The Big Idea: Kimberly Unger
Sure, we’ve all wished to visit the imaginary or virtual worlds of fiction and dreams… but when it’s time to come home, will we always find the exit? This is a question Kimberly Unger is considering in her latest novel, The Extractionist.
I suspect most of us can agree that imaginary worlds have a way of being compelling. We’ve all been trapped in a book we couldn’t put down, drawn to return to a webcomic or sucked into binge-watching a TV show or having a whole-ass weekend vanish into a videogame. In fact, this is such a familiar feeling that almost every pop-culture science-fiction world (and a few fantasy worlds) has a storyline where our protagonist, or the entire ensemble cast, gets pulled into a reality not their own.
The thing that always fascinated me was the way different writers and writers rooms handled this experience. Sometimes it was merely a question of hardware; there was noone on the outside to unplug the people or unlock the door and so the story becomes a matter of picking the lock from the inside. In other cases (the one that seems to come to everyone’s mind when I bring this up is ST: TNG’s Hollow Pursuits) the reasons are much deeper, sometimes rooted in an individual’s personal experience or mental health. Each one of these stories is a mystery, of sorts, where the main characters need to explore and question and assemble the clues until they can find a way out. And they usually do.
With nearly every science-fictional universe (that has a way to tap into an alternate reality) experiencing this phenomenon of people getting “stuck”, I started noodling on the idea of just who is in charge of getting them out? Does this fall under the purview of mental health work and require a special medical license? Do you call the Geek Squad to drive down in their stylish VW Beetles to unplug your widowed grandpa when he decides he doesn’t want to leave his wedding videos? Do you hire a detective to unravel the mystery of why someone got stuck?
Now, my day-job is working with Virtual Reality (plus its kissing-cousins Xtended and Augmented Reality) and an ongoing game-design question is “how long” can we expect someone to wear a modern headset for any given session. The answer to this, doesn’t revolve solely around comfort, or whether the band gets sweaty, or you start to get queasy over time. It’s the rest of your life that factors in. It’s your kids and your pets and your day-job and your dishes and your laundry and remembering to go get the post. It’s all those little things that pull you out at the end of the day, that justify taking off the headset even if you are having a blast.
Because of this, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the idea of a virtual world *so* engaging that you would never voluntarily leave it. Even the fundamental necessity of needing to use the bathroom is going to limit the time you can stay immersed and from there we head straight over into body-horror via skull plugs and catheters. At the same time, I felt it was important to maintain the element of choice, especially if the “just unplug the computer” option was a viable solution (as banal as it might be, unplugging the computer is usually a solid option when things run amok).
So the solution I came up with for The Extractionist, the Big Idea, was a simple one.
What if the version of you banging about in Virtual space (the Swim) no longer neatly fits back into the version of you in the real world? Imagine if Neo’s realization that he was The One meant he couldn’t go back to his own body on the Nebuchadnezzar, or if Parzival’s confession of love to Artemis meant he couldn’t log back out again to escape IOI? That would be the kind of problem that needed an intervention. Ideally a human intervention, someone who could understand the importance of saving those realizations, those moments of inspiration.
Instead, the machine throws an error and puts you into limbo until someone, some human, can come and sort it all out. And that someone is an Extractionist.