I don’t know anyone who has thought more deeply about virtual reality than the woman sitting across the table from me at a cafe just around the corner from Edinburgh University, where she works – though Jane Alexander, BA, MPhil, PhD, isn’t a scientist but a lecturer in creative writing.
Her latest novel, A User’s Guide to Make-Believe, does a lot more than merely imagine what would happen if we could step into the world of virtual reality as easily as using an asthma inhaler. That’s the simple bit, the quick imaginative fix you might expect from an episode of Black Mirror: the near-future shoved sideways or upside down mainly for the shock of it. What Alexander is trying to do is quite different: to look at how virtual reality would change us.
As she points out, we’re more than half-way there already, what with all the fictions we put out about ourselves on social media. And like all the most convincing dystopias, the novel’s seeds are already taking root in the present. “Maybe an individually generated virtual reality might take 20 years,” she says, “but it will probably be there in my lifetime. You’ve only got to look at the work Elon Musk is doing with his company Neuralink [on implantable brain-machine interfaces].”
She has tried out some of the existing virtual reality technologies. “The most successful ones for me have been works of art. The 2016 Björk Digital exhibition at Somerset House was very, very convincing. You had to wear goggles and a backpack, and you’re very aware that you’re weighed down by them, but in terms of your body being in the same space as Björk – you are completely convinced by that, at least until you look down and see that your feet are missing or that the wind blowing Björk’s hair isn’t blowing yours. The Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller Night Walk for Edinburgh at last year’s Festival was equally impressive too.” But whereas that video walk involved using an iPod and a pair of headphones for its overlay of virtual reality, Alexander’s novel imagines something far more immersive – a technology called Make-Believe (“Whatever your fantasy, live it with Make-Believe™ – the only limit is you”) which is also unlinked to anything else. To activate your biomolecules and kickstart your fantasies, all you need is a simple – if expensive – nasal spray.
Now if you or I had come up with the idea of a virtually undetectable and unmediated VR technology – there might be other authors who have, says Alexander, but she hasn’t read any – my guess is that we’d go overboard in describing either how it works or how it changed society. But although Cassie, Alexander’s central character, has worked for the manufacturers of Make-Believe, although she describes its business operation and briefly touches on its use in palliative care and in treating mental illness, her novel sets off on an altogether different track.
That’s because, essentially, it is a love story. Not a conventional one, because Alan, the love of Cassie’s life, is now both physically and mentally the shell of what he once was. Thanks to Make-Believe, though, she can go back, always to the same tender, loving moment, an intimate golden memory. Each time, she can make it more real by remembering in greater detail (“just like writing” Alexander points out); each time, though, there’ll also be that crushing ache as she had to leave him behind and carry on with her life.
At the start, though, all we know is that Cassie is attending some sort of addicts’ meeting, and we don’t even know what she is addicted to, no more than we know anything about the hacker she meets there. They’re both, it seems, addicted to the same thing – not drugs or alcohol, but lost love. He’s attractive, and nature looks all set to take its course – even if, thanks to VR, Cassie has to work out whether to choose the uncertain present over the idyllic but dead past.
However, before you all shout out “Take the uncertain present!” the plot lopes off towards even deeper moral dilemmas. Suppose, Alexander imagines, extreme users’ virtual reality could be affected by other people’s. Suppose, in other words, that people could see straight into each other’s minds ...
“One thing about that,” she smiles. “It would certainly make interviews pointless.”
I suppose it would. I’d be able to see at a glance the way Jane Alexander thinks. I’d be able to go all the way back to one of her own happiest memories – a sunny day in Edinburgh; she was 18 and had come down from her native Aberdeen to visit her friend; they’d walked up Salisbury Crags, and the city and both their futures seemed spread out in front of them. I’d catch a flicker of everything she’d poured into her mind since: first, learning illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, then the creative writing MPhil in Glasgow, then the PhD at Edinburgh on the sense of the uncanny in Scottish literature. I’d see how all that had turned first into this novel, and then into the short story collection she is working on now, which hinges on how new technology is changing our sense of the strange. I wouldn’t even need to read it.
I’d see, too, some of the people in recovery from substance abuse she’s taught creative writing (she’d never dream of writing directly about them, though she concedes her fiction is often about damaged, vulnerable characters), and some of the writers she worked with and made her take her own fiction seriously too. I’d see what kind of a teacher she is: my own guess is a very good one indeed.
Of course, she’d be able to see into my mind too. And she’d know for sure that, when I told her I’d enjoyed the book, that it had made me think about virtual reality in far greater depth than I can imagine Black Mirror ever doing, and that I hoped it did really well for her, it wasn’t a word of a lie.
A User’s Guide to Make-Believe is published by Allison & Busby on 23 January, price £14.99