Back to previous post: On sale today: Jo Walton’s The Just City, Book One of Thessaly

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: “Why I Am Not a Maker”

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

January 16, 2015

The Just City: Spoilers, Arguments, and Speculations
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:19 AM * 122 comments

It’s all but a tradition here on Making Light now: shortly after the launch of a Jo Walton book, we’re in need of a spoiler thread. But for this one in particular, I think we need more than that. As both Liz Bourke and Amal El-Mohtar point out, The Just City is not only a fascinating book, but a set of arguments that invite arguing back. And judging by my Twitter stream, its premise is also a rich source of speculation.

So here’s a thread where you can indulge in all of these things with people who have either read the book, or don’t mind spoilers.

Comments on The Just City: Spoilers, Arguments, and Speculations:
#1 ::: skzb ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2015, 03:52 AM:

Can't argue with the book; I was too busy arguing with Plato while I read it. I mean that's probably the thing I loved about it the most--she didn't make the arguments with Plato, she set up a place where I could have those arguments in my head. The book is an amazing achievement.

#2 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2015, 11:46 AM:


>Therefore, I pondered the matter and was in two minds as to whether I ought to listen to entreaties and go [to Syracuse to try to educate Dionysios II], or how I ought to act; and finally the scale turned in favour of the view that, if ever anyone was to try to carry out in practice my ideas about laws and constitutions, now was the time for making the attempt; for if only I could fully convince one man, I should have secured thereby the accomplishment of all good things...

Plato's Seventh Letter:

#3 ::: Rymenhild ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2015, 10:12 PM:

As I consider The Just City's terrific ending, I've been thinking about Athene's mistakes. There are, of course, spoilers through the very end of the book in this comment.

Athene cheated, as Apollo kept saying. She transformed into a child without losing her goddesshood. She didn't keep herself a secret, so all the Neoplatonists kept coming to the library to worship her and flatter her. Athene never really got to know the children of the City, nor did she even talk to the young women masters who saw the flaws in the system.

Apollo learned, and grew, and changed. Athene did not. For Athene, wisdom and justice were fixed states, stable and unchanging. She did not gain wisdom, nor did she think very hard about changing constructions of justice.

So when Sokrates challenged Athene, Athene wasn't prepared to think of the Just City as a city that hadn't yet achieved justice. None of the people who were at all discontented, and very few of the people who were working to create more justice in the city, had been talking to her.

Meanwhile, Sokrates knew Athene was angry and off-balance... and he deliberately chose to debate her then. He challenged her on her own ground, the justice of the Just City, and he let her defeat herself with her own anger. Of course, Sokrates didn't get off lightly... but I do believe he got exactly what he wanted.

#4 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2015, 02:06 AM:

I loved the matter-of-fact way that Apollo and Athene revealed mysteries of the universe. Where I'd expect them to get all gnomic, they'd simply say "Oh, souls? Immortal. We keep them in the supply closet between incarnations. Here's a pamphlet on what to expect between lives."

#5 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2015, 09:45 AM:

Rymenhild @3:

Apollo learned, and grew, and changed. Athene did not. For Athene, wisdom and justice were fixed states, stable and unchanging.

This is a very, very good observation. I think it strikes to the heart of the contrast between the two of them. At the start of the book, she's the one who understands (about Daphne) and he's the one who doesn't. But by the end, he's the one who gets things, and she's the one who isn't.

His conception of wisdom and knowlege are (appropriately for Apollo) in the doing. Knowledge is a moving, transformative experience, not a state of being.

The one thing I wish Jo had done is have all the characters who see Athena in her state as a goddess fail to agree about certain details of what they saw and heard. It's a subtle thing, but it would have helped to portray her as something bigger and more complicated than human minds can fully apprehend.

#6 ::: SorchaRei ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2015, 03:59 AM:

Of all the epigraphs, the one from Mary Renault seems the most spoilerish, in retrospect.

Yes, I know, Plato; but if you always take the steps in threes, one day you will miss a cracked one.

First, and foremost, Athene's choice to cheat, as noted by Rymenhild @3. And then with the first definite flaw in the City being the way a large percentage of the male masters fail to see the women as fully human, which plays out in a missing stair situation.

( )

I'll be thinking about Athene's explanation for why the Enlightenment yielded so few male masters for a good long while. Also, about how women from the Enlightenment (and later) periods, although steeped in the same intellectual juices as the men of their periods, still found the promise of total equality so compelling that they would pray to be released from the vision of continuous improvement to go where ideals never change, just to get that kind of equality. (Too bad they didn't find it, even there, no thnaks to Athene.)

I loved this book a ridiculous amount.

#7 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2015, 11:06 AM:

Yes, and it makes me sad that I have to wait for the next two books. Look out, Ms Walton: You're in danger of becoming the next George R. R. Martin, with fannish hordes demanding faster typing.

#8 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2015, 08:00 AM:

Theophylact, #7: Take comfort in the fact that book 2 is written -- and being sent off for typesetting this very week.

#9 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2015, 10:59 AM:

Yes, I looked at Bluejo's journal and saw her schedule (and read her comments on POVs in the forthcoming books).

#10 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 12:34 PM:

I really enjoyed Jo's take on the Republic, it is truly fascinating and I am eager to see what comes next. Jo really cannot write a bad book.

I am also happy to see that one viewpoint character is non-European and mixed-race.

I would love to know how Socrates recognises Apollo, given that the incarnate Pytheas is not someone that the historical Socrates could have known and we have no historical evidence that the god manifested himself to Socrates (at least that I know of).

More troubling to me is the Eurocentricity of the Just City. All the masters are Western in origin and all but one are racially European (one Asian-American is mentioned). How just is a city of philosophers drawn from throughout history that does not include, say, Brhaspati, Kautilya, Radhakhrishnan, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, Quobna Cugoano, W.E.B. DuBois, or C.L.R. James? And that's just to pull a few names out of my hat.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 12:37 PM:

My other comment is this: Even as she shows herself at her most petulant, Jo's Athene is remarkably witty. One can see going through her mind the thought 'you see yourself as a gadfly, so be one!'

It strikes me that the only proper attitude to gods (any of them), given their absolute power over us has to be rebellion.

#12 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 01:39 PM:

Fragano Ledgister (10): The obvious answer is that Athene didn't pick the philosophers, they picked her, by praying to her that the Republic be real and that they be there. Confucius, for example, would not have prayed to Athene.

I'm not sure if that's an adequate answer, however.

#13 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 01:51 PM:

How just is a city of philosophers drawn from throughout history that does not include, say, Brhaspati, Kautilya, Radhakhrishnan, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, Quobna Cugoano, W.E.B. DuBois, or C.L.R. James?

To get there, they had to (1) pray to Athene, and (2) want to live in a city modeled on Plato's Republic. Most of the masters--particularly the more modern ones--aren't really philosophers, so much as classical studies people or simply Plato fans . . .

#14 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 04:13 PM:

It's a Eurocentric book, to be sure.

A European goddess set the whole thing up, in Europe. Other cultures deities are off doing their own things elsewhere.

They're not supposed to be all the philosophers in the world, and nobody ever suggested for a second that they were -- they are people who have read Plato's Republic in Greek and prayed to Athene to help set it up, which would eliminate most of your list.

Also, they may all be Western, but they're not all white.

