Just a few day’s ago Christopher Moore sent me a short note asking if I would like to read his new novel King Abba. Although I do not know Christopher in person, we have been corresponding for a long while now, since Christopher as well as being a poet and a writer is the editor of Henri Bortoft’s latest book Taking Appearance Seriously, which I both reviewed and wrote one of the testimonys which appear on the back cover.
Indeed, as Christopher writes on his blog, the phenomenological and hermeneutical philosophy of Henri, and his teachings on Goethe’s way of science “were all fertile ground for my approach to the writing of King Abba. In particular, I was interested in creative ways of perception, the struggle against ossified mindset, and a direct path to knowledge through experiential and sensory involvement in what we observe.”
(To be honest I had to look up the word ossify – it means to become rigid or stagnant)
I can’t remember the last time I read a work of fiction, since as I have so many non-fiction books to read I do not really have the time. But given the philosophical nature of this book, and how it is aimed at an intelligent and curious teen audience, I was delighted to be offered the chance to read this work which as Henri himself said is “beautifully written and a joy to read.”
The story is set in the future, a future in which since the year 2022 Europe has been ruled by a single party, the Rational and Scientific Party. It is a strange society indeed, where this party decided to create a virtual monarchy, a real family living in a virtual world based on the eighteenth century, with the King and Queen’s five children being brought up in seclusion from the real world.
Although it took me a little while to try and figure out what was happening, this strange scenario is quite ingenious. The Rational and Scientific Party decided that debate was no longer necessary, since all answers to any problem could be found scientifically, thus avoiding any kind of inefficiencies suffered in previous ages and societies. As one teacher tells Fion, a son of the King:
We learn, Fion, first by observing and then reasoning, not by idle mental excursions into speculative realms. Knowledge is what our minds apprehend through our senses and accommodate into our patterns of rational thought.
The plot gently unfolds as we begin to get to know the King’s five children and their different personalities, their quirky ways and their sensing that something is not quite right with this insistence on what is knowledge and how we know the world. The King himself is enigmatic, and we get a sense of his being not only an alchemist perhaps, but a deep mystic, who has to keep his knowledge of the ancient ways to himself for fear of being found out.
The Scientific and Rational party have not though fully triumphed in their desire for full control over the populace, with a rebel group of Heretics refusing to submit to the new regime. The King gets wind of a plot to overthrow him, resulting on his need to protect his children and send them off into the real world.
Although in theory written for a teen audience, I found many layers of King Abba that really took me on speculative rides of imagination and contemplation. The virtual/ real world distinction works brilliantly on a number of levels, since although in theory it is used in the book to discuss the different ways of knowing the world, it highlights a gap in our present society, where it could be argued that our politicians and unelected political class with heir various societies, think tanks, organisations and institutions do in fact utterly ignore any kind of scientific reasoning and work purely for hidden agendas and self-interest, how ever insane or irrational their policies may be to any half-intelligent person.
Also, it seems to me that we do have now, in this here and now, a virtual monarchy of sorts. By this I mean that there are many different ways of seeing, and it seems to me that our monarchy are in fact living in a very different reality to me, with a totally different set of values and worldview, without the aid of a hugely complex machine to create the palace and grounds around them.
As well as a flowing plot that starts off as a gentle brook but gathers pace to rushing rapids, the chapters are littered with thought-provoking dialogue throughout. We are asked to consider what kind of reality we ourselves are living in, and what relationship our own mental models of the world we have and how much of connection we have to the sensorous world of nature, with its livingness, a quality of reality which the King’s children can sense is missing, despite the genius of the creation of the virtual world.
The prose is poetic, never heavy, and the plot constructed to continually arouse one’s curiosity as to what will happen next in the adventure of the characters’ lives. It can certainly withstand very favourably next to Sophie’s World, while also being distinctly different in flavour, and I certainly hope it gains the recognition it strongly deserves.