Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Future Recalls The Past

By Steven Robert Allen

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

The Plato Papers: A Prophecy by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese-Doubleday), hardcover, $21.95

At the turn of the 38th century, a diminutive orator named Plato delivers lectures on the history of the world to audiences throughout London. The listening public is highly amused by these lectures -- especially on those occasions when Plato discusses the Age of Mouldwarp, that dark period between 1500 and 2300 A.D. According to evidence accumulated by our little speaker, the Age of Mouldwarp was the most barbaric -- and therefore the most entertaining -- era in all of human history.

In one of Plato's lectures, Londoners learn about the literary accomplishments of Charles D., the famous writer responsible for the long lost novels Great Expectations and Hard Times. The only novel by Charles D. that remains in existence, however, is called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. According to Plato, the fictional hero of this book is obsessed by struggle, competition and death by natural selection. Plato teaches his listeners that On the Origin of Species is an ingenious parody of Charles D.'s society.

In a subsequent lecture, Plato discusses the surviving works of the historian E. A. Poe. In another, he examines that "great comic genius of his age," Sigmund Freud, author of the hilarious comic masterpiece Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. In a third, Plato reveals that a strip of plastic showing a series of images labeled "Hitchcock Frenzy" came out of an angel's ass and depicts the mysteries of an ancient religious ritual.

And so it goes. Peter Ackroyd's The Plato Papers is a weird little novel that attempts something along the lines of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels -- just not nearly as well. Ackroyd's novel may be set in the future, but it is vehemently obsessed with the present. Though Plato gets almost all the details wrong in his lectures on the Age of Mouldwarp, the broad picture he presents of our world is pretty much accurate. The problem is that this picture isn't all that surprising or insightful. What do we learn from The Plato Papers? The Age of Mouldwarp was a materialistic, violent, selfish time, in which people became obsessed with the mindless acquisition of useless information, and never paused to consider the consequences of their actions on the future of their species and planet.

Yeah. No kidding.

The future, though, isn't exactly a picnic either. According to Ackroyd, the 38th century is an amorphous period, bathed in dreamy light and populated by angels. Reality exists in more than four dimensions and there are many, many different sexes. Science and time don't exist anymore either (which makes it somewhat difficult to explain why Plato and his compadres think they're in the 38th century). No Londoner ever leaves the confines of the city because they've been taught from birth that there isn't any reason to leave. What's worse, these people of the future don't even wonder what's outside the city gates. The future, as it turns out, is a fool's paradise where individuality is not allowed, or even imaginable, and speculation about anything is considered subversive.

Plato eventually gets into trouble with the authorities for inquiring a little too closely into the nature of the past. As his mother once told him, he was born "to see everything from a different vantage," and in this future world, that is simply not tolerated. Plato's lectures were previously considered mere harmless diversions. When the young start taking them seriously, though, the authorities start cracking down.

The Plato Papers is interesting and often very funny, but in the end it's hardly the timeless, brilliant novel of ideas that all the cover blurbs claim it is. Ackroyd certainly describes our present with some level of accuracy and humor, but his descriptions are mainly just obvious. Ackroyd's imagined future, on the other hand, is a little too wispy and ethereal. He doesn't describe it with any clarity. An even bigger problem is that there aren't any strong links between our world and Ackroyd's imagined 38th century. It's these strong links that make negative utopia novels like George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World worth reading more than once. The Plato Papers, on the other hand, may impress with its cleverness, and may spur more than one bout of laughter, but if you're looking for more than that, you'll have to look elsewhere.

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