Perhaps only true sci-fi fans can pick up a book and note, without yelping in protest, that it takes place in roughly A.D. 3705. Yet Peter Ackroyd's The Plato Papers (Doubleday; 173 pages; $19.95) offers just such a leap forward in time with almost no accompanying science or fiction, at least in the sense of narrative exposition and descriptions of characters and settings. So what is Ackroyd, a prolific British biographer and novelist (The Life of Thomas More, English Music), up to now?
The author himself subtitles his book A Prophesy, but the playfulness of the opening pages does not seem to herald a serious bout of forecasting. A character named Plato, who serves as the orator of London, lectures his fellow citizens about ancient history, particularly the fragmentary evidence that has survived from the Age of Mouldwarp (A.D. 1500-2300). He mentions the name Charles Dickens and the only book by this author known to have survived, albeit in mutilated form: "The novel is entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection by Charles D--. The rest of the name has been gouged out by some crude tool and the phrase 'Vile Stuff!' written in a dye-based substance." Plato praises Dickens' comic inventiveness in creating something called evolution and puts Origin on a par with Don Quixote in its depiction of a totally deluded fictional hero.
More misapprehensions ensue. Plato is particularly incisive on the works of E.A. Poe, a term he believes stands for Eminent American Poet. This writer, Plato declares, "has described the characteristics of the American empire with very great precision. Its inhabitants dwelled in very large and very old houses, which, perhaps because of climatic conditions, were often covered with lichen or ivy."
If watching its hero jump to false conclusions about the past were the entire point of The Plato Papers, the book would amount to an amusing but decidedly donnish diversion. And for many readers, that would be quite good enough. Plato's attempts to define old words are instructively wrongheaded: "rock music: the sound of old stones"; "telepathy: the suffering caused by 'television.'"
But Ackroyd endows Plato with several intriguing complexities, including, literally, a Soul with whom he converses. He senses that many of his historical judgments are mistaken and asks his Soul to tell him what the past was really like. Soul refuses: "I am not permitted to dwell on such things. You are becoming. I am being. There is a difference."
Plato's lonely quest for the truth involves some tricky time traveling that takes him back to London during the Mouldwarp era. (Those familiar with Plato's Republic will note with interest that the destination of this journey is a vast cave.) The tales Plato tells on his return do not sit well with the governing authorities, and Plato meets a Socratic fate, put on trial for corrupting the young. By this point, Ackroyd's lively tale has shaded into an invigorating meditation on the changelessness, after no matter how many eons, of human nature and its uneasiness with the unfamiliar.
--By Paul Gray