The Plato Papers: A Novel

The Plato Papers: A Novel

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by Peter Ackroyd

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From the imagination of one of the most brilliant writers of our time and bestselling author of The Life of Thomas More, a novel that playfully imagines how the "modern" era might appear to a thinker seventeen centuries hence.

At the turn of the 38th century, London's greatest orator, Plato, is known for his lectures on the long, tumultuous


From the imagination of one of the most brilliant writers of our time and bestselling author of The Life of Thomas More, a novel that playfully imagines how the "modern" era might appear to a thinker seventeen centuries hence.

At the turn of the 38th century, London's greatest orator, Plato, is known for his lectures on the long, tumultuous history of his now tranquil city. Plato focuses on the obscure and confusing era that began in A.D. 1500, the Age of Mouldwarp. His subjects include Sigmund Freud's comic masterpiece "Jokes and Their Relation to the Subconscious," and Charles D.'s greatest novel, "The Origin of Species." He explores the rituals of Mouldwarp, and the later cult of webs and nets that enslaved the population. By the end of his lecture series, however, Plato has been drawn closer to the subject of his fascination than he could ever have anticipated. At once funny and erudite, The Plato Papers is a smart and entertaining look at how the future is imagined, the present absorbed, and the past misrepresented.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Dyer
The Plato Papers' is a serious divertissement, a brilliant fabulation that is the product of a playful, engaged, and well-stocked mind.
Boston Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Is each century doomed to misinterpret previous ones? That's the central question of Ackroyd's new book, more a Swiftian compendium of social folly than a novel, satirizing many of today's intellectual shibboleths. In the year 3700, a public orator named Plato educates the masses about the important texts and beliefs of previous ages. It's an imperfect archeology, though, since destroyed texts and lost information cause him to attribute On the Origin of Species not to Charles Darwin, but to Charles Dickens, placing that volume in Dickens's line of melodramatic or romantic novels. He also puzzles over the computer age, rueing the "despair engendered by the cult of webs and nets which spread among the people" and cites Edgar Allan Poe's Tales and Histories as "the unique record of a lost race." Eventually, Plato begins to suspect that his knowledge about earlier culture is fundamentally incorrect, but as he moves beyond generally accepted assumptions, he runs afoul of those in power. He's placed on trial and is forced to defend himself against accusations of "corrupting the young by spinning lies and fables." Biographer (The Life of Thomas More) and novelist (Chatterton) Ackroyd displays his encyclopedic knowledge of world literature in this philosophical satire, rendering this effort witty and cerebral. The humor is especially sharp in the sections listing common words and phrases from centuries before, and their wildly creative definitions: "pedestrian: one who journeyed on foot; used as a term of abuse, as in `this is a very pedestrian plot.'" Or "yellow fever: the fear of colour." Toward the end of the book, Ackroyd creates a sense of how Plato's search for knowledge affects him as an individual, a welcome development in keeping the plot connected to the experimental narrative. Other elements are by turns highly intellectual, jokey, lofty and fragmented, but Ackroyd delivers a constant stream of surprising linguistic, satiric twists that many armchair cultural theorists will relish. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
No, not that Plato. This is the 37th-century orator and scholar from London, who regularly regales his audiences with reports from the Age of Mouldwarp (c. 1500-2300); though fervent in his research, Plato makes some incorrect assumptions due to limited historical evidence--e.g., he believes Darwin's The Origin of Species is a comic novel. Plato also defends the city's "guardians" in their views of Mouldwarp as a soulless society with no redeeming value, until he takes a metaphysical journey to that time. There he finds an understanding that unnerves his contemporaries so much that he is charged with spinning lies and banished from the city. The versatile Ackroyd (The Life of Thomas More) has fun particularly deconstructing the 20th century through decidedly different eyes, and the novel can be enjoyed on that somewhat amusing level. The author, however, seems to be reaching for some larger statement (futile searches for "truth," the commonality of man through the ages?) that was lost on this reviewer. A likable enough book, though it will appeal more to the brain than to the heart. For larger collections.--Marc A. Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Time Magazine
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 redefine old words are instructively wrong-headed ; "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 judgements are mistaken and asks his Soul to tell him what it 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 travelling that takes him back to London during the Mouldwarp era. [The present day.] (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 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 uneasiness with the familiar.

[An] 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.
The Christian Science Monitor
John Sutherland
...extremely funny...Admirers of Ackroyd will find The Plato Papers richly revealing.
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.21(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.42(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Lectures and Remarks of Plato on the Condition of Past Ages

Sparkler: Wait, Sidonia, wait!

Sidonia: Gladly.

Sparkler: I just saw you in the market. You were standing beneath the city wall, and so I assumed that you were listening to Plato's oration.

Sidonia: Correct in every respect, Sparkler. But I expected to see you there, since you always celebrate the feast of Gog.

Sparkler: I was about to cross the Fleet, and join you, when Madrigal stopped me.

Sidonia: What did he want?

Sparkler: Only something about a parish meeting. But, as a result, I missed Plato's opening remarks. I heard only his ending, when he spoke of his sorrow at the darkness of past ages.

Sidonia: It was all very interesting. There was a period when our ancestors believed that they inhabited a world which revolved around a sun.

Sparkler: Can it be true?

Sidonia: Oh yes. They had been told that they lived upon a spherical planet, moving through some kind of infinite space.

Sparkler: No!

Sidonia: That was their delusion. But it was the Age of Mouldwarp. According to Plato, the whole earth seemed to have been reduced and rolled into a ball until it was small enough to fit their theories.

Sparkler: But surely they must have known—or felt?

Sidonia: They could not have known. For them the sun was a very powerful god. Of course we were all silent for a moment, after Plato had told us this, and then he laughed.

Sparkler: He laughed?

Sidonia: Even when he had taken off the orator's mask, he was still smiling. Then he began to question us. 'Do you consider me to be small? I know that you do. Could you imagine the people of Mouldwarp to be much, much smaller? Their heads were tiny, and their eyes like pinpoints. Do you know,' he said, 'that in the end they believed themselves to be covered by a great net or web?'

Sparkler: Impossible. I never know when Plato is telling the truth.

Sidonia: That is what he enjoys. The game. That is why he is an orator.

Sparkler: We who have known him since childhood—

Sidonia: —never cease to wonder.

Sparkler: But who could be convinced by such wild speculations?

Sidonia: Come and decide for yourself. Walk with me to the white chapel, where he is about to begin his second oration.

Meet the Author

Peter Ackroyd is a bestselling writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books include the biographies Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More and the novels The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, Milton in America, and The Plato Papers. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award (jointly), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and The Guardian fiction prize. He lives in London.

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