LUMINARIUM: There’s nothing like a brain.
In commenting on the solar system family photo taken by Voyager 1, Carl Sagan referred to the “blue dot” as home to every human who has ever lived. Now, we’re looking at potential lots on Mars, and using real cash for virtual reality property. LUMINARIUM explores computer generated virtual reality as well as the different realities created by the brain itself.
LUMINARIUM begins in the New York of August 2006. Protagonist Fred Brounian sits in a black vinyl recliner as someone attaches wires to a helmet that he’s wearing. Fred is a paid lab rat, part of an experiment by neuro-scientists at NYU. Several sessions have him wearing the helmet. Each session will stimulate a different part of his brain. The aim, the attractive researcher explains, is for Fred to experience an after-death “Rapture,” without the death part. The goal is to induce the “God” experience, freeing the subject from the “ignorance” of faith.
George, whose cancer has nearly consumed him, has been in a coma for months. George and Fred were CEO partners of a software company whose virtual reality program “Urth” “an anime style world of pastoral villages and underwater bubble towns…” should have made them rich. A “best laid plan,” it falls apart when 911 happens. Slick operators steal the company. Quirky little Urth belongs to Armation, a military enterprise in Florida, where “a ready pool of Disney Imagineers, Pixar animators, and Electronic Arts programmers” convert Urth into a military simulations program. George wanted to start over and create a game of “spiritual evolution.” Fred accused him of thinking “reality was up for grabs.”
Sam, George and Fred’s younger brother, is an executive in the new Armation order, and is helping the move to Florida. Sam suggested that Urth software would be useful in simulating urban disaster search and rescue. Sam’s need for control is right out of the Steve Jobs playbook. His social skills make Jobs look like Bill Clinton.
There have been glitches in the new search and rescue program, and a suggestion of sabotage. Fred is the most likely suspect. He and George saw their company stolen and their work compromised. There were hard feelings, but Fred needs his old job back. Fred’s first lab rat session results in a hyper-awareness that causes him to shadow an old woman in pin-curls, who meanders into a store and shoplifts. This results in his arrest for shoplifting tweezers. That’s right, tweezers. In addition, Fred receives emails from comatose George, a situation that threatens his already tentative hold on reality. As Fred struggles to regain stability in his life, the disorientation caused by the lab experiments, and more messages from George, result in him questioning his sanity. He wonders if someone is playing a cruel joke.
Fred is surrounded by illusion and mysticism. His father is an actor and magician. Fred’s mother practices Reiki, a Japanese brand of energy healing. Mom believes that George emanates a healing energy from his hospital bed. As Fred tries to make sense of his expanded senses, the product, we assume, of the lab experiments, we, along with Fred, have difficulty sorting out reality. Shakar’s use of stream-of-consciousness in these sequences reminded me of the movie Altered States with a swirl (the old woman’s pin curls, “this infinite pinwheel of shit,” “The spiral had twisted shut again…”) of the senses that blurs the lines between different realities.
The cryptic emails from George contain the word “avatara.” Researching Hinduism, Fred discovers identical twin avataras, Nara and Narayana, who represent the human and the divine. The concept of “duality” is used throughout the novel. Fred clings to his identical twin. He reads stories to George about simultaneous twin occurrences, which “according to Carl Jung are …the dual manifestation of a single collective unconscious.” Fred questions how to “stand the two-sided coin on edge“– experiencing the divine, the supernatural, never able to verify. Is existence the result of some cosmic plan or is everything random?
Under all of this searching for alternate realities and the exploration of religions is the fear of death. Calendar pages mark dates leading to the fifth anniversary of the loss of the Trade Center Twin Towers. The enormity of this event permeates LUMINARIUM. Fred contemplates death, but can’t imagine not being somewhere. New York copes, but is forever changed. Fred faces a future where he is no longer a twin.
Creating different realities is a way of coming to terms with death. Besides the programs of various virtual worlds, Shakar takes us to a Florida mini-golf course , which is a virtual world modeled on pre-911 New York. Armation Florida employees live in the planned community “Celebration,” designed for controlled reality. Pre-fab reality is predictable and as safe as the womb. Sam yearns for it; Fred is both attracted and repelled.
