Given that she works for Meta on their Oculus VR gaming headset, you’d expect that writer Kimberly Unger’s day job would’ve had a huge influenced on her VR cyberpunk techno-thriller The Extractionist (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). But as she explains in the following email interview, not only was that not the case, but the reverse isn’t entirely true, either.
I’d like to start with a little background: Who is Eliza McKay, the main character of The Extractionist? What does she do? And what exactly is an extractionist?
So, in every science fictional universe with some kind of “alternate reality” technology, there’s a story about someone getting stuck in it. Star Trek did it, Stargate did it, even The X-Files did it. An extractionist is the person whose job is to pull you out of those virtual spaces in time for dinner, even if you really don’t want to go.
Eliza McKay is doing this as a fallback career. After she royally fucked up in her day-job, this was the slice of the gig economy where she really found a fit.
And then what happens to Eliza in The Extractionist, what’s the plot, and when and where does it take place?
Eliza gets hired to re-extract someone. Her client’s got the virtual version of the person, the persona, but they don’t have the body it needs to go back into. The persona is well on its way to expiring, so they need Eliza to…freshen it up a bit. It’s not something one usually does, but Eliza cannot resist a challenge.
Things get complicated from there, and what should have been a day’s worth of computer time turns into a longer term, and much more dangerous, project. In order to get the virtual version back to the body it belongs to, Eliza’s got to figure out why it got stuck in virtual reality in the first place. This means solving the real-world mystery of who wants the persona destroyed while trying to convince them that going back to their real body is the right way to go.
Where did you get the idea for The Extractionist, what inspired it?
One hundred percent inspired by Star Trek‘s holodeck. And it wasn’t just Lt. Barclay getting stuck in there, we saw Picard and Data and the entire main cast getting trapped in what was essentially a warehouse with a clever lightshow. It happened so often, I started to wonder why the Enterprise didn’t simply have a holodeck tech on-board to handle just these kinds of emergencies.
It sounds like The Extractionist is a cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Cyberpunk is probably the best descriptor for The Extractionist, through in my head it’s always been more of a high-tech thriller than true Gibson-class cyberpunk.
The Extractionist is your second novel after 2020’s Nucleation [which you can read more about here], though you’ve also written some novellas and short stories. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on The Extractionist but not on anything else you’ve written, especially Nucleation?
The first draft of The Extractionist was actually completed before Nucleation, so it’s hard to peel those influences apart cleanly like that. Given the differences in the two books, though, I think it’s fair to say that Walter Jon Williams had an influence (particularly through Aristoi and Metropolitan) on The Extractionist that didn’t carry over to when I wrote Nucleation.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on The Extractionist?
Video games had a definite influence on The Extractionist, the way game design gets handled and the constraints of the technology serve as sort of the conceptual underpinnings of the technology, but if you’re looking for things like narrative inspirations, those are definitely more on the literary side.
Speaking of games, you work for Meta on their Oculus VR gaming headset. How do you think working in VR, and trying to make it more immersive, influenced The Extractionist?
Believe it or not, you’ve got it a bit backwards. The first draft of The Extractionist, and the technology I created for the book, were written before the Oculus Kickstarter happened. The book was then sold to Tachyon right around I took the job with Meta, so there wasn’t much of an opportunity for that insider lens to affect it. But, this is not our first run at virtual reality by a long shot. Running a mobile game studio by day, doing the research for this book by night, I became more and more convinced that this version of VR had enough technological progress behind it to take off. So really, it was less that Oculus influenced The Extractionist and more that writing The Extractionist convinced me that Oculus (now Reality Labs) was the place to be.
Now, cyberpunk sci-fi novels can be stand-alone stories or part of larger sagas. What is The Extractionist?
The Extractionist is a stand-alone with hooks. I’d love to do more as part of a series, something more akin to Iron Druid or Dresden Files (sci-fi doesn’t tend to do those kinds of longer-running, serialized works, but it should), but it’s going to depend on how it’s received. If it hits the mark, then there’s a lot more to tell.
Earlier I asked if The Extractionist had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think The Extractionist could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think it would probably be most effective as a TV show. Something about the scale and budget as you see on SyFy or maybe Netflix would be perfect because most of it takes place out in the real world with most of the more intense sequences happening in virtual space.
There’s also a world where The Extractionist could make a solid game, but you’d need more than what I’ve just got in the book to make it a great one. I’d love to see it as a narrative game in VR, something along the lines (playstyle-wise) of Alan Wake or The Last Of Us, rather than a straight-up action title. The world I’ve built is well-suited to that class of game, but of course, not all the worldbuilding ends up in the book. I think I’m maybe a little too close to it to be deeply involved in day to day production, but I’d love to be involved as loremaster or storykeeper, just to make sure that all the new elements mesh well with the old elements and the game could really take the character and her story to a bigger place, rather than just repeating the story that’s already been told.
So, is there anything else you think people interested in possibly buying a copy need to know about The Extractionist?
You don’t need to really understand all the tech in order to enjoy the story. Much like the engine in a Tesla, it’s there to get you from point A to point B in style (and to maybe give the driver, Eliza, some super powers along the way), but you don’t need to understand every wire and chip to use it effectively.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Extractionist, what cyberpunk sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one? Oh, and to keep things interesting, let’s take Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Neil Stephenson out of the running.
There are a bunch of works out there that are cyberpunk or cyberpunk-adjacent that I love. Top of mind (thanks Netflix) are the Altered Carbon books by Richard Morgan, then followed up quickly by Diane Duane’s Omnitopia and Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi. And I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t bring up Charles Stross’ Halting State and Rule 34. You’ll notice that so many of these are one-offs, and that’s something I hope to change with The Extractionist. We’ll see if I can break cyberpunk’s “stand-alone” streak with this novel.