Book Reviews: Luminarium, Cloud Atlas,The Passage

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LUMINARIUM: There’s nothing like a brain.

Luminarium  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 is the second novel by Alex Shakar. His first novel, THE SAVAGE GIRL, a fantasy about Pop Culture, was a New York Times Notable Book.

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.

Fred, a thirty-something software designer, needs the money. Fred is paying for the hospital care of his identical twin brother and business partner George.

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.

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A book review: Cloud Atlas: Six stories in search of Ovaltine

Spoiler Alert

If you plan on reading the book, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Or see my review of Cloud Atlas, the movie.

Cloud Atlas  The movie, Cloud Atlas is due to be in theaters on October 26, and the trailer looked very interesting, so I decided to read the book and compare it with the movie. The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting. Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century, his inventiveness in terms of language, and detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive. Five stories are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories. After story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order, with story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resuming after six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written ala Herman Melville (the story takes place around 1850) by a thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing. We are introduced to Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. There’s been a shipwreck and along with Ewing, we meet his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). All of this is revealed as Ewing witnesses a Moriori being flogged. When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces. Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium. A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work. Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions. There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one. Three is the only one of the six written in third person. It’s the 1970″s and we know this because Disco music plays. Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable talking. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant–an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island. And so the killing begins. First, Sixsmith, and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her, and we leave the story as her car is plunging off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with a murder. A reviewer who panned a book is thrown off a balcony by the author. Oops, better be careful. Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and when the story breaks, Cavendish, courtesy of his sneaky brother, is trapped in an old folks’ home with a Nurse Ratched running things. This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey, randy reminisces of past romances and Mitchell’s use of a florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world. The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves her on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha and we encounter the first “author’s message,” when a nun explains the meaning of the symbol. Whenever I see an overt message in fiction I always think of Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas, or maybe it was Take the Money and Run, (I’m not sure but I do remember the joke ) where during dialogue the words “author’s message” keep flashing. This was the first story I actually enjoyed, but I noticed elements of other sci fi. The layered corruption and Asian setting evokes Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose brings to mind O’Brien’s speech in 1984. And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!” Before her execution, Somni asks to finish seeing a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a connection imposed on the story, rather than an outgrowth of plot or character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five. As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story and I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish story. The only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music, a device I believe could have been used in the other stories effectively and also, Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Frobisher’s suicide in story two made me shrug because he was so unlikeable. I read part two of story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with the expectation that Mitchell would lock in a piece that would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. I couldn’t find it. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

The last two pages were pure “author’s message” and I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story. It’s 1939’s Middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a b-bee-gun to be under the tree. Ralphie is also a fan of Little Orphan Annie, and he has sent in all the boxtops to get a decoder ring. When it finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message, only accessible to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Then, he locks himself in the bathroom, ignoring the wails of his younger brother who has “to go.” As he huddles in the bathroom, defiant and decoding, the secret message Ralphie discovers is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Disgusted, Ralphie feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.

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THE PASSAGE: Dronely the Lonely

WARNING: BIG SPOILER ALERT–GO NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE PASSAGE.

Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.

passage  The Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. It was published by Random House in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page of acknowledgements where the list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, Ballatine–you get the picture–this guy knows people. A look at his bio gives a hint as to why. He’s written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop –a great place to network I’m sure. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls I think, would agree.

I don’t recommend The Passage. Here’s an overview of the book and as I read the last page, my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall:

The book is 766 pages long. The first 208 pages are really, really good–almost brilliant. The story begins with a five year-old girl (Amy), the child of a friendless single mother who abandons her at a convent. There’s a nun named Lacey, who is a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone. Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.

Then, the narrative jumps to first person in emails where we learn about research going on in the Amazon jungle. They’ve found a batman statue down there. I don’t mean the super hero–this thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved and in a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death (one named Lear is grieving the death of his wife). Several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats; we’re left wondering what the scientists found before they became bat food.

We skip to a secret research facility. The military is busy with Lear’s help, experimenting on a dozen condemned murderers. This segment, with its seeping creeping dreams, experienced by the sex-offender personnel, as they record vitals and clean up the guano of the new “bat men,” who hang upside down in their cells, rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

Two FBI agents recruit the death row inmates and this is where Cronin’s skill really shines. We meet Carter, a bewildered little man who is on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress, a housewife who rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter, recognizing that the man is not a killer. Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best; we see Carter’s enjoyment–amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

Then, Lear wants to test the serum on a child. Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner, are sent out to find one who won’t be missed. Back to Amy. Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. Amy makes the TV news when all the animals freak out and try to follow her. To Lacey, Amy explains cryptically” “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never explained to the reader and it happens way before any of the events that might have led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that it, along with Lacey’s prescience will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolgast tries to rescue Amy but is stopped by trigger-happy government guy Richards, a character who is the poster child for overkill–he kills all the nuns for pete’s sake. The writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. The convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Somehow, Lacey tracks them down (she wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns) and we leave her as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) so that Amy and Wolfgast can get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.

The rest of the book–all 548 pages begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world. It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document–a first person account written by a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Her name was Ida. Think The Stand’s “Mother Abigail.” Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t. The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals and protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying and so in desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl–Amy who, after a hundred years has managed to hit puberty. She can’t talk.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story, which jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative. Not one pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better–to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section. There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries and we finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts–like giant bee colonies and each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the original, then those connected will remember who they are and will hang around until the sun comes up until they burn and then fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very end and what really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved. In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure because Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment then beginning the next segment by informing us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.