#15 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 06:07 PM:

First thoughts:
I'm only part way through, but I'm struck by the significance of rape in the book, from the very first chapter; not an event thrown in lightly as "back-story", but an experience that goes to the heart of volition, of the experience of freedom or slavery, of being acknowledged as a person or as an object.

The apparently casual mention in the overview of "ten-year-olds bought in the slave markets of antiquity" made me flinch to picture, and a lesser writer might have flinched away too and glossed it over. Instead that picture is part of Simmea's narrative from the beginning, and she sees from the beginning that the "masters" bear a serious share of culpability for the slave trade and its consequences, including immediately her father's and brothers' murder, and her mother's and her own rape by the slavers.

Where and what is justice without freedom to control your own body?

I am very interested to see where this goes as I finish it.

[and I see on following the links above that Amal El-Mohtar made a very similar connection]

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 08:29 PM:

Mary Aileen #12:/rea #13: Yes, that's Jo's gimmick. It still leaves me feeling that there's a lack.

Jo # 14: That's a fair answer, and it is your book after all.

#17 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 08:32 PM:

an experience that goes to the heart of volition

And of course, the irony around which the book seems to me to be centered--Apollo goes to Athene to be taught about volition, but it turns out that Athene doesn't understand it herself.

#18 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2015, 10:50 PM:

Jo, did writing Socrates lead you to think of things you otherwise wouldn't have? I realize this might be the case for any character, but I'm expecting it would be more so for Socrates.

Socrates pushing Athena until she snaps reminds me of Thomas more dying again for the same thing as before in Past Master.

Thank you for making the situation with the robots serious and fairly central-- it somewhat makes up for servitude of the house elves dropping out o the picture in Harry Potter.

I'm hoping that people with experience in intentional communities will talk about TGC-- I'm sure that the problems of "it seemed like a good idea" and "who's in charge here?" show up in the real world.

#19 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2015, 08:56 AM:

Nancy -- yes, but as you thought, this always happens. Once my characters get traction they always surprise me.

#20 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2015, 12:00 PM:

Ultimately, Apollo learns something about what it is to be human. Athene does not. That's an important take-away from the book.

But then, many of us fail at being human and we are human from birth without any of the advantages or disadvantages of divinity. As a very wise master did not do, the thing is not to ask about the horses.

#21 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2015, 10:18 AM:

I find myself thinking about how Athene wanted to borrow robots to start up The Just City, how technology was not a matter of concern to the patriarchal power structure of The Just City because the only people who understood it were the post-Industrial Revolution women, how Athene takes the robots away at the end, and how Thera has neither the soil of Iowa (or the Ukraine) nor the maize genome, both of which you need to produce a lot of calories with little work...

I wonder if a huge number of people who have been sorted into gold, silver, or bronze are going to have to become farmers or fishers...

#22 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2015, 10:44 AM:

It seems to me that the "lower" metals will be most likely to be disaffected. (I could, naturally, be wrong.) Which, if there's a general exodus from the City, would mean that it's the golds and silvers who are left that will have to try to figure out how to farm, with anyone with even marginal expertise in animal husbandry leaving on the ship....

Plato's philosopher-kings will have to become philosopher-subsistence-farmers. (One hopes that the two robots left are good teachers.)

As I understand it, volcanic soil is rich soil... where it's not rock. So they do have that going for them.

But how much do you want to bet that the ones who leave aren't taking any of the hundreds and hundreds of infants with them? So those who remain have the additional burden of a huge amount of childcare.

#23 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2015, 04:00 PM:

the only people who understood it were the post-Industrial Revolution women

The City's prime robot handler is, in fact, Lysias, a man, from our future, but not from as far in the future as the robots. He seems to be computer literate and capable of minor programming, but he's not really an expert.

#24 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 22, 2015, 04:12 PM:

I'm curious as to when this takes place in terms of history, and how they interact or avoid interacting with surrounding civilizations. Crete is only 68 miles away; why haven't there been ships from Knossos demanding tribute (bull dancers?) Just how close are they in time to the Thera eruption? Jo told us in the other thread that a later book has a voyage around the Aegean, so we will probably get the answers to some of this.

#25 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2015, 12:47 AM:

Popping in to say I finished it last night (thanks to Yet Another bout of insomnia) and wow, that did not turn out any way I might have expected. Yet, very in keeping with the wayward ways of Greek gods and goddesses.

I may have more thoughts later when I'm more coherent.

#26 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2015, 11:31 AM:

I think that the version of The Just City that I read was very different from the book that Jo Walton wrote... Not that the book I read was bad. The book I read was excellent. But the book I read was darker...

Yes, I know that the viewpoint characters--the ones that Jo Walton intends for us primarily to identify with, are, Maia, Simmea, and Apollo. Yes, I know all three of them find The Just City a place where they can make massive strides toward becoming their best selves. But...

My mind does not automatically identify with a 10-year-old girl, or a 25-year-old Victorian bluestocking, or even a well-meaning Greek God who wants to learn how not to be such an asshole.

The characters whom my mind slides automatically into identifying with in *The Just City* are, rather:

1. Athene--the social engineer conducting an experiment in how exactly Plato's *Republic* would fail--who resonates with the third-string social engineer that I am in my day job.

2. Ikaros--the young but scattered intellectual desperate to learn as much as he can about everything and hoping he will be able to carry off polymathood--who resonates with my memory of what I was once in my late twenties.

3. Matthias--the human adolescent male trying to become somebody and really, really not liking being bossed around--who resonates with my memory of what I was once in my teens.

And I think that it is safe to say that for none of these three is The Just City a place where they can take any strides at all toward becoming their best selves.

And what Jo Walton does to Matthias at the end of the book is simply brutal...

#27 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2015, 04:48 PM:

#26 What a strange comment.

Brad, why do you present your reading as the revelation of a dark reality that JW had tried to conceal from us? You do realize, don't you, that she wrote all of those characters herself, and intended us to read all of them? These things you find in her book--has it occurred to you that JW may have put them in there?

So you found yourself identifying with characters XY&Z. Why would you then assume that AB&C are "the ones that Jo Walton intends for us primarily to identify with," as though this means that your reading runs counter to her authorial intentions? Maybe she intended us to identify with XYZ, even though she wrote from the perspectives of ABC? Maybe she intended some readers to identify with some characters, and other readers to identify with others?

To read it as though it is *obvious* where JW's loyalties and sympathies lie (she is obviously a cheerleader for the Just City and for AB&C), and as though the other harsh realities crept in despite her intention to white-wash things, just strikes me as a general failure to understand how fiction gets produced. You are not subverting the text or seeing behind a facade that JW created--you are just seeing more stuff that JW created. If that stuff looks to you like it is inconsistent with the theory that JW is a cheerleader for the Just City and for ABC, then maybe you should sophisticate your theory a bit?

And to top this off by saying that the book you read was "excellent," but "different" from the book that JW wrote--what are you talking about? Are you really taking credit for having read something more excellent than what JW wrote? My, what an amazing, brilliant reader you are! How good of you to transform her crude scribblings into something truly excellent, through the brilliance of your reading!

We can argue about your particular claims--I think, e.g., that the impediments to self-improvement that Kebes & Ikaros found may have had less to do with imperfections of the Just City and more to do with contingencies in their own lives that they could have overcome. Conversely, I think (and I suspect that JW also thinks) that the Just City imposes limits on the self-improvement that Maia and Simmea can hope to achieve, as well. Why think, and why think that JW thinks, that the Just City is as bad as Kebes thinks it is, *or* as good as Simmea thinks it is?