George coins the word “holomelancholia…the inevitable disappointment of virtual worlds.” This concept fascinates me. I wrote my second book (currently in revisions) in response to Kurzweil’s prediction of the utopias that await us via mind-uploading. In Bali Hai, the “post-biological destination” setting of my novel Babylon Dreams, everything is perfect but the past. Through mind-uploading, we can escape death, but we can’t escape ourselves. Our bodies wear out, but can the human spirit live on indefinitely? One thing that makes life worth living is the luck of the draw, the chance that dreams can be realized or taken away. As Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis (see my August 27, 2012 film review) does, I think eventually, we would all choose the “void.”
In his letter to readers, Shakar puts it this way: “How do we deal with a changed world, with a universe that one day seemed with us and the next seems to turn against us and oppose us at every turn?”
LUMINARIUM is the third literary novel that I have reviewed at length on this blog. It is the first that I totally recommend. The stream of consciousness style is dense. The long paragraphs were a challenge to my short-attention span, but I kept on reading. There were a few places where I felt he was doing a research paper rather than telling a story, but not too many to lose my interest in what happens to Fred. In his comments on LUMINARIUM in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (September 2, 2011), Christopher R. Beha comments, “This premise, however ingenious, might have yielded a schematic novel of ideas, if Shakar weren’t so committed to showing his readers a good time.” I feel that Shakar’s respect for his readers is reflected in this commitment to “show us a good time.” Shakar gives us a complete, heartfelt story. Telling a story well and entertaining readers should not be limited to genre writers. Along the way, Shakar looks for answers, but doesn’t claim success.
If mind-uploading happens before I face whatever waits on the other side of that coin, I would like to float around in a place like Shakar’s “Urth,” especially in one of those underwater bubble towns. Maybe I’ll find Ringo’s Octopus’ Garden.
BIG SPOILER ALERT
CHRONICLE is a 2011 movie that I rented from Blockbuster. Sorry Netflix. I love sci fi and the trailer looked interesting, so I ditched you. CHRONICLE uses the “found footage” device and in the case of CHRONICLE, it detracted more than added. Horror films like BLAIR WITCH and the PARANORMAL series have used this device very effectively. Ghosts and the unseen are even scarier when they pop up on a home movie.
The first “found footage” sci fi movie I saw was 2008′s CLOVERFIELD, a film that used the device very well. What I really found effective in CLOVERFIELD was the “you are there” bewilderment and disorientation of the characters. This was a pure third person narrative–we knew only what the characters did. We’re in the middle of New York City at a millennial generation going away party. There’s a lovers quarrel brewing when suddenly, all that angst comes to an abrupt stop. The city is being attacked by aliens that range from Godzilla-like tall as sky-scraper monsters to three foot icky skittery spider things. Because we already know something about the characters, we identify and as they find out bits and pieces of what threatens to turn them into bits and pieces, so do we.
CHRONICLE was directed by first time director, Joshua Crank. The story involves three teenaged boys, all high school seniors. They discover and explore a deep hole in the ground–the result of a large meteor. Everything about this crater screams Invaders from Mars–lots of glowy rocks and strange beeps. Andrew (Dane DeHaan of HBO’s In Treatment) is the geek of the group. Andrew’s mother is dying and his “on disability” ex-fireman dad takes it out on Andrew. Not surprisingly, Andrew is a virgin. Andrew’s good-looking cousin, Rick (Michael Kelly) is the popular kid and our surrogate. And then there’s Rick’s friend Steve (Red Tails‘ Michael B. Jordan) the wealthy, charismatic high school jock, who tolerates Andrew because he’s Rick’s cousin. Exposure to the crash site results in some interesting and disturbing side affects. All three develop telekinetic (they can move things using their minds) powers, as well as the ability to fly. They also have nose-bleeds and can communicate somewhat, telepathically. Being teenagers, it never occurs to them that they should let someone know about the truly weird changes and so they play around, cracking each other up, using their new-found powers to play super-catch and to pull pranks. Of course, nothing this cool is free. Andrew’s rapidly collapsing world includes a dying mother, an abusive father and total humiliation when he barfs on a girl just as he’s transitioning from virgin to man of the world. When his bedridden mother writhes in pain and there is no money for pain medicine, Andrew whigs out big-time.
