Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton
Published: Tor, 2015
Series: Book 1 of the Philosopher Kings
Awards Nominated: Prometheus Award

The Book:

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future--all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome--and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo--stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does--has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.” ~WWEnd.com

I’ve been meaning to read The Just City, for quite a while, so I jumped on the chance to pick it up from Tor.com’s ebook club a few months back (http://ebookclub.tor.com/).  I have liked everything that I have read by Jo Walton, and the topic of this one piqued my interest. I enjoy reading about the process of building a society within a fictional universe.  This novel was very satisfying in that respect, and it left me eager to read The Philosopher Kings and Necessity.

My Thoughts:

All of us (who are honest) can agree that there are no perfect societies on Earth. I think every person acts, to some extent, to shift society toward their concept of the ideal arrangement.  This is a slow process, and muddled by the fact that people have very different ideas of how things should change.  That’s why, to me, the lure of building a new society from scratch is undeniable.  Athena’s group of mentors take Plato’s Republic as their model, and attempt to build it on an isolated island that will not endure in the future. While I don’t agree with many of the details of Plato’s Republic, I like the emphasis on creating a just society that allows each person to become their best self.  The Just City takes this idea and considers how it might work when implemented by and for actual people.  The City can’t be truly separate from the world, since the mentors are shaped by their own times and experiences, and the ten-year-olds are certainly not “blank slates”.  Even if it were somehow kept pure from the influence of other societies, people are messy, emotional, and confusing creatures.  It was fascinating to see how this planned society fared when taking human nature into account.

The novel covers many aspects of human experience through an engaging mix of viewpoint and minor characters.  Maia provides eyes into the group of mentors, people who are united in purpose but not in their prejudices.  Many of the men from older civilizations struggle with accepting women as equals, which has some frustratingly predictable consequences. Among the children, Simmea represents the kind of person best suited to the education the City offers.  She’s brilliant, driven, and eager to become her best self.  I also appreciated that she was unattractive, and that this did not harm her self-esteem or others’ estimation of her worth.  In her cohort is Apollo, who has a really personable, amusing narrative voice.  I enjoyed his outsider’s perspective on the society, and his exploration of the experience of being mortal.  The concept of the novel really depends on having characters that feel authentic, and I feel that it succeeds on this count.  

Central to Apollo’s arc is developing an understanding of volition and equal significance, and this is echoed in many places in the development of the City itself.  The mentors intend to create a just society, but they begin it with a denial of choice.  They buy children from slave markets, with the justification that they will have a better life.  This may be true, but it also leaves some children angry with being ripped from their world and taken to a society that is planned to have no future.  Not everyone wants their life to be part of an experiment.  The society attempts to regulate many things that most of us would consider personal, such as sexual and non-sexual relationships.  While their intentions may be honorable, the mentors are treating the children as subjects to be managed, not as people with equal significance.  I enjoyed seeing how this conflict between ideals and execution would influence the development of the City.  I think The Just City came to a natural conclusion, but there is still clearly story left to tell in this universe.

My Rating: 5 / 5

I am a fan of Jo Walton’s work, and The Just City is my favorite of her novels so far. The idea of building a society based on Plato’s Republic intrigued me, and the novel gave a fascinating look into how the experiment might play out when enacted by real people.  Apollo, Simmea and Maia each brought a valuable perspective on the planned society, and I especially enjoyed Apollo’s conversational narration.  One of the central ideas is the importance of choice and of considering others equally important to oneself.  It was interesting to see how this both drove and contradicted the efforts to build a more just society. The ending makes it clear that this phase of the story is complete, but that there is more to tell.  I am curious as to see where the citizens of the Just City will go from here!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Short Fiction: January 2017

It’s time to kick off my 2017 recommendations for short fiction!  My favorites for January span a variety of subgenres, from harder SF to barely fantasy.  There’s not much of a theme I can claim for this month, except that they were each entertaining in their own way. They're all also available to read online, at the links provided below.

A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, Novelette): This story takes an interesting look at 3D-printing biological material, with an eye to how it might intersect with politics and crime.  The main character runs a small business 3D-printing steaks for consumption, and one ‘customer’ decides to blackmail her into filling a high order in an impossibly short amount of time.  It’s a surprisingly funny story, and also one that touches on a variety of up-and-coming issues that society may face.

The Thing About Growing Up in Jokertown by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, Novelette): This is set in the Wild Cards universe, but I was able to enjoy it without having read the novels set in the universe.  It’s a sweet, simple story about a group of marginalized teenagers who live in NYC’s “Jokertown”.  One day, they decide there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to enjoy Central Park, just like all the “normal” New Yorkers. What follows is a pleasant story about a small-scale adventure.