But before moving on to that, wouldn't it make sense to thank JW for writing something with depth and complexity, and give her the credit for the things you find in it, and for making it possible for you to find them, instead of acting as though you are a Heroic Counter-Reader who is transvaluing mediocrity into "excellence" by the bold boldness of your reading?

#28 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2015, 06:25 PM:

I find myself wondering just what it is that happens to Matthias that is "brutal". Surely not the very end, in which he gets to openly express his anger and resentment, and then gather a group of like-minded others to go off and try to fulfill his dreams?

Probably you're referring to the scene with Simmea, where his image of her and of his relationship with her gets shattered. That certainly is rough on the both of them. I believe we're supposed to notice that it's fallout from Athene's anger. That's a frequent point in Greek mythology: being around angry gods is dangerous for mortals. Also it's a notable case of Athene having failed to learn the lessons that Apollo has -- she puts Simmea and Matthias together to strike at Pytheas and Simmea, with no regard for what it'll do to Matthias. (We might compare what Dionysos did to Agave in The Bacchae.)

I can't help thinking, though, that the effect on Matthias was "brutal" in the same way that the pain of setting a broken bone is "brutal". His image of Simmea was wrong and harmful, and needed shattering. I have to admit that I identify with / empathize with him far less than you do, so perhaps his pain doesn't resonate with me as it should.

#29 ::: SorchaRei ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2015, 12:10 AM:

"What Jo Walton does to Matthais" -- you mean the part where she forces him to recognize that Simmea is a human being with a mind and agency of her own? I'm sure it was painful for him to have to confront that, but it's not unknown for human beings to build up mistaken ideas of one another in our minds, only to have to face the disillusion -- if you can even fairly call it that -- of finding out who the other person really is. And his persisting in his fantasy about who she was even after Athene forced them to have the painful conversation at the festival looks an awful lot like entitlement and failure to respect what she told him about who she was and what she felt.

#30 ::: Stanoje ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2015, 04:28 AM:

Kebes/Matthias is willing to lash out at Simmea when he can't hurt the masters, as the early scene on the slave ship shows, when he kicks her because he can't reach a slaver to kick.

So despite his repeated protestations that she wanted it (ugh, I feel bad just writing that), we should consider that the rape isn't just motivated by the clash between what he thinks Simmea wants and what she actually wants, but also by his anger at the slavers/masters/Apollo, which all blurs together, and finds an outlet in this act of violence.

#31 ::: neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2015, 03:39 PM:

One of the many questions I have is: what, if any, sexual ethics were the children taught?

We know that the expectation was that the marriages would be one-day and that sexual relationships were forbidden to the point where the children were sneaking off in secret to have them, but we also know that at least some of the boys were having group masturbation sessions with their sleep-housemates and at least a few were having sexual relationships with masters.

Given that the masters were scattered from across time, and much too few to handle the number of children (1 adult to 35 children!), I expect that nothing was consistently taught or modeled, and the children came up with all sorts of ideas on their own. And that will have a large impact on how their various groups are structured in the next book.

#32 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 09:09 AM:

@ 31 neotoma: I think it very significant that these children are ten or thereabouts when taken. By ten, they will have absorbed a great deal of ethical theory from their culture. Since they come from many cultures across a significant time range, there will be a lot of competing ethical systems, but it won't be a blank slate. I think Maia at one point comments on the bizarreness of Plato thinking that ten year olds were somehow a tabula rasa. I know that I was a polyamorist from at least the age of eight, myself. Sexual ethics are actually one of the things that get drilled in very early, even if the actual topic of sex is not discussed. It tends to be pretty basic to how the society is set up. Because they're young, and (for the most part) not sexually active at the time they're captured, their understanding will have some interesting gaps in it.

#33 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 04:20 PM:

#27: you don't seem to get that I loved the book I read. It's just that the book I read was in the GrimDark subgenre, which I don't think was the subgenre of the book you read...

#34 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 04:51 PM:

Brad DeLong @33, I don't doubt you read it as GrimDark. What I'm confused by is the implication that Jo didn't write it as GrimDark.

Unless you ask her directly, how do you know? Perhaps that was her intent all along. Or one of them, anyway.

#35 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 05:33 PM:

Brad: I'm a positive hopeful kind of person. That's why I wrote Farthing.

#36 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 05:37 PM:

Jo Walton @35 <snork!>

<mopping off keyboard>

#37 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 05:38 PM:

Though I'll tell you something I didn't do on purpose, and which reading Brad's comment made me see.

This is the third book in a row where I've done things with character names that make people talking about the book have to make a decision about what they're going to use to talk about them.

Clearly this must be something I wanted to do, and possibly it says something deeply significant about me. I have no idea what.

#38 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 05:40 PM:

I'd have said it isn't grimdark because to my mind, grimdark takes a combination of physical deprivation and generally untrustworthy people. Life simply isn't that bad in the novel.

I have mixed feelings about the place-- on the one hand, there's a lot wrong with how people treat each other, and I suspect there would be more badness than we've seen. There would be rape of males as well as females. I wouldn't be surprised if that turns up in a future book.

There would probably have been a murder or two, and arguably, a sensibly thought out society would have some sort of policing. On the other hand, this isn't a sensibly thought out society.

However, there's also a society which is trying to optimize for beauty and excellence and succeeding to some extent. That's a relief to think about.

#39 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2015, 06:31 PM:

I haven't decided which name I am going to use to talk about her, but elsewhere she wrote:

"What I’ve written in The Just City is a utopia. No, a dystopia. No, wait, no…no, it’s not an ambiguous heterotopia either."

The "subgenre of the book I read" was like that, only with more symplectotopic enantiotopisms mixed into its polytopia.

#40 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 09:49 AM:

#38: "I'd have said it isn't grimdark because to my mind, grimdark takes a combination of physical deprivation and generally untrustworthy people. Life simply isn't that bad in the novel."

Touché. "GrimDark" was hyperbole. But for Simmea and Apollo, the Just City is as close to a utopia as can exist in this fallen sublunary sphere...

#41 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 10:13 AM:

Brad @40, It really doesn't seem like a utopia for Simmea to me.

(trigger warning)(although since this is a spoiler thread, I don't know if that's necessary...)

Her family was brutally destroyed by the market for 10-year-old slaves and she was raped by the slavers; that all happened as a direct consequence of the existence of the Just City. She's basically raped again and betrayed by one of her best friends. And as for Apollo, he learns what it's like to be powerless and helpless; I don't know if I'd define that as utopia, either. Very human, but not utopian. In a way, it's only Athene who lives in a utopia; she's got utter power and no consequences. (Other than having her feelings hurt, that is. Poor Socrates...)

I'm wondering what Jo did to Mattias that you consider brutal? Mattias rapes Simmea; that's brutal, but it's brutal for her, not so much for him. (It would be brutal for him, I grant you, if he recognized what he did was, for all intents and purposes, rape... but he doesn't seem to.) But Mattias gets more-or-less what he wants (other than the ownership of Simmea); he gets to defy the masters, break away from the Just City, and find his own path. How is that brutal? Did I miss something?

#42 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 10:55 AM:

Well, when you get to p. 6 and find yourself immediately identifying with an immature adolescent boy who is reflexively violent towards girls, then it's brutal to be shown at the end of the book that he is an immature adolescent boy who is reflexively violent towards girls.

