TS Reviews: The Just City by Jo Walton

At the beginning of last year, my New Year’s Resolution¹ was to read 50 books this year. I decided on that because I realized that I have spent the past few years reading a lot of articles, a lot of webpages, a lot of blogs, and isolated chapters of books, but very few books. By the most liberal of estimates I read around 12 books in 2015², and most of them were textbooks. I had to dedicate some time to The Just City specifically because… this is a weird book, guys.

Let me make a little comment before getting into the book’s themes and ideas and all that: there’s a weird amount of rape at the start of this book. This book starts with Apollo thinking “I wonder why this chick didn’t want me to rape her, I mean I am so desirable!” and just kind of… goes from there. The next chapter features the point of view³ of this girl who saw her mom get raped in front of her, and then saw some other woman get raped, and also had a slaver “empty himself” in this 11-year-old girl’s mouth. An 11-year-old slave.

So that’s cheerful.

This is followed by a weird chapter from the POV of an 18-year-old nerd female character in (early?)Victorian England who has a bunch of feminist angst about, you know, living in Victorian England.

Image result for Victorian England female oppression
Yes, please tell me more about why I shouldn’t have the right to vote.⁴ This is an enthralling discussion.

Then comes the third chapter–You know what? I think I’m going to go chapter by chapter here. Spoilers ho!

Chapter 1

POV: Apollo.

Reaction: …Wow, I never really thought of how fundamentally rapey the Daphne story is. Wow. Also, why isn’t this story about Athena?

Chapter 2

POV: Simmea

Reaction: So, more rape. Rape. Rapey rape. …Vocal sexual assault (mouth rape?)? That boy is going to totally be trouble. Also, why isn’t this story about Athena?

Chapter 3

POV: Ethel/Maia

Reaction: Victorian England being awful to women (yay?)! And, um… what?

Chapter 4

POV: Simmea

Reaction: Um, okay. That’s… nice.

Chapter 5

POV: Maia

Reaction: Seriously is the vast majority of the book going to be exposition? Ha! Plotinus! Also, this Ikaros guy seems hot!

Chapter 6

POV: Simmea

Reaction: This is a very smart 13(?) year old. Yes, art is nice. Also, dang girl! Pining after a younger man!

Chapter 7

POV: Apollo

Reaction: This chapter is FANTASTIC. A++. Still though, why isn’t this story about Athena?

Chapter 8

POV: Simmea

Reaction: Aaaand there we go again with the misogyny. Why is this so prominent in the book? I mean… what? Why? What? Can’t you just… I mean… come on! What is WITH this?

Chapter 9

POV: Maia

Reaction: Rape? Again? Why? Also, this might make me a bad person and I don’t want to trivialize the real trauma of real people, and here’s a thing, but… this might be the most unintentionally hilarious rape scene ever. I just need to post it. You’ve been warned.

“I know you are afraid,” he said. “But I also know that you want it. I saw you start. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re going to do.”

“No!” I said. “No, really no, Ikaros, I don’t want to!”

“I am stronger than you and it’s too late to run away,” he said. “And you don’t really want to leave, do you?”

I did. I tried to get up, but it was true that he was stronger, and that he knew what he was doing, which I did not. He had no difficulty wrestling me to submission. I screamed as he pulled off my kiton. “Hush now, hush,” he said. “You know you want it. Your breast likes it, look.”

“I don’t care what my breast likes, my soul doesn’t like it, get off me!”

“Your soul is timid and has learned the wrong lessons.” He rolled on top of me, forcing my legs apart.

“It’s my soul and up to me to say what I want!” I said, and screamed again, hoping somebody would hear even though we were too far away from the city.

Nobody heard. “There, see, you like it,” he said as he eased himself inside me. “You’re ready. I knew you were. You want it.”

“I do not want it.” I started to cry.

“Your body is welcoming me.”

“My body is a traitor.”

He laughed. “You can’t get away, and I have taken your virginity now, there’s nothing to fight for. You might as well enjoy it.”

My body unquestionably enjoyed it. In other circumstances, it would have been delightful. My mind and my soul remained entirely unconsenting. Afterwards, when he let me go, I turned my back on him and put my kiton back on.

“There, didn’t you like it?”

