Limitless (aka the Dark Fields)
August 23, 2011
Firstly I’d like to thank Geekadelphia for their great Limitless contest awhile back and for rewarding me with the prize (a copy of the book, a handy water bottle and free passes). While I never got to use the movie passes, I use the water bottle all the time and just finished reading the book following it up with the recent film. I feel like I came across this book at a perfect time because its focus has been on my mind for quite awhile and, in fact, a good part of college: what is the role and morality of intellectual juicing?
In brief, Limitless is the story of Eddie Spinola, a deadbeat writer who’s clearly circling the drain in his lower east side hole-in-the-wall apartment. One day he runs into his ex-wife’s brother, Vernon Gant, who offers him a new pseudo-legal drug, MDT (or NZT in the film, we’ll go by the former). Eddie gets hooked after his first hit but when he goes back to Gant for more, he finds him dead in his apartment. After calling the police, Eddie finds Gant’s stash, managing to hide it before the cops’ arrival. Over the next few months, Eddie becomes dependent on MDT as he finishes his book, begins day trading and eventually works his way up to working for Van Loon, a fictional Trump-Buffet amalgam. However with this success comes a series of debilitating side effects including black outs, aggression and dependency unto death. Meanwhile, Eddie has been juggling his new corporate life of success and his increasingly complicated relationship with a Russian mobster, Gennady, who he initially loaned money from at the start of his trading days. The only problem is Gennady managed to steal some MDT and is now hooked. As a major merger at Van Loon’s offices comes to head, Eddie begins tracing MDT back to its origin finding a variety of successful people all in hospital or dead from withdrawal. This intricate conspiratorial web eventually leads back to some of the highest tiers of government in this slightly alternate history of Mexican invasion. Eddie returns to his new $9.1 million pad one day to find it ransacked and his last remaining MDT supply gone. Just at that moment, Gennady comes to collect his weekly dose leading to a dramatic confrontation where Eddie stabs him in the chest getting away with what few pills he had on him. Eddie high tails it for a remote motor lodge in Vermont where he writes the tale we’ve just read as the last few hours of his MDT high fade into migraines, coughing and death. As he drifts off into a coma, he sees the President declaring war on Mexico, an MDT glean in his eyes.
Government super-drug and cult conspiracies aside, I found the book a very good read. The involvement of the powers on high seems to be thrown in at the last minute to add yet more scale to the already bracing story but is never fleshed out satisfactorily and comes off feeling unwarranted if not absurd. However two themes the book touches on and relies on to hook the reader are definitely in the forefront of my mind as of late:
The morality of mental juicing:
One could argue we’ve been doing this since man found caffeine. But what constitutes an acceptable enhancer of intellect. Clearly MDT is a fantastic sort of Aderrall and Speed all in a deadly hit and we can probably all agree that the idea of anyone using such a drug, especially those in positions of power (who, if we assume MDT exists, would logically be the addicts), is abominable. While I acknowledge that I maintain a fairly strict moral view, even the use of Adderall by acquaintances in college before exams and papers seemed dubious at best. In my mind, I draw direct parallels to sports: the moment even one athlete begins to use Steroids, the value and meaning of the entire athletic competitive system begins to lose meaning. Similarly, how is anyone to compete with the drug-fueled focus of Aderrall except by either taking it themselves or be an utter freak (which I am proud to say I sometimes am though not half as often as I’d like).
Of course what is most disturbing is that not only has this not truly hindered sports to any great degree, a few headlines aside, but in fact the opposite has happened. There are entire cultures and communities built around juicing. One could even say certain sports now support, or at least demand it to succeed despite their drug screening protocols. Who’s to say that such a mirrored mental culture won’t soon grow? Perhaps in some backroom hacker cult it has already begun. If anyone were to begin such a group, I can think of no better candidates than the network obsessed denizens of the dark, who most likely already have a prescription, their ailment being the same reason they love computers so much. And herein lies my first major problem with Dark Fields‘ film adaptation.