By radically altering his character that way, what Jo Walton did to him was just brutal!

#43 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 11:43 AM:

oldster @42:

Gently, please. Brad is a member of this community, and is due better than you're giving him.

Operate on the basis of good faith and decency. if you're in doubt because of something he's said, ask politely for clarification rather than assuming the worst and acting like he's said it.

#44 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 11:50 AM:

Right; sorry to have been ungentle. Will try harder.

#45 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 12:12 PM:

To be fair, on p.6. he's an immature pre-adolescent boy who's violent towards girls; there is space to grow for him before he becomes an immature adolescent boy.

It's clear on one hand that the space for growth in the Just City is rather, shaped, rather in the way the space for growth of Bonsai trees is shaped. Because we see through the viewpoints of Simmea and Apollo, who like that shape, it's easy to play down the problems inherent more than they deserve. (Jo does not, I think, ignore those problems herself; her narrators are, in this way, unreliable.)

On the other hand, it's also clear that Kebes does not take advantage of (much of) the space that he is given; his permanent rebellion against everyone (except maybe Simmea and Sokrates) is not a rebellion into growth. It's also not clear that he ever recognizes (or is interested in recognizing) the agency of anyone other than himself.

On the gripping hand, his rebellion springs from one of the problematic foundational decisions of the project (that of acquiring children via slave markets), so there's plenty of blame to go around.

#46 ::: Stanoje ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 01:09 PM:

James #45:
I find it hard to blame Kebes/Matthias for his lack of growth. He's a traumatized child forcibly taken* by strangers who don't seem at all equipped to deal with children who have suffered violence as these kids have. Instead of being put into a situation where he could receive the psychological help and parenting he needs, he is thrown into a weird-ass hippie commune of a city with almost no adult supervision. No wonder he doesn't get over the crap that was done to him before and during the narrative.

It's the same reaction I have to the "bratty" child and teen characters on The Sopranos, or Mad Men, for example. Sure, they're terrible in many ways. But how couldn't they be, considering what the adults are doing to them?

* I started to type "rescued", but that's not really accurate, of course

#47 ::: neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 05:45 PM:

Blame or not blame Kebes-Matthias for his lack of growth, he's personally dangerous to Simmea and I really wonder if she understands that.

#48 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 08:40 PM:

oldster @42: It is certainly possible to read "The Just City" seeing Matthias as a villain who gets (a measure of) his just desserts. Reading it that way would produce a more fun book than the one I read. I am not sure that it would be a better book, however...

#49 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2015, 09:54 PM:

Brad DeLong @48, I don't actually see Mattias as the villain of the piece. I don't think there is a single villain of the piece, actually; I think there were Good Intentions all over the place, which paved a well-known road....

But what is the "brutal" thing that Jo Walton did to Mattias at the end of the novel, per your comment @26? I still haven't figured that out, and I'd appreciate your enlightening me. Sometimes I miss things....

#50 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2015, 04:42 PM:

People who enjoyed The Just City and also read Courtney Milan's new romance Trade Me, I'd love to have a conversation with you about comparing the two experiments around equal significance from the two books!

#51 ::: neotoma ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2015, 05:48 PM:

Cassy B @ 49: I believe the 'brutal thing' was Simmea's rejection of Kebes-Matthais' hopeful plan to run off into the wilderness and live as husband and wife, away from the Just City.

Given that he repeatedly ignored the fact that Simmea told him she enjoyed the City and valued striving for excellence, I'm not sure how it could have been anything but as traumatic as it was.

Consent, agency, the ignoring thereof, and the consequences of that ignoring, are big themes in this book.

#52 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2015, 06:45 PM:

neotoma @51, with regard to the theme of the book, that's very true. It's not just Apollo who needs to learn agency. But Simmea'd said "no" to Kebes a dozen... a hundred... a thousand times before. She'd spent six years saying no, over and over again, consistently. I don't seen why that particular refusal at the end is particularly brutal.

If that's what Brad means, I'd like him to explain it to me; I just don't understand. If that's NOT what Brad means, I'd like him to tell me what he does mean. Because I don't understand.

#53 ::: SorchaRei ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2015, 11:19 PM:

I suppose Brad can explain himself, but I am also stuck, as I suggested above, assuming that whatever this brutality was, it involved Matthias being rejected by Simmea. But Simmea told him over and over again that she liked The City, that she didn't love him, that she didnt share his dreams of overturning The City and/or escaping it.

So I am left with this: her rejection "at the end" is only brutal if Matthais had consistently failed to understand her as an independent person who is allowed to want what she wants, and if he was justified in doing so. That is, what happened to Matthais with respect to Simmea was sad, disappointing, perhaps even tragic for him. But it's only brutal if you accept his premise, that he gets to decide for Simmea what she should think, feel, want, and decide, and that it's cosmically unfair to the point of brutality that she should be an independent agent who makes her own choices.

That is, I can't see any way an outsider can see that event as brutal without accepting Matthais' premises, and his premises stripped Simmea of agency and selfhood. Which, to me, is a far more brutal act than disappointing someone.

#54 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:29 AM:

I've also been thinking about what Brad meant, and I think he must have meant at the very very end when the gadfly Sokrates flew away from Kebes and to Pytheas and Simmea. Because that's a direct rejection from Sokrates -- even though Sokrates has just broken the City and been transformed. And Kebes, who didn't trust anyone, trusted Sokrates.

#55 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:37 AM:

Jo Walton @54, ah. Yes, I can see that. Brad, is that what you meant?

#56 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 01:32 PM:

Who calls the character Matthias and who calls him Kebes just does not stop being interesting in this conversation.

(I think of him as Matthias, because that's how he thinks of himself. But it made for a heavy extra translation load when I reread the book recently. "Keb—'? Oh, right, Matthias.")

#57 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 07:45 PM:

Re: " I think he must have meant at the very very end when the gadfly Sokrates flew away from Kebes and to Pytheas and Simmea. Because that's a direct rejection from Sokrates -- even though Sokrates has just broken the City and been transformed. And Kebes, who didn't trust anyone, trusted Sokrates..."


Of course, the fact that there is potential *dispute* as to which of the things the author did to Matthias at the end of the book was the worst...


#58 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:23 PM:

Sumana Harihareswara @50 Augh! I have both books queued up near the top of my TBR pile. Hopefully I will read them while you're still interested in discussing.

#59 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:31 PM:

What other "worst" things did the author do to Matthias/Kebes? Not force Simmea to have a complete and out-of-character change of heart just because he really really REALLY wanted her to? Because I honestly don't see what else besides Sokrates' rejection you might be talking about. Enlighten me, please?

#60 ::: RPOP ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:40 PM:

I'm kind of boggled that Brad sees Matthias/Kebes as horribly mistreated when Simmea is raped twice (once by the poor maltreated guy) and Maia is raped and none of the female children can opt out of pregnancy. M/K has it pretty easy, and he does nothing but complain. Beams and motes come to mind.

#61 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 08:56 PM:

Cassy B #22: On philosopher kings becoming subsistence farmers: There's another thought experiment anent that subject, Brave New World's discussion of what would happen if there were a society of nothing but alphas. Everyone, Huxley thought, would intrigue to get administrative posts and no one would want to do the scut work.

#62 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 09:07 PM:

On the one-day marriages and the prohibition on sexual relations outside marriage. That's Plato's rule, and Jo is simply describing it. Plato also says that older Guardians will be able to establish relationships once they are past the age of childbearing (however that's established).

