We’ve all heard the saying: “Write what you know.” It’s advice that writer and virtual reality video game producer Kimberly Unger has taken to heart with her first novel, Nucleation (paperback, Kindle), which she calls a “nanotech space opera.” In the following email interview, Unger explains what inspired and influenced this cyberpunk sci-fi space opera story, and not just the stuff from her day job.
Let’s begin with a plot summary: What is Nucleation about?
Nucleation is about an elite waldo operator, Helen Vectorovich, getting knocked off her pedestal by a first contact scenario gone disastrously wrong and her navigating a high-powered corporate framework to try and make it right.
Wait, what’s a waldo?
A waldo is a remote operated vehicle (a future version of our Mars rovers) piloted by a human or an A.I. Operator. They come in a range of shapes, sizes, and levels of articulation, depending on the needs of the project. They are most often assembled from local material by eenies (nanobots) and are usually broken down into feedstock by those same eenies when the job is done.
Cool. So, where did you get the idea for Nucleation, and how did that idea change as you wrote it?
The original core around which Nucleation formed was this idea that sending live humans into space is risky, expensive, and getting people out there takes too long (from the point of view of a tech entrepreneur, anyway). But getting human perception and problem-solving logic into space is imperative for exploration, a computer can’t yet get those “eureka” moments. We kind of have that now, operating our rovers on Mars, and I wanted to follow that path forward. If we always send our robots first, how do we tag along for the ride?
Nucleation sounds like it’s a cyberpunk sci-fi space opera story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’ve always thought of it as a “nanotech space opera.” My team at Tachyon has been referring to it as a “vROP” (VR Opera) because that kind of telepresence is my key to everything when you’re piloting by wire. There was a challenge here, about how to get that fast-actiony feel while dealing with world-spaces that really are tiny. The “eenies” (this universe’s version of nano-bots) are the size of an orchid seed, so an all-out clash between two massive armies can fit on the palm of your hand. VR is a great medium for adjusting the perceptual sense of scale and giving a physically tiny (but critically important) event the gravitas it deserves.
Now, while Nucleation is your first novel, you’ve previously written some short stories and novellas. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Nucleation but not on anything else you’ve written?
There are a handful of writers who unknowingly contributed. Long before VR even became a thing, Eric Nylund’s Signal To Noise really cemented the idea for me of VR as a functional computing metaphor (much the way your Windows desktop is a metaphor) rather than a far out there concept. I also loved the shared virtual spaces of Diane Duane’s Omnitopia as a way of life, and Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi and the idea that nanobots can go rogue figures in there as well.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Did any of those have a big impact on Nucleation?
I think The Arrival probably had the biggest direct influence. That idea of first contact between two so very different groups and how much emotional and intellectual labor goes into making an understanding happen.
Speaking of which, aside from being a writer, you also work in video games, and were the lead designer on Are The Deep Ones Sleeping and My Garden Secret: VR, among others, and now work for Oculus VR. Why did you decide to write Nucleation as a novel and not a VR game?
Every medium has its limitations. There’s a great game to be built out of Nucleation and Helen’s other adventures, but it would have been a very different animal in VR (and it would have taken a level of fundraising and team building that was simply out of my reach).
There’s also a version of this story that would make a great comic book or a great film, but they’d all be different lenses on similar moments in time. This particular look at Helen’s story worked best as a novel.
As you mentioned, VR plays an important role in Nucleation. But in writing Nucleation, did you ever find yourself having to choose between being accurate about VR and telling a good story?
I think any writer who has done the research or who is writing squarely in their area of expertise runs into this. There was definitely some short-hand involved, a little bit of smoothing over the nitty gritty, but many of the things I do with VR in this book are pretty much within our reach now, it isn’t until we get into the coffins that I really start speculating. Most of the stuff I leave out is the grind and housekeeping.
Now, as you know, sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Nucleation?
It was written and sold as a stand-alone, but I’m not fond of endings. There are certainly things to do and places to go with Helen and the rest of her team and I’ll probably find some ways to explore that.
If I do get to expand it, then the evolution of VR between books is going to get reflected in those future works. If, post VIRUS, we move to decentralized, reskinned VR office spaces in, say, the next five years, some of this is going to be a little quaint. But being able to see how the future I’m theorizing in these books evolves as our own world pushes forward should give the readers something to chew on that goes beyond just the words on the page.
Earlier I asked if Nucleation had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie, show, or game?
My agent, Laurie McLean, has fielded requests from a few film and television production companies, and I’ve been working with a friend in the games industry to figure out the best design for either a flat screen game or a VR title. I’m also looking at pitching the Ferguson’s Asteroid Incident as a limited run comic book, so there are possibilities afoot, just nothing with a release date I can share.
If Nucleation was going to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters and why them?
You know, in my head, there’s an actor for almost everyone in the book, and it’s usually because they played a role somewhere that spoke to the character I was trying to create. I’ve got Cas Anvar [The Expanse] in there as Keller and Barbara Sukowa [Atomic Blonde] as Doc Hofstaeder, But that’s all just in my head, and that’s my personal fan casting. You’ll notice I tend to go lightly on the physical details, especially for Helen, because filling that in out of your own head is part of the magic.
And if someone wanted to make it into a game…?
As a game, I’d love to see something action / narrative on the level of Horizon: Zero Dawn, maybe a little more mission based, to really figure out how to put my waldos through their paces. That’s a big dream though, even for someone connected to the games industry.
If it did happen, though, would you want to work on it?
I would totally want to work on it, probably in some kind of lorekeeper or game designer role. Games are built by teams, and I’d love the chance to be a part of a bigger effort.
Finally, if someone enjoys Nucleation, which of your VR games would you suggest they play, and when they’re done, what cyberpunk sci-fi space opera novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read?
You know, there’s nothing quite like Nucleation out there in VR, but I’d point you at games like Apex Construct for a start. It’s got a visually brighter, more interesting take on a broken future and I’m a huge fan of archery in VR, it really is a satisfying way to express power and action at range.
For space-opera / cyberpunk-y stuff, I’ll point you at Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series. I came into this one late when I backed a Kickstarter for The Apocalypse Ocean, then went back to find all the ones that came before it. And Stross’ far flung Neptune’s Brood is another favorite, not just because it’s a post-human society but there’s some serious thought to interstellar economics in there that I really enjoyed.