- Alex Shakar
- Soho Press
Luminarium’s most impressive aspect is that it always seems to be grounded. It’s about the possibility of life after death, spiritualism through technology, Lord Of The Rings, 9/11, and the societal potential of videogames, and yet it mostly doesn’t feel like it’s overreaching. It’s a neat trick, for most of the book’s length, but it demands an ending that ties everything together.
Luminarium’s point of view character is Fred Brounier, a once-successful dot-com entrepreneur, now broken by corporate takeovers and his brother’s cancer, coma, and bills. His interest is piqued by a neurological study promising to pay as well as expand his spiritual side, and his crush on Mira, the woman administering the study, doesn’t hurt either. The study description, to Fred’s skeptical surprise, proves accurate—they manage to successfully induce religious experiences.
The mechanism seems straightforward, even plausible, as Mira explains it. Experimental subjects wear a helmet through which electric shocks stimulate the portions of the brain which lead to religious experiences: the loss of self, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and more. Luminarium seems most comparable to Connie Willis’ Passage, another book that falls afoul of the problems of such a compelling premise: Once the technology is established, explanations are necessary, and they’re almost certainly going to be unfulfilling.
The videogame aspect of the story adds a fascinating parallel to the religious experiences: Fred and his brothers initially started a game company to create a Second Life-like world, but what they call the “military-entertainment” complex rapidly co-opted it into a first-person shooter, then into a disaster simulation. The game’s technology seems far in advance of the book’s 2006 setting, but it’s an intriguing parallel to the idea of out-of-body experiences. To Luminarium’s credit, it lets those parallels and the different meanings of the word “avatar” co-exist implicitly, without turning the novel into propaganda for the healing power of videogames.
And yet Luminarium is always about Fred’s reaction to events, and the book manages to convey his mental state at a crucial juncture—he’s a desperate man, driven to his breaking point over the course of the novel. It all makes sense, even Fred’s grasping for human contact, spiritual enlightenment, and technological answers. That understanding keeps Luminarium together, in spite of ambitions that could destroy a less self-assured novel.