Jonathan Aprea speaks with author Alex Shakar about science, spirituality, and virtual reality in his forthcoming novel Luminarium.
Reading Alex Shakar’s new novel Luminarium is like running a marathon in a thunderstorm. It reads and flows with a certain exigency that won’t make you want to leave it for too long on your coffee table or on the floor space next to your bed. The novel follows Fred Brounian through various life troubles, girl troubles, technologically mind-blowing neuropsychological studies, and a personal quest to discover nothingness as a sort of self-actualization, all while struggling to keep alive the corporately-taken-over software company founded by he and his now-comatose twin brother. Luminarium is a crashing and rainy light-show that makes us vulnerable and scared, but also invigorated and, dare I say, hopeful.
Alex Shakar was gracious enough to field a few questions I had concerning his new novel.
Jonathan Aprea Technology in Luminarium seems to have two edges. While Sam’s computer program simulation of an attack on the Empire State Building is meant to train security personnel and save lives, at the same time it seems so eerie and invasive and kind of wrong. How do you feel about technology? Do you embrace it or are you more skeptical?
Alex Shakar Well, personally, both. As a storyteller, I find technology is a powerful lens for looking at our strengths and flaws. It amplifies our power, for good and ill alike, makes our decisions that much more consequential. You could say it’s our karma on steroids. With technology in general, and virtual reality in particular, we’re in a sense inhabiting our dreams. As for whether technology will be our heaven or our hell, I know where my money is. But we’re looking at a photo finish for sure.
JA In your book there’s a sense that nothing is sacred, that everything can be explained away with science, and that experience can be replicated outside of reality thanks to technology like Second Life and advancements in neuroscience. But at the same time, Reiki practitioners roam the streets, winning believers left and right. What can you say about this contrast between the desire to explain things with science and the hope for something that works in a way that we can’t explain?
AS We look to life, as to any great work of art, for meaning, and for mystery. I can testify that there’s still no limit to either around here.
JA One of your characters champions the idea of a faith without ignorance, a sort of religion based around the knowledge that religious experience, and for that matter all experience, is dictated by the flow and activity of different neurotransmitters in different parts of our brain. About a year ago, I remember reading a study like the one Fred’s enrolled in and feeling kind of appalled and cheated but also fascinated and hopeful all at the same time. Do you think that this understanding could negate for most people the meaning of spiritual experiences? Does the knowledge ruin the sacredness?
AS This was certainly my question, in terms of how it would turn out for my protagonist, Fred. And at the outset, to be sure, it was a question for me personally as well. Without going into Fred’s strange journey (just my own), I’ve come to find both the dogma of the “new atheists” and that of the old fundamentalists to be overly literal, full of unexamined presuppositions, just plain obtuse. And I don’t mean to imply either the superiority of some mushy middle ground. What I’m suggesting is that there may be a bigger picture, a deeper view, in which science and spirituality both have a role.
JA Self-help books show up a lot in Luminarium. Fred’s always taking one off the shelf of his mom’s collection to leaf through, and the tapes he’s told to listen to for the experiment he’s enrolled in read a bit like self-help as well. What do you think about your book’s role as a self-help book, or fiction in general as a form of self-help?
AS The worst thing literature, self-help or otherwise, can do is give easy answers. Good literature complicates, reframes, takes the unexamined easy answers and annihilates them. What’s left is a clearer picture of the world, and of the self itself. But even that’s a bit of an easy answer. It’s not just about demythologizing. Better myths can help us too!
JA The concept of entertainment seems to hold a certain degree of importance in Luminarium, between Vartan’s acting, Manny’s films and even Fred’s magic tricks. When it comes down to it, Fred and George were trying to be entertainers with their computer programming, trying to create a product that would entertain, and through entertaining kind of improve the outlook and lives of the player. Do you think that entertainment has the capability to improve people or are we all just doomed to get caught up getting our Sims characters to make out with each other and watching things blow up at the movies?
AS It was interesting to me how the term the characters use in the novel, “military entertainment,” evolves and takes on new meanings over the course of the story. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop playing long enough to see how the games are playing us. How we ourselves are the game. At which point, maybe we can find a whole new way to play.
JA In the book, Fred’s brother Sam takes a rather grim outlook after the September 11th attacks when he asserts, kind of bluntly, that all cities are doomed. Some might think that, at least on some level, he’s got a point. What do you think it is that keeps drawing people to the city to live and build despite these feelings?
AS The short answer is each other. Also, I think, the beauty of cities themselves. A city is a self-catalyzing complex system, a kind of organism in its own right. We’re part of their evolution—cities—as they’re a part of ours. Of course, we could be part of each other’s extinction, too.
JA The doctrine and teachings of Hinduism are strongly intertwined with the plot of Luminarium. What originally drew you to these teachings?
AS I was reading a lot about various religions and mystics; then, eventually, practicing Zen meditation and Sivananda yoga. At some point, the word avatar itself led me (as it did James Cameron, at least slightly) to Hindu cosmology. Many things in it fascinated me, including the story of the avataras of Vishnu: how the first was a fish, the second a tortoise, how they gradually manifested in human form, seeming to prefigure of the story of evolution. And how the ninth avatara was Buddha and tenth and last is yet to come, and will fight a demon to awaken humanity into a new phase of its existence. It’s a gripping tale.
JA In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is pretty high at the top and arguably not all that easy for your everyday Fred Brounian to attain. Why did you think it was important for him to try for this sort of thing? Is it something we should all be trying for?
AS For Fred, the crises in his life reached a certain pitch where he had to start looking. And once he started, he couldn’t let go. It’s an interesting word, actualization (let alone self!). Aren’t we already actual? In what ways aren’t we? What would it mean—really mean—to get real?