The presence of a camera, in Andrew’s hands, Rick’s would-be girlfriend’s hands and various security videos rarely adds anything. It’s a device and we are aware of it. The only time it worked for me was during the flying sequences which put you up there with the giddy boys, who soar a mile or so off the ground as they toss the football to each other. That was exhilarating–and for me, also frightening; I have issues with heights. Predictably, Andrew’s powers, I assume, because they are enhanced by all that anger and libido, mushroom and at last, express themselves Carrie style. No prom? No problem! Along with all those high school meanies and his nasty dad, Andrew decides to take out the whole town. Poor Rick (Steve dies trying to do an intervention as Andrew floats in a swirl of storm clouds) has to put Andrew down. After neutralizing his cousin, a sorrowful Rick flies away, ala Superman, until the sequel.
I RECOMMEND CHRONICLE
There is some nice work in this film. Despite the Carrie-esque formula and the awkwardness of the “found footage,” the actors, especially DeHaan, are appealing and first time director Crank shows a real flair for working with them. The playfulness of the scenes where the boys explore their new powers is fun and has a freshness to it. If there is a sequel, I hope the footage isn’t “found,” unless it’s floating up there somewhere in the clouds.
I read this book years ago (in the early 80′s I think). It was my first post-apocalyptic novel and there are pieces of it I still remember. When something kills most of the people in the world, Stewart takes us into middle America. A dog named Bridget (I think), an Irish Setter, sits and waits for her people to come home. Bridget’s bewilderment and her mourning is what I remember. The protagonist is a teen-aged boy who struggles to survive. Along the way he meets a housewife in her 30′s, and she eventually becomes his wife. She’s lost her husband and children and there’s something she’s hiding–a secret that illustrates how the world has changed since 1949 when Stewart wrote “Earth Abides.” Earth Abides ends on a positive note with humanity not quite back to square one. If you like “everyone dies-but-us” books and you’re sick of flesh-eating zombies and vampires, I recommend it.
This is one of the most chilling books I have ever read because there is no escape and even Winston’s dreams of the “Golden Country” are finally lost to him as Big Brother invades the last sanctuary–his mind and his soul.
I watched this movie on DVD rather than in the theater so perhaps that’s why I feel a tad more charitable than the critics. Rather than experimenting with genre like “The Cabin in the Woods,” an experiment that fizzled, stinking up the lab, “The Darkest Hour,” a joint Russian/American production directed by Chris Gorak and starring Emile Hirsch, is a paint-by-numbers alien invasion film. Rather than the US, the invasion is shown from the Russian side of things and we follow the imperiled twenty-something Americans who number among a handful of survivors after Earth is invaded by balls of light that chase people down and shred them into pixie dust (check out Night of the Comet–a much better film with red-pixie dust former people and zombie department store stock boy geeks). As they run from building to building, hiding from the x-ray vision of the light balls, the Americans (okay there’s also one Australian and a double-dealing Swede) luckily encounter English speaking Russians. It makes you wonder if a few more education dollars ought to be devoted to us learning more than one language. When they encounter an old lady who shouts in Russian and tells them they’re all going to die, I was surprised to recognize a couple of words from those long ago two years of high school Russian. However, too much science knowledge would probably get in the way when they make it to the American embassy and discover a recorded message sitting in a birdcage. Yes I said a birdcage. The message is “There’s a Russian sub coming up the river in a few hours. Get there or be left behind.” Next they meet an old man named Sergei who is a plumber. Sergei has put together what looks like a paintball gun, but instead of paint, it shoots microwaves. The light balls don’t like microwaves. This totally went over my head, but . . . okay. Being from the Russian point of view led to some great early scenes in Moscow, portrayed as an ultra-modern city with great nightclubs. Like here in Los Angeles, you have to look camera-ready to get in. The Russian perspective led to lines like “Eat this Russian bullet” and “I’ll stay here (a good guy Russian cop); I have all of Moscow at my back.” Russian exceptionalism. All in all–mildly entertaining.
Firelight is a very sexy movie. A total chick flick. Sophie Marceau plays an impoverished young woman of the early 19th century who gives birth to the child of a wealthy man whose wife is in a very convenient coma. She takes the money; he takes the child and she regrets the deal. She’s luminous and Stephen Dillane is oh so English as we wait for him to succumb to her charms.
