Amongst the dead popstars and climate catastrophes, one of the central sea changes that rocked the previous decade was our zig-zagging attitude towards technology. At the beginning of the 00’s tech was something of a brave new world, the encroachment and subsequent domination of society by tech juggernauts like Google and Facebook was if anything deemed as broadly exciting rather than an existential threat. The world at large have only recently woken up to the potential dangers of being All Watched Over by corporately designed algorithms of not-particularly Loving Grace. However regardless of our increasing nervousness about privacy settings, for most people this concern is something of a background buzz. Compared to sociological meltdown and continent spanning bushfires the manipulation of data seems like small potatoes. Certainly not worth deleting your twitter account over at any rate; how else would you keep up with the conversation? Targeted ads may be a bit creepy but behind the outraged rhetoric most of us view data mining as an irritating, if mildly dystopian, fact of life.
A User’s Guide To Make Believe, awkward teen fiction-esque title aside, is ostensibly about virtual reality. Of the science fiction ‘attach diodes to your head and become emperor of your own private Idaho’ ilk rather than our current bulky headsets and motion sickness brand. Unlimited virtual reality as a subject seems to presage Make Believe as a certain kind of glitzy sci-fi, but Jane Alexander takes the past less travelled. Whilst exploring imaginary worlds sounds pretty fiction friendly, Make Believe’s concerns are unexpectedly grounded. For Make Believe (the name of the VR program) Alexander’s main interest is the staggeringly addictive potential that the ability to live in a universe of your own creation would engender. Our primary point of view character Cassie, a former designer for Make Believe. Whilst the company only allow a scant few hours of Make Believe a day, Cassie found a way around the automatic shutdown only to become an imagination junkie. Ignoring food, sleep and company to spend endless hours in the virtual arms of a recreated version of a long gone lover, she’s quietly fired and left to moulder in a cockroach-ridden flat. Desperately jonesing for a return to unreality, her compulsive drive to regain access to Make Believe finds her accidentally getting closer to secrets that her ex-corporate masters would do anything to hide.
Alexander writes with a certain stark coolness which helps keep the plot pleasingly grounded and renders Cassie’s plight with distressing humanity. Black Mirror gets a lot of ink for being a grim prophecy of times to come, but for my money it’s just too dystopian to seem truly real. When Alexander reveals her cards with a shocking extrapolation of the end goal of targeted advertising, it feels both earned and distressingly plausible.