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This novel explores the meaning of history and the role of scepticism in building historical knowledge. Set over a thousand years in the future in the ‘ideal republic’ of London, a timeless city of made of light, Plato is an ‘orator’ (which includes being a speaker, a teacher, a lexicographer and a compiler of historical documents) whose key job is to reconstruct the past through reasoned inferences based on physical relics or ‘scraps and fragments’ unearthed in the city. The narratives Plato builds of past civilisations do not, however, always please him or the ‘Guardians’ of the city: while Plato doubts the truth of his historical storytelling, the Guardians fear that he’s corrupting the minds of the young with his outlandish tales.
There is especially one tale which threatens to disrupt the harmony of the City: Plato’s story of a journey he took into an underground cave which exists simultaneously to that of the world of light above. Plato relates how he discovered a realm of dark shadows which appear to live their lives out from birth to death without question. The experience makes Plato question the nature of reality: is the true reality the material world of the shadows in the cave, or the eternal world of light above?
The novel explores the paradox at the heart of this question – there’s an element of Alice through the Looking Glass in its reversal of Plato’s well known allegory of the cave. In a further reversal of the death of Socrates, the novel's Plato is judged to be not guilty of corrupting the youth, because he's such a dreamer and fantasist. Plato, however, passes judgement on himself. True to the real Plato's ideas in the Republic, the novel's Plato insists that as a dreamer, he should (like Plato's artists) be banished from the city limits forever...