I recommend Demon Knight: Tales From the Crypt
Now on to Demon Knight. This 1995 release was connected to TV‘s Tales From the Crypt. It stars Billy Zane, William Sadler and Jada Pinkett with CCH Pounder and Thomas Hayden Church. The director, Ernest R. Dickerson has directed episodes of The Walking Dead and Treme as well as other high profile TV offerings. I had seen Demon Knight several years ago and what stuck with me was how much I enjoyed Billy Zane’s performance. So last night, I decided to take another look. Zane plays a demon and this little devil really enjoys his work. Zane, like Routh, has a handsome face, but he hasn’t let it slow him down. His performance is Demon Knight puts his melodrama-villain turn in Titanic to shame. If the Zane of Demon Knight were on that boat, Rose wouldn’t have given Jack the time of day. This film was a spin off of the TV series, Tales From the Crypt, and the series was inspired by those comics–the lurid, wild-eyed, bloody, bony stories we loved even though reading them let to many a night light. Demon’s story is simple. A man with a secret hides out at a hotel out in the middle of nowhere. He’s being chased by a demon who wants something the man carries with him. It’s one of seven keys and if the demon gets it, there’s lights out for all mankind and we’d better get used to a lot of slime and cackling. The man and the hotel’s few occupants are under siege as Zane and his army of zany demons, try to get that key. Each guest is tempted to hand it over. Among the group, there’s plucky little Jada Pinkett’s character, a convict on work release, CCH Pounder as the cynical hotel manager, Thomas Hayden Church’s sexy lout and William Sadler, an actor who usually plays a villain as the mysterious, weary guest.
Like a comic book, Demon Knight is in vivid primary colors. Dickerson trusts his actors to breathe life into the narrative and with a cast like this, you can’t go wrong. Even so, Zane is a stand-out. His career doesn’t reflect his gifts–I think because he’s a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man. He shows us the sexy allure of evil, how it dazzles and obscures the facts, and the lies, which he gleefully admits. If for no other reason than Zane’s performance, take a look at Demon Knight. It’s on Netflix. On a Saturday night, a friend or two, a bowl of popcorn and Demon Knight, you could do worse.
A movie review: TRUST is not for the faint of heart
TRUST, a 2011 film, directed by David Schwimmer, and starring Clive Owen, Catherine Keener and talented fifteen year-old newcomer Liana Liberato, is a movie that totally unnerved me. Critics who don’t like the film criticize the melodramatic nature of Owens’ performance. Those who like the film say it’s Owens’ best work. I tend to agree with the excellence of Owens’ performance, though I didn’t totally buy the way his role was written.
Either way, for me they totally miss why this film is so powerful. It’s the detailed step-by-step seduction of a child by an online predator that will stay with me for quite a while. The story begins with fourteen-year-old high school freshman, Annie, who, as most teens do, spends a lot of time online, especially now that she has her new Mac laptop–a birthday gift from her loving and totally together parents (Owens and Keener). Annie knows about predators, blocking “Big Mike” when he intrudes in the chat room with a salacious comment. Then “Charlie” approaches Annie (Liberato), joining the other “friends” who offer encouragement to Annie before a big volleyball team tryout. “Charlie” is fifteen and his friendly puppy icon pops up periodically with cheery hello’s. Soon, his insightful pep talks and compliments result in Charlie becoming Annie’s confidante and best friend.
The scary part of this process is how easy it is to gain the trust of a child online. As Annie reads his lies, we do too. Charlie asks for pictures of Annie and sends his pictures. Annie is thrilled to see Charlie is a cute fifteen-year old who tells her all about his folks and his big brother. Annie is alarmed when Charlie sends new photos–he’s older in them and confesses to being 18 and in college. Then he sends pictures of a handsome young athlete, revising his age to 25. Annie is hesitant but smitten. After weeks of late night chats and phone calls, she agrees to meet him at the mall and is startled to see Charlie is middle-aged. Charlie is smooth and it’s oh so easy for Annie to feel comfortable. He’s someone who understands and thinks she’s special. He takes her to a motel. All the time I’m cringing. That’s what unnerved me–just how easy it is–even when a child is aware of predators–even when a child is loved. The rest of the film of course is what happens to Annie and her parents after this devastating event. The psychiatrist (Oscar nominee Viola Davis) helps Annie and her parents cope with what cannot be changed.
The film has no easy answers and it’s difficult to watch. If you are a parent, or someone who loves a child, I recommend you check it out. We do discover why Charlie the predator knows just what to say. It might help to know more about how a “Charlie” plays the game. Then we can make sure that he does not pass “go”, but instead, goes directly to jail.
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