Plato, we must bear in mind, was trying to get rid of the family as an impediment to justice (both as a quality of the individual and as a condition of society). I wondered at his assumptions regarding human nature when I first read the Republic42 years ago, and I am still wondering. (Contra Jo's opinion, the Republic was my introduction to Plato, and the death of Socrates dialogues -- Eutyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo -- came later. I had a serious argument with my favourite political theory teacher as to whether the Apology was a political text, he didn't think so, I did. These days, I teach it. I also tell my students that I would have voted to punish Socrates for impiety and to have him drink the hemlock).

#63 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 09:10 PM:

Kebes/Matthias strikes me as someone who is actively resisting becoming his best self. Jo has written a very angry young man. Perhaps, in the next novel, we will see some or all of the reasons for the anger, but we certainly have few reasons to like him.

#64 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 09:29 PM:

I think it's been tried with that result, more than once. Someone has to chop wood and carry water (and if you can't think about philosophy while doing necessary work, you aren't much of a thinker).

#65 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 10:22 PM:

P.J. Evans @#64: Layman Pang: "My miraculous and wondrous powers are: to carry water and chop wood!" (ca. 785 AD)

#66 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 10:27 PM:

OtterB @#58, yes, I find it likely I will be interested in talking about these things in coming months -- I hope you enjoy both books!

#67 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: January 29, 2015, 11:19 PM:

One of the things that struck me is that Apollo regrets the loss of his divine ability to withdraw from the moment, think long enough to come up with the perfect bon mot, solution, idea, what have you.

Athena didn't give up her own divine status, which presumably includes that same ability to withdraw, consider, and reply perfectly within the moment. So ... Did she deliberately allow Sokrates to fluster her? We're dropped some hints that what she wants may not be what everyone else thinks is going on... Did she allow him to break the City? What is she really planning?

#68 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 12:33 AM:

Kebes/Matthias is clearly ruled by anger. At the same time, I was impressed with Jo for giving him a plausible desire (revenge on specific slavers) which can't possibly be satisfied in Plato's/Athena's Republic.

I've got some sympathy for someone who's trapped by his own cluelessness, even though he's also doing a lot of damage.

I've tried to think about what clues are and how they happen, and haven't gotten anywhere with it.

I think of the book as having a lot of tension between "seemed like a good idea at the time" and the mostly but not entirely intractable real world. Especially, there's a problem with trying to have a society which is pulled out of the time stream of the rest of the world, except that even the gods can't really make that happen.

What *was* being planned about that volcano? Everyone dies?

Is there an abstract best self? Does competing at running in armor make sense when there's theoretically no chance of war?

#69 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 12:44 AM:

#67 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk

Alternatively, the ability to withdraw and consider is only available if you're calm enough to remember you've got it.

Possibly a sidetrack, but I really liked Jo's Sokrates and (as a kid) really disliked Plato's Socrates. I think "I'm only asking questions" is disingenuous (a word I unfortunately didn't know back then). Questions have underlying premises, and (this is from memory) no one seemed to question Socrates hard enough in the dialogues. Sorry, no specifics from those memories-- I just felt as though he was trapping people and being smug about it.

#70 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 03:46 AM:

Brad @57:

The corollary of my request to the community not to judge you on what you haven't said is that you should stop dropping weighted hints. Speak fully and in good faith, with the intent to convey information, or don't speak at all.

There's a word for trying to get a gratuitous reaction out of a community, and it's not a nice word. Don't be doing that thing.

#71 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 08:27 AM:

You know, on the one hand I do think that Athena cheated by not giving up her divine status and participating in the Just City fairly. But on the other hand, given that the two female viewpoint characters were both raped at least once, you kinda can't blame her. Being female in that context involves a very different amount of skin in the game than Apollo had.

#72 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 08:38 AM:

Brad DeLong @57, I don't see dispute as to WHICH thing Jo did to Matthias that was brutal; I see, at first, confusion as to WHAT thing Jo did to Matthias that was brutal, followed by an "oh, that's plausible" when the Sokrates rejection was pointed out. What OTHER thing did Jo do to Matthias that you consider particularly brutal? I've asked three times now, and you still haven't said.

I'd really like to know.

#73 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 09:21 AM:

When I was a teen and I read Republic, Socrates seemed super cool, I think, asking all these audacious questions. I later discovered that lots of people use "Socratic questioning" as a dominance display. I do think I fall into asshole-style Socratic questioning style when I am impatient, but I try to recognize that, rein in the impatience, and come back to empathy; we're all cognitive misers, me no exception. A friend recently complimented me on how I catch myself and others -- gently -- in conversation, when we make unwarranted assumptions. Helping intelligent people of good will reduce the number of unwarranted assumptions in our heads is an act of love, not of punishment, and I try to act that way.

When I look back at the Sokrates in The Just City, I see a non-asshole Sokrates, the kind I'd like to be, who is harsh on arguments and authority but gentle with mortals. I don't have the book to hand at the moment to back it up, but that's my impression. What did others think?

Jo Walton: I've read The Just City and I've read "Turnover", both of which have people raised in an experimental setting thinking about experimenting further with that setting. And they both have Florence-inspired eating halls. Do you think you'll write more fiction with Florence-inspired eating halls? Also, are there real Florence-inspired eating halls you could recommend, especially ones that inspire people to experiment with new ways of structuring our communities? I am aware that you and Ada Palmer openly conspire to sing the praises of Florence and related experiences and artifacts, so I figured I may as well give you another platform to do so. :)

#74 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 10:02 AM:

The Platonic Socrates has a number of different modes (possibly corresponding to different phases in Plato's career, though that can be disputed). Sometimes, as often in the Republic, he is just putting forward his own position, and the questions are largely of the form 'Is this not so?'. He does give people a chance to disagree, and sometimes they do, but it's true they are strangely ready to accept rather odd claims much of the time. I think that's the author's fault rather than the character's, though.

In other places he seems largely to be trying to show people they don't understand an issue - not that a particular position is right; and in yet others he seems actually to be inquiring, trying out ideas to see if they will work. In both of these he tends to emphasise that he doesn't know the answer. The kind of 'Socratic questioning' where you know the answer perfectly well, but want to push your interlocutor into saying it rather than coming up with it yourself, is not really Socratic, I think.

#75 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 10:14 AM:

I'm kind of boggled that Brad sees Matthias/Kebes as horribly mistreated when Simmea is raped twice (once by the poor maltreated guy)

I'm not sure it is accurate or useful to describe the Simmea/Kebes encounter as rape. Simmea tells us explicitly:

"It wasn't rape, for I had consented, but I certainly didn't like it."

Simmea consents to sex with Kebes within the rules of the City. Kebes doesn't really accept that Simmea has volition or equal agency--he doesn't understand the concept any more than Apollo did at the beginning of the book. ("Don't you think I should have a choice?" "Yes, I do, but I think you should choose me.") But he doesn't coerce her into choosing his dream, and certainly doesn't coerce her into having (very bad) sex.

And Kebes is not mistreated, exactly, but he has his dreams destroyed, in consequence of his failure to recognize that Simmea's choices also matter.

