talk about slavery when, really, they could have been written in is as normal mindless machines that, when they wore out, the iron and bronze children could take their place. They were only necessary for a couple of years, theoretically. No need to introduce AI into the mix. If you were going to do that then why not make an excuse to talk about animal rights in the novel, which was never done). This is why I took off one star on goodreads, because it just wasn’t fun or necessary to read about.

Also, Apollo could have predicted the thing about the robots too. He talks repeatedly about the future. He knows fancy words like “postpartum depression” and that we explore space in the future. I found it EXTREMELY hard to accept this fact about the robots. Not that I wouldn’t care if robots did become self-aware (and of course they deserve their rights acknowledged). I’m saying Jo Walton could have made Athena find some less complicated robots. Or, better yet, Athena could have used “magic beings” to be the servants until the children got old enough to be the workers. Hell, food could have magically appeared to them until they got enough children who learned to grow it and prepare it.

…Now that I think about it there was a surprising lack of “magic” in the book. Not that it’s a bad thing, but Walton could have used it to her advantage more, clearly.

The real plot of the novel was “Can Plato’s ‘Just City’ work?” but when the robot subplot appeared everything began to be contrived narratively. But beyond this, everything story-wise was fine. HOWEVER, it may bother some people that there was no real climax and resolution; sure, Athena was just as interested in seeing how the city would fall as she was seeing how it would work, but the reader therefore expects the city to fall so there is no real twist or resolution at the end. Just chaos. The only arguable “resolution” the reader gets from the story is that Apollo learns why Daphne chose to turn into a tree. A good resolution, but not one that resolves the novel’s titular purpose or the reason we’re reading in the first place.

Other problems I had with the story were:

1) If Athena could take people from their times, then why did she not just “rescue” the artwork and etc. from their times as well instead of making a whole ordeal of it that involved the masters jumping from era to era? Sure, it sounds fun for them (though we never actually get to see it anyways). But it also got tiring to read about.

2) Jo Walton tried too hard to reconcile Christianity (or, the Christian beliefs of the masters) to the Greek gods she was writing about. Her characters—even the god Apollo—come up with a very Miltonic view of “Divinity.” Yet John Milton was never once mentioned or given credit for such an idea.

3) On every level, Walton missed opportunities to talk about animal rights. Instead, she worried more about robot rights, which was a topic she had to engineer—a topic that didn’t come “naturally” to the story. The fact animal rights weren’t even a thought was very hard for me to wrap my head around, because the children, in a lot of ways, were treated just like animals—forced to breed, grouped by eugenic standards, etc. And yet, despite this effort of avoiding pro-animal conversation, she directly sidesteps the fact that animal sacrifices are thing Apollo and Athena’s worshipers were totally into. Never really addresses it.

4) The gods aren’t bothered by the fact humans have spread to outer space in the future. Apollo says we colonize Mars at one point (he knows this and yet Athena doesn’t blink an eye about the possibility of her robots becoming self-aware? Jesus, Athena, couldn’t you have found some less-advanced robots or something? Or, built them some of your own design? Or, oh, I don’t know, asked Hephaestus to build you some? Whatever.). Back to my point. If the humans can’t even make it in the Just City with Athena helping them then why the hell would the gods want us to colonize other planets?—And be amused we do so? (Apollo seemed amused when thinking about it).

5) The debate between Socrates and Athene. Really, the thing could have just been him accusing her of cheating and then she could have been like “Fine, I’m out. You do this on your own, bitches!” Which Jo Walton totally should have let her do instead of dragging out what the reader already knew. Instead of disliking Athena, I found myself wondering why she would let the conversation go on so long in the first place. Though, to a point, this debate seemed like it was part of her plan in watching the city fall (I think?). But if so, it didn’t come off clearly in the book.

Things I LOVED about the novel:

1) The concept itself. I can’t believe a book like this was published. It’s so smart and not normally what legacy publishing is into. And, it’s not YA.

2) How Jo Walton addresses rape in every main character’s POV. I have never seen it handled so well in a novel. Really, this is what the novel is about. Rape.

3) The cover. Just….The cover!

4) The fact that Lucrezia Borgia was involved in this story! #TheBorgiasFan

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