THE PLATO PAPERS: A PROPHESY By Peter Ackroyd Doubleday 173 pp., $21.95
Imagine a world utterly different from the one we know: our own world as it might be, not merely a century nor even a millennium from now, but the world of AD 3700. This is the setting of Peter Ackroyd's extraordinary new novel. "The Plato Papers" is not science fiction. It is not about space travel or advanced technology. Nor is it about biological evolution or strange species encountered on other planets. But, like the best science fiction, it is allegorical, suggestive, and strikingly imaginative.
Most of Ackroyd's books, including nine novels and four biographies, testify to his deep and abiding passion for the past. Whether he is writing about the tragic life of the suicidal proto-Romantic poet Chatterton or summoning up the vanished realm of the 16th-century theologian in "The Life of Thomas More," Ackroyd delights in extending his imaginative sympathies to worlds made distant by time rather than by place. "The Plato Papers" is inspired by the future rather than the past, but it, too, involves the mental act of reaching out across time.
"The Plato Papers" is set in London, which is not only Ackroyd's actual birthplace, but might also be said to be the capital of his imagination. The London of AD 3700. resembles an idealized portrait of classical Athens, where wise and gracious citizens stroll serenely through the streets engaging in Socratic dialogues. In Athens, it was Socrates whose incessant questioning got him into trouble; here, it is an eccentric fellow called Plato whose doubts threaten to disturb the peace.
Plato (not unlike Ackroyd) is fascinated by history and has become something of an authority among his fellow citizens on the subject of ages past. As the Londoners of AD 3700 see it, there were four great ages:
In the Age of Orpheus 3500 BC-300 BC, musical harmony was invented, "statues were coaxed to life," and gods, animals, plants, and other creatures were constantly metamorphosing one into another.
The Age of the Apostles, 300 BC-AD 1500, was an age of suffering and penance, "when the earth itself was considered to be evil and all those upon it were condemned as sinners."
The Age of Mouldwarp, AD 1500 -2300, believed in "the superstition of progress" without any idea of where it was progressing. Prizing information, but lacking wisdom, the denizens of Mouldwarp came to believe they were covered by a giant web.
When Mouldwarp was destroyed, apparently because the sun had gone out, a new age dawned in which people realized that the true source of light came from within themselves. This was The Age of Witspell, AD 2300-3400, when people came to worship the city that nurtured them: "Those who had survived the catastrophe of Mouldwarp, and had created the first human light, knew that they were blessed."
Plato and his fellow citizens seem to be living in the afterglow of this golden era. Even more than ancient Athens, their world resembles William Blake's prophesied "Jerusalem." The conversation of its enlightened citizens reminds one of the charming dialogues of the nymphs and spirits in Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound."
"The Plato Papers" contains two distinct currents, which seem to flow in opposite directions. The first is a satire of Mouldwarp from the enlightened perspective of AD 3700. These hapless creatures worshiped a deity called "information," and particularly valued stories of wars, murders, and other misfortunes, which they regarded as news. One of Mouldwarp's greatest novelists, we're told, wrote a book called "The Origin of Species," a scathing satire of their dog-eat-dog society, cleverly disguised as a story about animals.
But just as we are being shocked or amused by this portrait of the world in which we live, Ackroyd opens up another possibility: Plato begins to wonder if his view of Mouldwarp is accurate. He starts to question his assumptions and to feel greater sympathy and admiration for what he now suspects may have been the dynamic and courageous spirit of Mouldwarp's people. Is he right to harbor such doubts? Or are the city guardians right to think that an attitude like his could erode the harmony and peace of their way of life?
Ackroyd, I think, seems genuinely uncertain whether Plato's skepticism is a wholesome sign of life or whether his doubts are the corrupting worm in the apple of an otherwise admirable society. And this, in turn, is a sign, not of authorial confusion or indecisiveness, but of Ackroyd's ability to present complex questions in all of their genuine complexity. For this reason, and many more, "The Plato Papers" is likely to challenge readers for generations to come.
*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.
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