“No,” I said. “Having my will overruled and my choices taken away? Who could enjoy that.”

“You liked it,” he said, a little less sure of himself now.

I mean what? Is this–what? Is this a rape or a platonic dialogue? What the hell? And what the fuck is up with you, Ikaros? What? She didn’t, she said she didn’t, she was trying to push you off–you SAID “you can’t get away”, you knew you were committing a crime–what the Plotinus is wrong with you, man?

And then you see the entirety of the argument for not reporting rape right then and there on the next page and it’s just… depressing and awful… Why? Is this just the Philosophy of Rape book?

I can’t help but think that nearly any other writer would have done this better. Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, freaking Jim Butcher, or even her highness J. K. Rowling would have given a better treatment to that! That scene just feels like… all of the bad choices you could make when writing that scene. And the chapter goes on for another two pages! Why not end it with a little gravitas or something? This should be a big deal! This whole thing just feels weirdly casual and awful and… just kind of ridiculous. Like it just happens and then it has finished happening. Virginia Woolf can make a big deal out of a cat crossing the fucking sidewalk, but this is treated like a particularly heated conversation? What? And why is my philosophy novel bringing up rape again? I got this book because it was supposed to be about philosophy.

Chapter 10

POV: Simmea

Reaction: Called it! Kebes/Matthias is totally gonna be trouble. Also Socrates! Woot! Whaaaat?

Chapter 11

POV: Maia

Reaction: Post-rape fallout stuff? Um, okay. Also, Adeimantas and Maia are completely right here, since in the first Simmea chapter we hear that the kids were told to tell the buyers they were ten even if they weren’t, clearly because it wasn’t the first “year” when they were doing this and the slavers knew they could count on their demand for child slaves so long as they were ten years old. Also SOCRATES IS FANTASTIC. Also why isn’t this book about Athene/Athena/Septima?

Chapter 12

POV: Simmea

Reaction: You’re growing fast! Also, stay smart kiddo. Don’t let the super-hot god in your vicinity blind you. Come on, take a deep breath, drink some cold water.

Socrates is awesome! Also oooooh… Okay, I think this book FINALLY GOT GOOD. Come on, Simmea, let the awesomeness rip!

Chapter 13

POV: Apollo

Reaction: Apollo is just fantastic. I mean, who would have thought that the first character, introduced with his “why didn’t she want me to rape her?” question would be the most normal person in this whole book? Or am I just a weirdo here and everyone else is rooting for Simmea, Hermione’s long lost soul-twin?

Chapter 14

POV: Simmea

Reaction: Yes! Debates are awesome! Also, I have come to the conclusion that this book really really really should be about Socrates and Athena. OTP! Also, Simmea is really becoming more awesome with each chapter now.

Also, re: Kebes: Called it! Called it! Soooo super called it!

Chapter 15

POV: Maia

Reaction: That was an interesting chapter… I amend my suggestion, this should really be Socrates, Athena and Klio. We need some modernity in here! And less rape! Please!

Chapter 16

POV: Simmea

Reaction: This book has a really depressing view of women. I mean, the weird limitations on the book make some sense but at the same time, there were countless women throughout history who were or desired to be scholars, and sure, women were rarely taught to read but… so were men, it wasn’t like most of the public was literate in 1300AD. I don’t know, this seriously bothers me. It seems to want to perpetuate this notion that women were mostly just kind of extant in history. If you’re reading this and going “well, yeah, women barely done a thing in the past 10,000 years, it’s only since the past century or so that they were allowed”, well… Check this out and tell me that again. This really bothers me. The whole book seems to keep hammering home the idea that even in a faux-Utopia designed for philosophy, women’s lives matter less and women must always struggle for complete personhood. It’s fucked up.

Chapter 17

POV: Maia

Reaction: Okay Maia, seriously? Do you really not see how hilariously oppressive this regime is? This is every conservative’s worst nightmare! And they would be right to fear it, it’s psychotic!

Chapter 18

POV: Simmea

Reaction: More mention of rape! Is this just the aim of this book? To make you think philosophically about all of the rape? Also this is kind of ridiculous, why would they go through with this kind of mating scheme?  Wai-wai-wait wait a second, so this kid is getting dating advice from the local known rapist. Okay…

…While that was probably a very accurate sex scene… it was kind of bad. I’m sorry Jo. I’m giving your book a chance, I swear!

