Cassie McAllister has lost her job and been deprived of something that went with it and mattered even more to her: the ability to be transported for two hours at a time into the world of Make-Believe. The company Imagen is a high-flier in the world of advanced technology, offering clients the exciting and compelling experience of virtual reality. It is also a fine example of predatory capitalism, marketing its clients’ data. Its form of virtual reality experience was originally directed towards healthcare, and approved by the Ministry of Innovation, but Make-Believe is also marketed as entertainment, and this is the easy and rapid-growth area.
Cassie has not only been sacked, she has been forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement and threatened with legal action if she breaks it. She is broke and fearful. Moreover, Make-Believe is addictive, and she suffers withdrawal symptoms. She used it to meet again with her first love, Alan, recreating in the virtual world the real world of their relationship. This can’t be revived in real-reality because Alan, diagnosed with schizophrenia, is now confined to a private and expensive mental hospital. Who, she wonders , pays the bill now his mother is dead?
Cassie attends a group for addicts in recovery. Most of its members are alcoholics or drug addicts, but her attention is caught by a young man called Lewis, whose gesture of fiddling with his ear suggests to her that he too has been expelled from the virtual paradise of Make-Believe. They come together, Cassie nervous and suspicious, Lewis apparently resentful and seeking, he says, something that might persuade or force Imagen to re-admit him to the joys of Make-Believe; blackmail perhaps, if he could find the right evidence. On the whole though Lewis seems as relaxed as Cassie is – with good reason – afraid.
That’s the set-up for what becomes a gripping and disturbing thriller. It’s gripping because it tells a good story, and offers a puzzle to be investigated in the classic style of this kind of fiction. In the modern manner it is a bit wordy, scenes prolonged after the point has been made, though readers capable of understanding the hi-tech and scientific jargon and long explanations of how Make-Believe works may not share this reservation. But it’s a classic quest novel and Cassie is an engaging and credible character. Moreover, though they may skip some paragraphs because they don’t understand anything of what they are being told, the plot is strong enough to hold any reader’s attention.
So the novel works well as what John Buchan called a shocker. It is, however, more than entertainment because the advanced technologies it describes are close enough to what is or may soon be possible to be alarming. We already know how data, whether legally gathered or stolen, can be put to nefarious uses in both public and private life. We are accustomed to invasion of privacy on a scale which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. We know that our movements in any town or city are likely to be caught on camera and that every purchase we may make online is registered and the knowledge which is stored can tell people, companies, public authorities and more sinister organizations of which we are ignorant, something about our tastes, habits and other aspects of our private life. In short we live in a surveillance society, and others profit from what they learn about us. This is how it is already, and you would have to be innocent and simple-minded not to recognize that things will get worse as what we assumed to be personal and private is data garnered by others for profit or something worse.
So, while this novel succeeds as entertainment, it is also one to make you think. There was a character in The Pickwick Papers, known only as the Fat Boy, who liked to sidle up to people and say “I wants to make your flesh creep.” Jane Alexander has written a novel that does just that, more disturbingly than anything the Fat Boy might have conjured up. Allan Massie
A User’s Guide to Make-Believe, by Jane Alexander, Allison & Busby, 350pp, £14.99