#76 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 10:17 AM:

Actually, it strikes me that there is an exception to this; the examination of the slave in the Meno (more precisely the second part of it, the first being purely negative), where Socrates claims to be only asking questions, and yet seems fairly clearly to be guiding the slave towards a particular conclusion. But there the topic is mathematical, and there is indeed an answer on which people can agree; although this is meant to be a exemplar of what someone might do in a philosophical context, I don't think Socrates ever does quite that. His philosophical inquiries are generally more open-ended, except those, like the Phaedo and Republic, where he is up front about his own position.

#77 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 10:42 AM:

Rea @75,

I'm not sure it is accurate or useful to describe the Simmea/Kebes encounter as rape. Simmea tells us explicitly:

"It wasn't rape, for I had consented, but I certainly didn't like it."

Perhaps by Simmea's definition it wasn't rape, but by 21st-century standards, it was rape. She told him "no". She told him to stop, repeatedly. She struggled. He didn't stop. He completely disregarded what she said and what she wanted; he only heard and saw his fantasy of her.

#78 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 11:18 AM:

I pretty much can't identify or empathize with Kebes. I find him incomprehensible in the same way that I've found various other people in my life incomprehensible. They have been uniformly toxic for me. The anger I get. But the thing that the anger turns into, and then the thing that the anger turns Kebes into, confuses me. Yet Sokrates saw something there, something that caused him to engage Kebes over and over again. So there's a thing I don't understand and don't see, and possibly Brad does see it.

Athena I can't claim to understand, but she seems very godlike in her passions and clarities and errors. She has a huge intellectual understanding, but her emotions are not in harness with her intellect. Given that she's the goddess of intellect, in some ways that makes perfect sense. Her understanding of Daphne's desires is, I think, utterly intellectual. She dissects people's emotional states, and is very good at laying out all the pieces. But she lacks the step that puts it all together into a living whole on an intellectual level. Perhaps that is why she both loves Sokrates and is capable of being goaded beyond bearing by him. She has a goddess's disregard for the volition of others, which is a lovely piece of irony, given her first conversation with Apollo. I couldn't say that I identify with her, but I think I could worship her.

#79 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 01:07 PM:

Andrew M #74: It's hard to see the Socrates of the Apology of Plato as anything but a martyrdom-seeker. Saying that his punishment should be free meals for life looks to me like calculatedly hitting on the last nerve of the jury. He succeeded too, since they voted for his death by a larger majority than they voted him guilty.

Jo's Sokrates, on the other hand, seems much more like the Socrates of the Republic or the Eutyphro seeking to find out what the moral truths are by educing them from others.

#80 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 02:58 PM:

Xenophon also wrote quite a bit about Socrates, and Xenophon's Socrates is interestingly different from Plato's version.

#81 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 03:24 PM:

Cassy B. @72: I see Socrates's not-choosing Matthias at the end was a horrible thing for Jo Walton to do to Matthias. I see that as clear and obvious--Matthias thinks he has a friend and ally also interested in disrupting the Just City and moving onward, and it turns out he doesn't.

It does not seem to me that there was anything else that happened to Matthias that would belong to the class of truly horrible things to have happen to characters. I take it you think that I think that Simmea's rejection of Matthias is a horrible thing to have happen to him. I don't think so--it happens every day, and all the broken hearts in the world still beat...

#82 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 03:56 PM:

Fragano@79: Oh, absolutely: I'm not denying that Socrates is a very annoying person. (Actually in the Apology, after saying that he should get free meals for life, he backs down and proposes a fine; but he is clearly trying to be obstructive; the prosecutors were probably assuming that in response to the proposal of death, he would choose exile, and by not doing so he was deliberately seeking martyrdom, as you say.)

But my point was more specific: I believe there is a thing in modern American education called the Socratic Method, and I don't think it is really Socratic, except possibly in the examination of the slave in the Meno, which is a special case. And the Euthyphro is indeed the clearest example of the method he describes, but doesn't follow, in the Apology, of examining people to test their claims to knowledge.

#83 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 04:03 PM:

Brad @81:

What I think happened in this conversation is that most of the readers, not identifying with Matthias, were not as struck by Sokrates' rejection of him as you were. I know that when I read the book for the first time, I was so far into "wait...what?" that I didn't focus very much on what happened immediately afterward. I doubt I was alone in that.

So then when you talked about a horrible thing at the end of the book, many of the readers who had missed what struck you so much thought about the moments that were memorable to them that also included Matthias. And the one that came to mind was one where he was the agent, rather than the patient, of the horribleness.

#84 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 04:21 PM:

abi @83, that's it exactly.

Brad, I hope abi's post clarifies my confusion to you; I didn't phrase it well myself. I *hadn't* particularly thought of Simmea's rejection as "brutal", but it was the only brutal thing that happened to Matthias that came to mind. Frankly, Socrates flying to Simmea didn't register to me as a rejection of Matthias at all, until someone pointed it out as such. I simply didn't register the harshness of the moment.

That's why I kept incorrectly guessing your meaning and asking for clarification; I wasn't being disingenuous. I know perfectly well that I have blind spots, but if nobody explains where they are to me, I can't will myself to see despite them. <wry>

#85 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 04:45 PM:

Brad, 81: OK, I see why you think that was awful, but I don't see why you're so intent on blaming Jo. Sokrates as depicted in this novel would always choose Simmea (and Apollo, let's not forget they go together) over Matthias.

#86 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 04:58 PM:


Perhaps I should not blame Jo. It is not just her Sokrates who would choose Simmea (and Apollo), but all Sokrateses who would choose them--in that a Socrates who would chose Matthias would not be Socrates, but rather Thrasymakhos...

#87 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2015, 05:04 PM:

Sumana: I'm reading Trade Me. I'm really enjoying it.

Teatro del Sale is real. And I don't know what I'll write about in future, got to get this book finished first, but I wouldn't be surprised.

#88 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 08:40 AM:

Brad: I'll be very interested in what you think of The Philosopher Kings.

But really, you didn't read a book I didn't write. If I couldn't see from the eyes of all my characters I couldn't write their dialogue.

But think what a boring conventionally shaped book this would have been from Kebes POV -- rebellious young man struggles against oppressive dystopian society he hates. Seen that one before, maybe?

OK, now I am going to say a thing about Kebes that is implicit in his character, and which is actually discussed in PK. It isn't a plot spoiler, it's where I got the idea for him from, but in case people don't want it I am going to rot13:

Lbh xabj gur Wrfhvg fnlvat nobhg "Tvir zr n obl sbe gur svefg frira lrnef bs uvf yvsr?" Jryy, V jbaqrerq jung jbhyq unccra vs lbh gbbx n obl gurl'q unq sbe gur svefg frira lrnef naq gura ur tbg gnxra gb Cyngb'f Erchoyvp ng gra. Guvf vfa'g yvgrenyyl gehr, orpnhfr Wrfhvgf ner gbb yngr, fb gurl'q unir unq gb unir orra Qbzvavpnaf, ohg gung'f gur punenpgre pbaprcg.

#89 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 08:49 AM:

I didn't get around to starting The Just City until this week, and I so, so wanted to get on this page to talk about it as I read it, but didn't want to see spoilers. Now I imagine "spoiler" discussion pages, one per chapter, but I really don't see how that would work.

Awhile ago, Diatryma recommended Courtney Milan's books, and I finally got around to reading one over Christmas -- and liked it a lot. Seeing Sumana Harihareswara and Jo Walton both bring up Trade Me, I started reading it last night. That is the true glory of ebooks. At 11pm, you can buy a book! Oh, and your Kobo Glo lets you read in low light places like bars, or bed. Isn't it strange that bars don't have good reading lights?

