Slick thinking

The history of philosophy is made vividly accessible in a new CD-Rom of the best-seller 'Sophie's World'.
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Sophie's World is arguably the book-publishing sensation of the decade. It has been on best-seller lists around the globe for four years, has been translated into 42 languages and has sold close to 12 million copies. That is a remarkable achievement for any book, but more so for Sophie's World because it is about philosophy, not known for popular appeal.

In the book, the reader follows in the footsteps of Sophie, a 14-year- old Norwegian, as she learns about philosophy, assisted by her teacher, Albert. Sophie's progresses through history from ancient mythology through Plato, Aristotle, the Renaissance, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Marx and beyond. She and Albert become embroiled in a plot involving a mysterious Major and his daughter, Hilde, which turns out itself to be a philosophical conundrum.

Now Macmillan Interactive Publishing is to launch a multimedia version of Sophie's World which mirrors the aims and structures of the book while adding some new elements suited to the technology. The CD-Rom captures the essence of the book by using different virtual environments as backdrops against which to convey the philosophy itself. Each environment offers its own combination of information, philosophical views from a particular time-frame and games or "mindbenders" which have to be completed before you can move on, thus tying the user into a historical framework in the same way as the book's chapters.

Philosophy is, of course, a vast area. It is kept manageable by the use of Big Questions which concentrate the mind at each virtual environment. So, when you enter ancient Greece you find out what philosophers including Socrates and Plato had to say about Big Questions like "what is the world made of?" and "how can we find true knowledge?"

Alongside the purely historical material and linear approach Macmillan has included an encyclopaedia into which you can dip at any time to check on a particular individual or a broad theory. That stands up well as a reference tool in its own right. The texts are accessible, and make even the most convoluted and complex writers relatively easy to understand. The personality-based information is enhanced by features like a "timeline" that groups schools of thought together and indicates which ideas exerted influences over each other and which were rejected by later thinkers.

Sophie's World is a stylish product. Visually pleasing, it mixes different media and presentational styles well. Little by way of continuity is offered between different virtual environments but that hardly matters as each is merely a vehicle for the transmission of ideas.

Progress through the CD is often achieved less by predetermined strategy than by simply clicking on something to see what happens next. That is remarkably liberating, and the feeling that you are not quite sure what you are supposed to be doing somehow adds to rather than detracts from the experience. In avoiding a simple book-to-CD conversion, Macmillan has come up with what is in essence a new product capable of engaging newcomers and Sophie's World aficionados aliken

Sophie's World, pounds 39.99, will be available from 16 May (Macmillan Interactive Publishing, 0345 697 008).