Obviously since it’s a film adaptation they pare the Van Loon story line down while emphasizing a single love story and the Russian mobster angle for action. I felt this was all done well and managed to sum up the books many plot lines into the three core arcs: love, action and business. However, the pseudo-epilogue threw all this great editing to wind. Somehow Cooper manages to not only overcome his addiction but also retain his abilities, get the girl and ‘defeat’ Van Loon all in one fell swoop. This, of course, glorifies his use of the drug. Its as if at the end of a long history of steroid use, a body builder managed to maintain his physique and the girth of his testicles; it makes no sense and it sends the wrong message.
In the book, Eddie ends up alone in the countryside, writing his manifesto in the hours before his hit wears off, killing him. This sends the exact opposite, not to mention deeper, message. Is the fact that this movie preaches the goodness of using mental enhancing drugs a sign that society has come to accept such abuses? I hope not, but then again, I try and only drink coffee when I’m actually tired.
Cosmic Fate v. the Chemical Factory
What my alliteration is trying to summarize is mentioned several times in the book though never truly delved into to any meaningful extent. Are human decisions and actions products of our own making and/or fate or are they simply the result of chemical reactions in the brain. Thankfully I’ve read and studied a bit on the topic in 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense as well as a couple of philosophy courses I took in college. While we all would like to think that we actually think and make meaningful decisions, what little I know about the brain combined with what I am continually learning about the power of computing has led me to firmly believe that our actions and decisions are indeed simply products of a complex neurological process. However I fail to understand why so many people think this is a bad thing or are even scared to admit this. Such a proposition in no way devalues our actions for each of our brains are a completely unique and utterly inconceivably complex tangle of circuitry that we’ve slowly fostered since birth. The way two people process the same exact event will be completely different. Add to this the readings of Descrates’ Error and the idea of distilling this process down to interactions on a computer chip vanishes into the very distant future, Moore’s law be damned.
Studies have shown, according to 13 Things, that there is a measurable amount of time before we are aware of making a decision or action where are brain has already fired, determining that realization. If you think about this, this makes complete sense; how else could we be aware of a decision until our brain decided to let our consciousness in on it. The only other options are either that such decision-making comes from an inexplicable third source outside of the brain or we could somehow trace and be aware of our mental gears turning (see the fundamental NP-complete problem). In Descartes’ Error, Damasio (and excuse me if I am remembering incorrectly) essentially concludes that brain function is an incredibly intricate dance between brain and body where the actual neurons just make up a fraction of the overall process, though granted an important one. Each act by the brain is in turn dependent on a series of factors and interactions with the rest of body communicated through the blood, nervous system and state of the other vital organs. In unscientific terms, we can all associate with this. That hollow pit in your stomach when nervous. That sense of lift in your chest when you see your loved one. Or for me, the tingly dryness on the top of my mouth when I see a woman who makes me nervous.
When it comes to it, its hard to imagine thought without the rest of your body. Which is why anyone who tells me they can’t wait to have their brain uploaded to the mastermind is missing the point; the sooner they’re plugged in the better. While information is good and dandy, life is about living and living is intrinsically tied to a physical body. Even if we assume we could somehow simulate all the necessary body interactions in a computer, how can we simulate natures way of limitless change and evolution. Some things are just too unpredictable in my opinion but talk to me again in 20 years when the people who actually know what they’re talking about have sorted out both neurology and artificial intelligence.
In sum, I liked Dark Fields as it got me thinking about some really cool things. In fact sitting here, typing away till 2am I almost feel like I’m on MDT myself (I thank my lovely brain). Besides some New York Times best-seller hints near the end, it was a provocative book. The film was equally engaging and I especially liked how they put the “trip” on film. The deep zoom shots through New York City were worth the hour and a half in and of themselves. But ultimately I find it funny that the film is directly at odds with its source material when it comes to message. Makes me wonder if some MDT junkies are up there in Hollywood as I type. I guess the real question one has to ask themselves is: if I had a limitless quantity of MDT, would I take it?….(a tentative) yes.