#90 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 10:56 AM:

#88 ::: Jo Walton

There would be even more arguing philosophical discussion.

#91 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 11:04 AM:

janet1@89, for years I've run book club discussions on CompuServe (yes, it's still around, although seriously diminished) in just that format. Chop the book (figuratively!) into four or five chapter segments, talk about each section for a week, then on to the next, and no spoilers allowed.

It works moderately well. Fast readers are frustrated at stopping; slow readers or ones without much free time are frustrated that it's hard to keep up... but for the most part, it works.

#92 ::: Benjamin Wolfe ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 02:50 PM:

Jo Walton at 88: Hm. Now I'm even more tempted to loan my copy of The Just City to one friend of mine. Who, as it happens, is a Dominican monk. I already wanted to see what he thought of it, but now I really want to.

#93 ::: Jody Cahn ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 02:56 PM:

had to buy a paper copy of the just city because my husband wants to read it too (he too loved all my children) (and we're hoping our daughter, who is a rick riordan/percy jackson fan who is convinced she's an apollo child, will read it): but just read the excerpt available for trade me and am not planning on working tonight ... or tomorrow, til i finish. should be interesting. thanks. yes the nice thing about ebooks — especially if you live in Paris — is you order and, voilà.

#94 ::: SorchaRei ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2015, 05:13 PM:

I had Trade Me on my TBR list, even though I generally am dissatisfied with Corutney Milan's historical books (for complicated reasons that led me to believe I might like a contemporary by her better). I moved it up the list after reading this discussion, and I'm glad I did. I'd be up for a discussion of both these books, as they are far and away the best books I've read this year. And because they are in conversation with one another in my head.

#95 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2015, 09:15 PM:

My first, overall comment: I think this is now my go-to book for explaining the importance of the Incarnation[1]

I found the Matthias/Simmea discussion above fascinating; I thought that the fundamental disconnect was Matthias' complete disagreement with the premise of Simmea's reasoning--that in this city, she could become her best self. He reminded me of some of my more activist acquaintances--not the nice suburban kids, but the ones who really had been screwed over by the system in some fashion, and who were determined that the system was wrong--but whose ability to translate into something like consensus reality was a bit lacking.

#96 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2015, 01:18 AM:

SamChevre: Unpack that first sentence please? (Would the explanation have gone in the missing footnote?)

#97 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2015, 01:20 AM:

Okay, I'm slow tonight: Apollo. I don't know that it's translatable into a Christian context, however, what with omniscience and all.

#98 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2015, 06:18 AM:

David Goldfarb @ 96

Apollo--but most importantly, the difference between Apollo/Pythias and Athena.

In Christian theology, the Incarnation--that Jesus Christ was truly god and truly man--is central. One recurrent heresy is that Jesus appeared human rather than being human (docetism/illusionism--kin to Gnosticism). It can be difficult to articulate why this distinction is important; this book does a really excellent job of showing something that is very hard to tell.

#99 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2015, 09:32 AM:

SamChevre -- that works in the universe of the book, and any universe that has gods with limited finite powers, but it doesn't work in the universe of Nicene Christianity, because that capital-G God is supposed to be omniscient, and to have always been omniscient, which means he can't learn anything because he always already knew it.

This makes the Incarnation more perplexing than ever.

More theology/metaphysics/Mysteries coming in later books!

#100 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2015, 02:39 PM:

Frankly, Socrates flying to Simmea didn't register to me as a rejection of Matthias at all, until someone pointed it out as such.

I didn't really register anything after Sokrates was turned into a fly. The following isn't exactly a spoiler, but it's an unpleasant reaction I had that I am assuming is not what was intended: vg jnf nf vs fbzrbar unq checbfryl fgrccrq ba Puneybggr ng gur raq bs Puneybggr'f Jro.

#101 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2015, 08:21 PM:

me @ 95

My footnote was supposed to mention that I'm the sort of person who would read and enjoy A Compendium of the Minor Heresies of the Twelfth Century in Asia Minor, but could not find the reference.

I hold to a viewpoint that probably is one of the major heresies, but I don't know it's name--that the future is unsettled and hence unknowable, and so not known fully even by an omniscient God.

#102 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 10:59 AM:

For what it's worth, the idea that that future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be known by an omniscient God showed in The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen-- but that's a novel, and no one I'd asked knew of it as part of Judaism.

Minor point for the book junkies:-- it's the only paperback I can remember that had round corners. Any others?

#103 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 11:01 AM:

SamChevre @101, I'm engaged in a rather confusing theological discussion elseweb with a Jehovah's Witness, who tells me that Jehovah cannot see the future because of Free Will. (Or perhaps that Jehovah chooses not to see the future because of Free Will. As I said, the discussion is rather confusing, because he keeps changing what he says, and "supporting" his position with Bible verses that don't actually apply...) I do not know if this is a Jehovah's Witness doctrine, or merely the viewpoint of the man with whom I'm having the discussion. I pointed out that the Bible is full of prophecies, and he kinda handwaved and hasn't given me an explanation for why this isn't a problem with his theological position.

He also informed me that God doesn't watch everywhere; that's what Jehovah has angels for. (I'm not sure whether it's because God cannot watch everywhere, or just that God does not choose to watch everywhere. The man is, unfortunately, not a clear writer (or, in my humble opinion, a clear thinker...).

#104 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 11:40 AM:

Cassy B, if you're arguing with a JW, that's all you're going to get from him. (Is it Polanco/'maximiliann'? He's been banned from several sites for trolling.)

#105 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 12:53 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @102: Avon did a small series of books with rounded covers: Cabell's Jurgen was another that I remember off the top of my head. I'm sure I could come up with more if I went through my storage locker.

#106 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 02:35 PM:

P J Evans @104, it's a fellow named Ron Hansen who posts on the Religion Forum on Compuserve. Since the forum is set up specifically as a place for discussion and debate on religions, he's actually not a troll. I could wish that he was more articulate, however. (There was something like a thousand-post thread where people with a surprising amount of patience attempted to explain to him that "impaled on" and "nailed to" were not synonyms....)

#107 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 02:42 PM:

Slacktivist has had JWs trying to convince people that they have All The Answers. It's very frustrating, because they never actually respond to people, only posting copy-pasta references (or even whole quotations). You get the feeling that they don't actually read what people say to them.

#108 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 02:55 PM:

P J Evans @107, judging purely from Mr. Hansen's posts, I think they *don't* read what is written to them. They read a strawman of their own imagination which they think was written to them. <wry> It's like they look for keywords in a question or statement, disregard the meaning of the actual question or statement, and respond to the keywords. Whether or not the response is relevant or appropriate.

Reading comprehension does not appear to be a core value of the Jehovah's Witnesses, if Mr. Hansen is a typical specimen. (Which, to be fair, it's possible that he may not be.)

One feels like one is conversing with Eliza....

#109 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2015, 03:25 PM:

At Slacktivist, they've been described as bots, because they act like automatons. They're not doing well in their Turing tests.

#110 ::: Ian Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 11:45 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @102: As you are of course aware, it's real, real difficult to nail down anything which is "the" Jewish perspective on something, but Rabbi Akiva had some things on that topic.

Akiva was one of a group of Jewish theologians and scholars who were exposed to Greek philosophy, and struggled with trying to reconcile the things which they found useful in Greek philosophy to Jewish theology. Which makes this actually pretty on topic.

