Friday, September 7, 2012

Luminarium is Illuminating

LuminariumLuminarium by Alex Shakar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not quite sure where to start with this one. It's not an easy read, but not a difficult one either. I recommend picking this up when you're in a pensive place, when you need a little musing about the meaning of life, but in engrossing novel form, not thick pretentious philosopher form. In fact, that's how I would describe this book in a nutshell: profound but not pretentious. And that, my friends, is a delicate balance to strike; with the (incredible) exception of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I'm not sure I've ever seen it struck so deftly.

Let's get slightly more concrete. Fred has an identical twin brother, George, who is in a coma after a long battle with cancer. Fred, not surprisingly, is having a bit of an existential crisis. [An aside: for me, I think the "not surprisingly" is important, because as incredibly, stupidly famous as Albert Camus and his Stranger are, I never once sympathized with that narrator, and hated every second of being dragged along on his philosophical journey. Fred, on the other hand, is a sad and complex but eminently sympathetic character; throughout the whole book I wanted desperately for him to figure out his life and everything in it. In other words, I rooted for him in a way that cut through, or survived, all the spiritualist questioning.] Rather on a whim, Fred enrolls in a medical study that turns out to be based on the concept that spiritual experiences can be replicated by manipulation/stimulation of certain areas of the brain and the chemicals therein. For example, a sense of connectedness or oneness with others and with nature can be simulated by messing with the part of the brain that defines the edges of the self, the "this is me, that is not me" perception. The goal, in a sense, is to see if the benefits of spirituality (peace, comfort, a sense of purpose) can be attained without the mysticism of religion: a "faith without ignorance," as the tester puts it.

That sounds a little deep and heavy, right? Well, it is, but it's leavened by the backdrop of Frank and George's company, a sort of Second Life-type immersive reality game called Urth. The problem is, Fred sold the company to pay George's medical bills, and now their game is being remade as a virtual training arena for the "military entertainment complex" [which, as another aside, I think is a brilliant phrase, though I don't know if it's original to this book].

Here's the fun part: without any spoilers, some things start happening to Fred that seem (sortof, although it's not really possible -- is it?) like George, still in his coma, might be orchestrating. Which naturally provides a different but still understandable and fascinating path to the pondering of life and the afterlife and the power of... what? The brain? The soul? The ineffable essence of the self?

Things get a lot more ethereal in the last chapter or so; I'm not even going to lie and tell you that I'm exactly sure what the last few sentences mean or where they're supposed to leave me. But by that point I'd gotten enough out of this book that I was content to just let them be; they're words, and they have meaning, even if I don't understand it yet. Is that my very own existential enlightenment?

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1 comment:

Sarah said...

A cursory glance at this review convinced me to pick it up. More comments after I finish reading it later this week!