Chapter 19

POV: Apollo

Reaction: More rape? Seriously?! I swear this freaking book…

Chapter 20

POV: Simmea

Reaction:…okay, the end of this chapter is kind of hilarious.

Chapter 21

POV: Maia

Reaction: This is a really depressing chapter. I mean, it has a nice ending but… geez… Also, rape comes up again.

Chapter 22

POV: Simmea

Reaction: Socrates is so great. So great. Socrates awesome. Also ooooh, artificial intelligence!

Chapter 23

POV: Maia

Reaction: Geez… wow… Geez… Come on can we go three chapters without rape being referenced here? Just–gah!

Chapter 24

POV: Simmea

Reaction: So, you’re super chill about being pregnant. That’s… cool. Um… What the fuck is this chapter?

Chapter 25

POV: Apollo

Reaction: Okay, this chapter rescued this dang book with the following phrase:

There. Now you can’t say you were reading all this in the hope of divine revelation and only discovered way too much about my personal issues.

Thank you, super-rapey-Apollo. You’re the best.

What the fuck is a scansion?

“the act of determining and (usually) graphically representing the metrical character of a line of verse.” —Wikipedia

Oh. Huh. Cool.

And before I leave the subject of Platonic love, you remember the bit in the Symposium where Socrates reports Diotima’s conversations with him about love? Do you picture them side by side in bed with the covers pulled up to their waists? I always do.

I think the only reason I like Apollo so much is that his chapters are invariably funny. Like that time in Chapter 7 when he’s all “being in the womb was nice. I composed great poetry” is just great. Maia and Simmea are busy being all serious and getting raped or pregnant or insulted or… all these things! The best things with Simmea are when she’s arguing, I want more arguing!

Socrates believing the mind is in the liver is great.

Also, why isn’t this Athene’s story?

Chapter 26

POV: Simmea

Reaction: That’s some hardcore birthing. Also Plato was kind of insane.

Chapter 27

POV: Maia

Reaction: That’s… sexist.

Chapters 28-36

Reaction: wait what. More. What? They’re what? More.

Chapter 37

POV: Apollo


Whole Book

Reaction: All in all, it wasn’t totally awful.

I thought the rape stuff was excessive and annoying until I told a friend, and shared the scene transcribed above from Chapter 9 with them. Given their reaction, and the magnitude of the irrelevance of their response… I think I was just the wrong audience there. I didn’t think somebody would be capable of making a rape scene about their own identity issues but apparently I was wrong.

So… You win, Walton. You win. Your excessive (and honestly depressing) rape-centric anvil-dropping feminist argument seems to have a point, and I was just the wrong person to read it. Not all people assume equal significance. Apollo wasn’t being strange, I was.

I’m sad now.

¹ A practice as futile as it is enjoyable to participate in.

² Biology textbook, other biology textbook, philosophy textbook, El Túnel, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,  statistics textbook, psychology textbook, neuroscience textbook, other neuroscience textbook…

³ Heretofore referred to as POV.

⁴ Honestly this is a very interesting book/essay about the way that privilege, especially male privilege, comes at a cost. How, being viewed as incapable and inoffensive, women had the power to also wage legal battles against men on an uneven playing field, because if the men were being abused or harassed they had no legal outlet for this. Real problems that people are still facing today, #EqualTimeForEqualCrime. The problem arises when you realize that this book is talking about the absurdity of feminism, and the absurdity of female suffrage, in 1908. Including such gems as “But, whether right or wrong, we deny that the lack of [suffrage], by an otherwise privileged class, constitutes a grievance.” And “Where women have parliament, law courts, police magistrates, 63 judges as their obsequious humble servants, what more could they expect to obtain, even if they had the suffrage?” As though “sometimes women commit fraud or spousal abuse and laws aren’t dealing with that” is equivalent to having all of your courts, cops, and judges be of your sex, and also being able to have a choice regarding the direction in which government goes, and also having actual influence in the way that the laws are written and the people they include, and also…


TS Reviews: The Just City by Jo Walton

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