THE PLATO PAPERS

A Prophesy

By Peter Ackroyd

Doubleday. 173 pp. $21.95

Peter Ackroyd is best known in this country as a biographer, semi-notorious for his gargantuan, 1,200-page life of Charles Dickens and widely acclaimed for a superb recent one of William Blake. Either of these, not to mention similarly accomplished studies of T.S. Eliot and Thomas More, might have taken most scholars -- even a leisured academic with an endowed chair and a light teaching load -- half a lifetime to produce. But Ackroyd, who from his dust jacket photo looks to be in his early fifties, has also managed to write 10 novels, as well as a volume of poetry and another of criticism. Currently, he is at work on a "biography" of London, the rumbustious city that haunts his imagination and serves as the backdrop for much of his work, most outstandingly his sophisticated thrillers Hawksmoor and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (aka Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem). Clearly he knows Britain's capital in all her transformations, from the late Renaissance . . . to the far future.

The very far future, in fact. For The Plato Papers is set in the year A.D. 3700, and deftly manages to meld several genres -- future history, philosophical dialogue, science fiction, admonitory parable, satire -- into one compact, visionary "prophesy." At the heart of the novel lies a familiar sf trope: A future civilization has largely forgotten or utterly misconstrued its own past. Here, as in the locus classicus, Stephen Vincent Benet's "By the Waters of Babylon," some sort of global holocaust has taken place, the survivors have turned against science and technology, and eventually a new culture has arisen. In Ackroyd's vision the tall, willowy Londoners of the 38th century appear to dwell in a sort of Platonic utopia, filled with light, watched over by "angels." His Socrates-like Plato is an orator, who continually speculates about the meaning of the few surviving artifacts from 20th-century London -- a period referred to as the age of Mouldwarp -- and then declaims his conclusions to the populace. He logically deduces, for instance, that an "organ grinder" was some kind of butcher and that On the Origin of Species must have been a comic masterpiece by Charles Dickens.

Throughout, even obvious sources of satire are treated imaginatively. Telepathy, we learn from Plato, was "the suffering caused by `television.' It seems likely that television enlarged the organs of vision beyond their natural range and as a result caused mental distress. Efforts were continually being made to increase human perception by artificial means, without any understanding that . . . the greater the enlargement, in fact, the more obvious the constriction. The practitioners of television received magnified images of their own shrunken sight and lived in perpetual sorrow."

At other times Ackroyd can be more purely comic. With his usual (misplaced) confidence, Plato assumes that Edgar Allan Poe's fiction describes our current American empire "with 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. . . ." These houses "included innumerable staircases and cellars; the passages were lit by candelabra, although it was customary for the owner of the house to carry a flaming torch when walking upstairs. . . The greatest fear of the Americans, however, seems to have been that of premature burial."

Besides giving speeches on the age of Mouldwarp and working on his glossary of ancient terms, Plato also carries on spoken conversations with his soul, which he suspects knows more than a few secrets of the past. Might it, for instance, even be able to tell him how to depict accurately "the despair engendered by the cult of webs and nets which spread among the people in those final years? They seem to have worn these dismal garments as a form of enslavement as well as worship, as if their own darkness might thereby be covered and concealed." The simultaneous rightness and wrongness of this view of the computer age may remind some readers of the great visionary sf novel that employs, even more dizzyingly, this same skewing together of myth and science: Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.

To me the particular stylistic triumph of Ackroyd's book lies in its perfect emulation of the diction found in English versions of Plato's dialogues -- simple, clear and noble, with a philosophic calm suffusing every sentence, as if the speakers were framed against white marble columns with the air perfectly clear and dawn just having broken. Not that there aren't pages of romantic exuberance here, as when Plato describes the birth of the Age of Witspell, that era in which he lives:

"The first evidence of change came when it was reported that a centaur had been seen galloping across the meadows of Greece. This was followed by the news that a phoenix had been observed rising from its ashes somewhere in northern France; it was approximately the size of an eagle, with feathers of purple and gold. When sirens were heard off the coast of Asia Minor, as well as banshee keening outside Dublin, it became clear that the manifold spirits of the earth had crept from their confinement of almost a thousand years. There were stories of elves and kraken, sylphs and valkyries, unicorns and salamanders; the fabric of the old reality had dissolved or, rather, it had become interwoven with so many others that it could only rarely be glimpsed."

Eventually, though, an increasingly doubt-filled Plato travels back in time -- or so he claims, for others judge him delusional -- and briefly wanders through our bustling, time-obsessed world. Unknowingly, we dwell inside a mammoth cavern, its roof being the starry heavens; beyond lies Plato's light-filled city. Or does it? The orator later suspects that his culture and ours might actually be sharing the same geography, each invisible to the other. After his return, Plato starts questioning myriad aspects of his civilization and is eventually accused of troubling the spirit of the city's young people. There is, then, of course, a trial, in which our hero proclaims his right to think for himself, while still averring his religious orthodoxy: "I have never spoken evil of the angels. I have never questioned the sanctity of mazes and mirrors. I have never defied the hierarchy of colours."

As with other poetic fables and visions, The Plato Papers works by tantalizing, rather than asserting. Much is left to the reader's imagination or to shrewd guesswork: What is the meaning of the light that shines out of the bodies of the citizens of the future? Are these strangely tall, white-eyed people living outside of time? Who or what are the angels? And what is the message that Ackroyd intends by calling this a prophesy? At moments his little book seems nothing more abstruse than a defense of free thought, a reminder of the inherent limits of human understanding, and a warning against the worship of technology and the neglect of the earth. That's quite a bit for a novel of less than 200 pages. But it's saying something of Ackroyd's mastery to suspect that he has packed even more into these 55 one- to three-page chapters.

Two things are clear enough, though: However you interpret its meaning, The Plato Papers offers exhilarating, intellectual entertainment. And if you desire an introduction to the work of the multi-talented Peter Ackroyd, it's also a whole lot shorter than his life of Dickens.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.