In the Mishna, Pirkei Avot chapter 3:16, Rabbi Akiva is quoted as saying, "All is foreseen, and freedom of choice is granted." Which is obviously a paradox, but Akiva states that both apparently-contradictory things are true.

Here's how I think about it.

Assume for a moment that free will exists. And you're reading a biography of, oh, let's say Benedict Arnold, to choose a person whose role in history may be considered controversial.

If there is free will, then Benedict Arnold had the ability to choose whether to switch sides during the American Revolution or not. Benedict Arnold had free will, and will always have had free will.

But you're reading the biography. And you find out what he chose to do.

And every time you re-read that biography, he's STILL going to have chosen the same thing.

So, since you come in a period of time after Benedict Arnold, you have the capacity to know what he ended up doing. Even when you're re-reading the biography from the beginning, and you haven't gotten to that part yet.

The way I interpret Akiva's point is that G-d is sitting outside of Time, and therefore can read our biographies. Even if we have free will, and therefore can write whatever we want in our own biographies, G-d reads the whole thing. Verb tenses don't matter here, because G-d is outside of time. So the following statements are all the same:

  1. "G-d will have read our biographies
  2. "G-d will read our biographies"
  3. "G-d reads our biographies"
  4. "G-d is reading our biographies
  5. "G-d has been reading our biographies"
  6. "G-d read our biographies"

For what it's worth, this is a line of thought that doesn't actually require a theistic belief system to be interesting. This phrasing includes an Intelligent Observer which sits outside of time and can perceive the totality of the Universe from beginning to end, but the model doesn't actually require there to be such an Observer.

#111 ::: Ian Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 11:54 AM:

That, by the way, is a model which works pretty well with THE JUST CITY. Apollo and Athene exist in all time periods, but nonetheless have free will, as well as a personal timeline which goes in only one direction, allowing them to learn and grow, if they choose to.

I get a sense that Zeus may be a larger sort of Divine force, which may be related to, or maybe the same thing as, God The Father in Christianity, or YHWH in Judaism, or Allah in Islam -- something that is as far beyond Apollo and Athene's experience as they are beyond ours.

Certainly, that appears to be close to what Ikaros believes, anyway.

#112 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 12:38 PM:

#110 ::: Ian Osmond

I've seen that-- or at least something very like it, in Christian explanations of God and eternity, though the idea that we've got a God's eye view of people from the past is new to me.

#113 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2015, 12:40 PM:

And Charles Williams' Many Dimensions has the idea that if you mind-travel along your timeline into the future, you lose track of when you are.

#114 ::: john, who is incognito and definitely not at work ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2015, 02:39 PM:

I ran into a former co-worker this weekend, who's also an author embarking on a new series, and in catching up we got on the subject of books we'd enjoyed recently. I gave her a thumbnail synopsis of the first chapter of The Just City; she began to smile right away, and pulled a notepad from her purse to write down the title and author. As it turns out, she minored in Greek mythology.

I'd love to know what she thinks of it, but rarely see her now that she's retired. If she enjoys it half as much as I did she'll enjoy it quite a lot.

#115 ::: iamnothing ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2015, 10:11 PM:

I finished reading TJC last night. My first impressions: I found it interesting and enjoyable, not being affected by the more challenging incidents. However, the ending. Instead of tying things up a bit, it *untied* them -- which would be OK if I had the next book at hand.

#116 ::: iamnothing ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2015, 10:21 PM:

Ian Osmond @111:
(1) There's a Buddhist theory that gods are 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.
(2) I suppose the phrase "beyond Apollo" (which also appears in TJC?) is not an allusion to the Malzberg work.

#117 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2015, 07:06 PM:

iamnothing: I don't know what Ian intended, but it wasn't intended as a reference to Malzberg in the text.

(I haven't actually read the Malzberg.)

#118 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2015, 02:14 AM:

I just finished reading it, and I have to ask: Was anyone else incredibly frustrated by the slow pace of Sokrates’s inquiries about the workers? I’m pretty sure he spends at least a year asking random workers questions (starting in Chapter 16, I think the 6th Year) before he bother to ask Klio (Chapter 25, ten months after the first Festival of Hera, which takes place in Chapter 18) how the workers receive their orders. And he first expressed interest in the workers way back in the 5th Year, Chapter 10, so he’s had some time to think about it.

I was reading the book on a bus, and it was only the wish to avoid making a public spectacle of myself that kept me from shouting out “Finally!” at the scene with Klio. Fifteen chapters I had to sit through waiting for the smartest person in all of history to ask the most obvious question about a topic he was interested in.

#119 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: July 24, 2015, 09:22 PM:

As I have just completed this book, I had to come find the ML spoiler thread for it.

As I am 6th in line on 12 copies of the sequel in my library system, I don't anticipate having it this month. Sigh.

I had a realization while reading that I don't see mentioned here, meaning it's either so obvious it doesn't need discussion, or it's genuinely unique to me.

Apollo, as Pytheas, talks to Simmea about what he came here to learn (the importance of consent and agency, effectively). She says it's very important for him to learn as much as he can, because when he grows as a god he can bring excellence to all humanity by sharing the knowledge. Then there's this passage (p. 296 in my hardcover copy):

"You have to tell them!" I said. "You have to explain it to them, to all of them. And to humans, too."
"I could try to explain it to the gods," he said, though I could see him quail at the idea. "Explaining it to humans wouldn't be possible. I could try to inspire people to make art about it. Poems. Sculptures. But it's one of those things that doesn't go easily into the shapes of stories."

Was the kindly author subtle enough that everyone else missed it, or am I just enchanted with my own abilities that I sensed a clever recursion, there?

I was admittedly in a patch of rocky brain weather the last few days while reading (Devouring. Hiding in ...) this book, but did not realize until going back to find this exact passage to quote it that I somehow managed to skip something like **100 pages** and not notice I had done so. On the plus side, new scenes to read! And a lot of things are apparently onscreen that I had intuited as offscreen referenced-to events. So there we go.

Can't stay to talk just now. Reading.

#120 ::: Ralph Giles ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2015, 01:09 PM:

I remember noticing that self-reference too. Very cute!

#121 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2015, 07:25 PM:

P J Evans @64
>Someone has to chop wood and carry water

It's interesting to note that two of the most impactful philosophers in history, Socrates and Jesus, were both manual laborers -- stonemason and carpenter respectively. (And Paul, who's not quite in their class but within shouting distance, was a leatherworker.) One wonders if modern philosophy students might benefit from some exposure to techne as well as philosophia.

#122 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: October 08, 2015, 01:02 PM:

And here I am, a little after everyone else.

Apollo/Athene/Debate idea: Apollo jumps in and out of time *all the time* because he's about the "Eureka!" Athene jumps in and out of time almost never, because she's the one who does the work. It's Apollo's first idea and Athene's last. My mental image of her in that debate is "I'm obviously right, I just need to get the words out... this shouldn't be this hard... how am I losing? I'M RIGHT!"

I don't see the transformation of Socrates as anything but his final goal. There's a Nietschze line - I can't find it right now - to the effect of 'you're going to die anyway; find the way to do it that best helps accomplish your goals.' It is Athene's nature to be as petty and vicious as any other god; it is Socrates's nature to want to show that to everyone.

(On theological 'bots: I've been known to refer to certain internet individuals as "write-only devices." None of those, as it happens, were encountered in theological discussions. )

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.