Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)

--The blurb--
"Plato, the orator, summons the citizens of London on ritual occasions to impart the ancient history of their city. He dwells particulary on the unhappy era of Mouldwarp (AD 1500-2300), which existed before the dimming of the stars and the burning of the machines. But then he is put on trial."

--The review--
The capacity for exploitation of the "dystopia novel" genre seems almost limitless, with there being no shortage of authors to step up to the plate and tackle the subject in imaginative ways. Peter Ackroyd, in 1999, was one of these writers, and the result was The Plato Papers. While it is set in the distant future, the use of the name Plato is a clever tactic to draw in classics enthusiasts as well as science fiction and dystopia fans (not forgetting standard Ackroyd fans), and this is something that continues to work well as the titular character continues to try and make sense of our time (a.k.a. The Age of Mouldwarp) through archaeological artefacts and historical papers. This insight into the vicissitudes of archaeology, juxtaposed with what our world may become and how different it may be from current times, gives great insight into how difficult it might be to analyse traces of what our generations leave behind (and what, indeed, we might leave behind) with any accuracy.

While the premises of the novella are initially tricky to become familiar with, once this familiarity has been achieved readers are able to rattle through its riveting prose with relative speed. Its wryly humorous perception of our current world helps to bind the book together, and its retrospective vantage point is realistically maintained. Even more than ten years after being written, its topics remain relevant, and yet the trials of great thinkers such as Socrates and Seneca are also recalled, but without pretension.

It is instead with great skill that Ackroyd summons the attention of readers, calling up the notion of the uncomfortableness of the past meeting the present and future. His work epitomises the maxim of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, reminding us that we are all only human and that we cannot ever be so sure of the time in which we live. Without being didactic, it conveys greatly human teachings, and is a concise and spellbinding introduction to Ackroyd's novels. Well-written, amusing, appealing, and slightly philosophical, it tells the perennial tale of the ones who are 'right' being cast out, and reminds us of our own smallness.

Other works by Peter Ackroyd
The Great Fire of London (1982)
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983)
Hawksmoor (1985)
Chatterton (1987)
First Light (1989)
English Music (1992)
The House of Doctor Dee (1993)
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994)
Milton in America (1996)
The Clerkenwell Tales (2003)
The Lambs of London (2004)
The Fall of Troy (2006)
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008)
The Canterbury Tales - A Retelling (2009)

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