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À mon chevet: Luka and the Fire of Life

book cover
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
Fortunately for Luka, he lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships, and been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, burning, twisting, bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster's castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog and a street fighter and a rock star, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red and black face leapt around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head. Like everyone he knew, he had joined imaginary continuities in cyberspace, electro-clubs in which he adopted the identity of, for example, an Intergalactic Penguin named after a member of the Beatles, or, later, a completely invented flying being whose height, hair color, and even sex were his to choose and alter as he pleased.

Like everyone he knew, Luka possessed a wide assortment of pocket-sized alternate-reality boxes, and spent much of his spare time leaving his own world to enter the rich, colorful, musical, challenging universes inside these boxes, universes in which death was temporary (until you made too many mistakes and it became permanent) and a life was a thing you could win, or save up for, or just be miraculously granted because you happened to bump your head into the right brick, or eat the right mushroom, or pass through the right magic waterfall, and you could store up as many lives as your skill and good fortune could get you. In Luka's room, near a small television set stood his most precious possession, the most magical box of all, the one offering the richest, most complex journeys into other-space and different-time, into the zone of multi-life and temporary death: his new MUU. And just as Luka in the school playground had been transformed into the mighty General Luka, vanquisher of the Imperial Highness Army, commander of the dreaded LAF, or Luka Air Force, of paper planes bearing itching-powder bombs, so Luka, when he stepped away from the world of mathematics and chemistry and into the Zone of MUU, felt at home, at home in a completely different way than the way in which he felt at home in his home, but at home nevertheless; and he became, at least in his own mind, Super-Luka, Grandmaster of the Games.

-- Salman Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life, pp. 13-15
This is how Rushdie introduces the concept of his new novel, written for the 13th birthday of his younger son, Milan. It is in many ways a standard child's adventure kind of book, in which the young hero, attempting to save his ailing father, is confronted by characters who are derived from his own parents and others he knows, with Rushdie's native India as the background. The brilliant part is that Luka's adventure unfolds like one of his beloved video games, a cyber-fantasy that is at once impossible and disturbingly real. If you missed Nicholson Baker's absorbing piece in The New Yorker on how big a market video games have -- and how big a stake these games play in the lives of young people -- Rushdie's book is another reminder. We live in an age where my art history students are excited to learn about the Pantheon and other historical sites in Rome and Florence because they feature in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, or that my Humanities students, reading Dante's Inferno with me for the first time, excitedly tell me what they know about Dante from the video game version of Dante's Inferno. This is not a judgment on my part about the value of video games, which can be really fun to play: in fact, any reason that students are excited about ancient architecture or medieval Italian poetry is good enough for me.

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