Fable by Charles Yu (The New Yorker, Short Story): I would hesitate to actually call this one speculative fiction, since the fantasy elements are only used as an analogy to real life.  However, it is beautifully written and deeply emotional.  It concerns a man, who has a child that is developmentally disabled, talking for the first time to a therapist. He describes the story of his life, and how he has come to feel that it has lost meaning.  It’s kind of a tearjerker, but ends on a hopeful note.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
Published: Orbit, 2016
Series: Book 2 of The Broken Earth

Beware some spoilers of book 1, The Fifth Season, below!

The Book:

“A world-wrecking Season is underway, and Essun’s search for her daughter has reached a dead end. She remains in the underground city of Castrima, a community that claims to accept orogenes as equals.  Castrima may also be the final home of her former mentor and lover, Alabaster, who is now dying. Even if there is no forgiveness between them, he needs her to perform a dangerous task that he no longer has the power to undertake.  

In the meantime, Essun’s orogene daughter Nassun travels with a father that struggles to reconcile his love for his daughter with his conviction that all orogenes should be killed on sight.  He is intent on finding a way to ‘cure’ his daughter, but their bond is already poisoned by the hatred he carries. She will find a new kind of guardian at her destination, as well as a new focus for her life and considerable talents.” ~Allie

I loved The Fifth Season, and I am excited to continue Essun’s story.  I would definitely recommend reading this series in order.  Also, to note, I don’t normally give all the books I review 4.5-5 stars.  I’m just in the middle of a stretch of reading really good books.

My Thoughts:

While much of the story of The Fifth Season takes place during a relatively stable period in the history of the Stillness, The Obelisk Gate starts and continues firmly in apocalyptic territory. The environment is changing, and there’s no guarantee that humanity will be able to endure until the world becomes stable again.  In this world, the Seasons are uncommon but not unexpected, so people fall back on harsh lore that they hope will help them survive.  The conditions stress the characters to their breaking points, and force them to center day-to-day survival as their goal.  The story mostly follows two viewpoint characters, Essun and her daughter Nassun, as they find shelter in two very different communes.  There are a number of parallels in their stories, and it is interesting to see the differences in how they each come to see the world.

The Obelisk Gate sometimes lacks the momentum of the first book in the series, but this allows for an interesting exploration of the richly complex characters.  This is the kind of story where no one is completely admirable, but their reasoning and actions feel emotionally authentic.  This can sometimes be uncomfortable, as their relationships generally lack the definite moments of closure or reconciliation that I guess I have come to expect in fiction. Of the main characters, I feel closest to Essun. While she makes some horrific decisions, I can understand and sympathize with the impulses behind them.  Underneath everything, right now I feel like she is a good person who is constantly forced to make impossible choices.  The situation with Nassun and her father Jija is simply heartbreaking.  No child should ever have to manipulate their own parent into caring for them, or to live in fear of violence from the one that should protect them.  That being said, I am worried about the path that Nassun is currently following, and the harm it is likely to cause to so many people.  There are many memorable moments between the characters, and I hope that the final book in the trilogy leaves them in a better state than they are right now.

The Obelisk Gate also expands considerably on the nature of the world and orogene.  Some questions from the first novel are beginning to be answered, and I feel like I have a better sense of what the endgame is going to involve.  I enjoyed learning more about the origins of the stone eaters and guardians, and to see both Essun and Nassun developing and refining their skills in orogeny.  I was surprised that orogeny is explicitly labeled as magic, probably because so much in the world feels very physical and explainable.  As one would hope after the second book in a trilogy (the darkest of the three acts), I can’t see right now how the story can ultimately have any kind of happy ending.  I’m anxious to see how things will turn out for Essun and the others, and thus impatient for the final novel, The Stone Sky, to come out this August!  

My Rating: 4.5 /5

The Obelisk Gate is a sequel that lives up to the impressive, award-winning first novel of the series, The Fifth Season. Now fully an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic story, the novel follows the roughly parallel stories of Essun and her missing daughter, Nassun. There was less action in this middle part of the trilogy, since the main characters stick with the communes that have accepted them as conditions worsened.  However, there was considerable development in terms of the characters and their understanding of the world they inhabit.  The main characters are a major draw of the story, as they are both deeply flawed and deeply human.  I am loving this series so far, and will certainly pick up The Stone Sky when it is available this August.