Wednesday, March 10, 2010

UTOPIA by Lincoln Child

Here's an interesting book - written by one of the creators of the Pendergast novels, Lincoln Child tells a thrilling story centered in the ultimate theme park, known as Utopia. For the most part, this is a caper novel, about a group of "terrorists" who threaten to kill and maim theme park visitors if they are not given the keys to the advanced holographic technologies that make the park so unique. And it was a good read, one which I tackled a couple years ago, and skimmed yesterday.

But I didn't want to post about it here on Disney Fan Ramblings in order to simply review the book. Though I did not note any direct comparisons by the author to Disney theme parks, I thought the parallels were obvious in many places.

Not the least of which is the driving force for Utopia. We are introduced early in the book to a hologram of Eric Nightingale, the "visionary" behind the creation of Utopia. Nightingale started out as a professional magician and creator of two cartoon series based on his old magic act, and used his "star power" to bring together a group of "corporations and venture capitalists" to form the "Utopia Holding Company". At the time of the book, Nightingale has been dead for more than a year, having been killed in a plane crash six months before his park opened.

The hologram addresses an assembly of scientists there to work on things at the park, in a sort of oriention presentation, and tells them that what he wants to provide at Utopia is a "fully immersive experience - a utopian experience which educates while it delights..." That sounds familiar, doesn't it? The words could be coming out of Walt's mouth. He goes on to say that he wants to achieve this goal without the used of "gimmicky rides or cheap amusement park thrills." That, in turn, sounds like the criticism I read so often on blogs critical of Disney today. To create this immersion, the park relies on advanced robotics - far beyond anything used in Disney - and breakthrough technology in holographics and video.

A map at the beginning of the book shows four part to the park, each accessible from a "corridor" called the "Nexus". The future world is called "Callisto" and is a space port. Another world is "Camelot", with dragons and castles. A third world is "Boardwalk", a "turn of the century seaside amusement park" while the fourth is called "Gaslight", a Jack-the-Ripper era English town. Expansion is planned to include a fifth world based on Atlantis.

The park is located in Nevada, a short drive from Las Vegas. As such, the place also incorporates casinos into its entertainment offerings (something it's mentioned that Eric Nightingale would have never approved of). It is also served by a monorail which brings visitors from Vegas to the park in the desert. Another detail mentioned in the book is that what seems to be the "ground" of the park is actually the fourth floor of the structure, built into a canyon. The entire park is covered by a dome.

I was struck by the number of times a main character observes, either in thought or aloud, that the park had become something that would cause Eric Nightingale to turn over in his grave. For example, main character Andrew Warne observes, as his daughter gushes about how awesome the place it, "The place is just...All these rides, all these shops. It's so commercial. Nightingale would turn in his grave." This brings Warne, who knew Nightingale personally (Warne is the inventor of the Metanet, the AI programming that makes sure the robotics work and "learn") to reflect upon Nightingale's vision.

He wanted to create virtual worlds complete in every detail; past worlds, future worlds, that would instruct visitors as they entertained. Worlds that relied on immersiveness, not rides, to delight guests. A themed system, Nightingale had called it, that would use the latest advances in digital media, holograms, robotics, to weave its magic. And he'd wanted Warne to design the robotics substructure.

In another part of the book, Warne is bemoaning the decision to take his Metanet off line, the equivalent of killing it, with the park's sole robotics scientist, Teresa Bonifacio, and they are talking about how holographics have replaced robotics as the main thrust of the park's technology. Teresa says,

Nightingale was a visionary. He saw Utopia as more than a New Age theme park with fancy gadgets. He meant it as a crucible for new technology.

Again, doesn't this description sound a lot like someone talking about the Walt Disney who dreamed about EPCOT in Florida?

Well, I don't want to get too deep into the plot of the book, which is, by the way, a page turner. But I thought that the ideas about the future of theme park development and the maps (alas, I don't have images of them) at the beginning of the book make for interesting reading for anyone interested in imagineering and theme park design.


No comments: