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The Just City    by Jo Walton order for
Just City
by Jo Walton
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2015 (2015)
Hardcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have long enjoyed Jo Walton's work, in particular her two very different alternate history series that began with Farthing and The King's Name. She has continued experimenting with varying styles, resulting in novels like Tooth and Claw (whose characters are dragons), Among Others (a magical coming of age) and My Real Children (a tale of diverging time streams). Now she gives us something very different yet again in The Just City.

Goddess Pallas Athene decides on an experiment and creates the Just City of which Plato wrote on a Mediterranean island (the mythical Atlantis) that she knows will be destroyed in its future. She populates the island with adult masters, all philosopher from different eras who prayed to be part of Plato's Republic. And she imports over a thousand children for them to educate. Then she transforms herself into a ten-year-old child, Septima, so that she can participate fully. Robots are brought in for manual labor.

Her brother Apollo, distressed that Daphne prayed to be turned into a tree rather than to mate with him, hears of her experiment and joins it as well. He wants to learn the meanings of volition and equal significance. But Apollo goes for the entire human experience, beginning with birth and becomes Pytheas. Readers watch events through Pytheas' eyes as well as those of one master (Maia, a rector's daughter in 1800s Yorkshire) and one child (Simmea whose village was raided by slavers seeking suitable children to sell to Athene).

Pytheas excels at everything except swimming. When Simmea helps him to learn, a strong friendship grows between them, to the annoyance of Simmea's other friend Kebes, who resents having been brought to the island and holds hard to that resentment. Their closed society evolves, but not necessarily as Plato would have expected. And then Athene adds Sokrates to the mix. He questions everything, including the use of the robots for labor, and whether or not they are 'thinking beings'. He even questions Athene, to her displeasure.

Jo Walton explores many ethical questions in The Just City, a fascinating read brimming with food for thought. It's a very intelligent fantasy that will perhaps be of greatest interest to students of philosophy and/or artificial intelligence. And it's worth reading for Apollo's final words of wisdom alone.

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