Twenty-one years have passed since the Ayatollah Khomeini offered his bounty on Salman Rushdie, and twenty have passed since the publication of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s sly and writerly riposte to that deafening voice of silence. I point this out not only to get the subject of the fatwa out of the way, but because for once it is a relevant topic. Khomeini cast a shadow across every facet of Rushdie’s life during the writing of Haroun. Accordingly, Khomeini’s literary doppelganger Khattam-Shud, who separates from his shadow in order to wreak mayhem in absentia, was the driving machinery of Haroun’s quest to restore his father’s storytelling ability.
The follow-up, Luka and the Fire of Life, lacks such an immediate cause (outside of his second son also wanting a book he could read—Haroun was written for Rushdie’s older son Zafar). Credit goes to Rushdie, then, for turning the passage of time, including the unusually long spell between the two books, into the guiding force of Luka’s story. The world is fundamentally the same—religious terrorism if anything is more potent than it was before—but advances in technology have made it much more complicated, with people communicating, reading, entertaining ourselves, and waging war in ways barely conceivable in 1990. It is this new reality and its implications for storytelling, particularly with videogames, which Luka explores, though not nearly deeply enough.
Following sequel convention, Luka raises the stakes of its predecessor. While Haroun needed only to restore the storytelling abilities of the titular character’s father Rashid Khalifa, Luka must save his father’s life as well as imagination itself. After Rashid falls into a deep sleep Luka—his second son who seemingly turned back Time by being born—is approached by a translucent Rashid lookalike, Nobodaddy, who starts him on a journey to steal the legendary Fire of Life from the Mountain of Knowledge. He does this with the help of his pets, a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog, and many more allies to come.
The format is similar to Haroun, with a Wizard of Oz-like quality that overlays fantasy onto the world of its protagonist. The difference is in the issues it goes after. The threat to free speech, a subject central to Haroun, is here but an episode in the larger narrative. This is fitting; no longer a does single mad mullah attempt to control the conversation, but a proliferation of smaller, if no less potent, agitators, here represented in the Respectorate of I, populated by a multitude of rats, demanding adherence to ideas most ludicrous:
Do you believe two and two make five?
Do you believe the world is flat?
Do you know our Bossss is the Biggest Cheese alive?
Do you Ressspect the Rat?
O do you Ressspect the Rat?
The rat comparison is discomfiting, but only an axe-grinder would try to argue Rushdie is tarring Muslims. He is no demagogue, merely an iconoclast, as evidenced by his obvious admiration for the enemy of the Respectorate, the Insultina of Ott, and her army of ‘Otters’:
[T]hey are without question the rudest creatures in the world. But it’s an equal-opportunity impoliteness, the Otters all lay into one another without discrimination, and as a result they have all grown so thick-skinned that nobody minds what anyone else says. It’s a funny place, everyone laughs all the time while they call one another the worst things in the world.
Indeed, Rushdie would never deign to impose restrictions on imagination, for it would impoverish his Magic World, itself a creative cornucopia. The territories of the Badly Behaved Gods is the obvious example. A proliferation of dead deities across cultures and history, its inhabitants were once celebrated and homaged and now are reduced to “pretending they are still divine, playing all their old games, fighting their ancient wars over and over again, and trying to forget that nobody really cares about them these days, or even remembers their names.” Rushdie remembers, or at least Googles. The outright listing he occasionally lapses into—a whole page is devoted to various wind gods, for instance, before Luka himself objects to its (wait for it!) long-windedness—is exhaustive, and exhausting, but given the context of a Magic World it makes sense.
This inclusiveness leads to one of the key themes of the book, the increasing complexity and cultural heft of videogames. That this is one of the greatest transformations the world has seen in the past two decades, is noted early on:
[Luka] 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 had been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, 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 kept around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.
Luka’s adventure has all the tropes of a game. He dies often but has a number of extra lives, ludicrously stretched to 999 at the beginning. At each major juncture he has to hit save points, and he squares off against a variety of ‘level bosses’ of increasing challenge. The scope of the Magic World and the “this has never been done before” aspect of Luka’s quest for the Fire of Life is the stuff of many an RPG.
By using videogames to form the narrative architecture of his story about stories, Rushdie grants them a legitimacy many other cultural critics deny. “No no, [it’s] never just a game. It’s a matter of life and death,” a character chides. Later on the narrator notes that “all of this never happened, except, of course, that it did.” These are echoes of a speech Nobodaddy gives early on:
Just a story?....Only a tale? My ears must be deceiving me. Surely, young whippersnapper, you can’t have made so foolish a remark. After all, you yourself are a little Drip from the Ocean of Notions, a short Blurt from the Shah of Blah. You of all boys should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood.
High praise, but Rushdie only takes his framing device so far. Games are defined by their rules, which here are ill-defined. Problems are solved as soon as the solution (Itching powder! Three more dragons!) is presented, often by the Insultina, whose powers are apparently limitless. She rides Solomon’s magic carpet, which allows Luka to “skip four levels,” leaving us to only glimpse at some potentially fascinating locales (The Undiscovered Country, the Land Where Nobody Lives), prompting Luka to remark, “I wish I wasn’t in such a hurry.”
This candid admission is also true when applied to Luka’s cohort. Traveling with him or at least stopping to lend a hand are Dog, the bear, and Bear, the dog; Nobodaddy; the Insultana; two water Elephants, Duck and Drake; a shapeshifting dragon and her three sisters; a sneaking Coyote; and the original fire-bringer himself. It’s too many characters to sustain in 218 pages, and only the core four of Luka, Dog, Bear, and Nobodaddy get to fully come alive. The others more or less fade into the background when their purpose to the quest has been fulfilled, except for the super-powered Insultina, who can be anything at anytime. Haroun had a subplot onto which it shuffled its peripheral characters, but here the magic carpet just rolls itself out to try to accommodate them.
It’s refreshing to see among the cultural elite an alternative to the ‘kids these days’ grousing that afflicts even Roger Ebert. There is also much to appreciate in Luka and the Fire of Life’s central conceit of man, the Storytelling Animal, being revived by fire, another hallmark of humanity, as well as the book’s literalization of a race against Time, with “Magic…fading from the universe” amid “High Definitions and low expectations.” But with so much incident and so many characters packed within so few pages, the entire affair feels hurried. J.K. Rowling proved that kids are willing to take on several hundred page tomes, and Salman Rushdie has a fanbase that expects him to produce work of such length already, so this is hardly a far-fetched idea. In a book based on gaming, there ought be more play.