Virtual reality in all its various imaginings always holds attraction for us. The idea that we can enter the world of dreams is as old as dreaming itself—many Indigenous cultures privilege the dreamworld and use it as a source of stories and even wayfinding. The Extractionist joins a very long line of science-fiction novels, then, that contemplate what happens if you get stuck in a dreamworld or virtual reality. Kimberly Unger imagines a world where this is common enough that it is someone’s job to go in and get you out. Throw in your standard double-crosses, action sequences, and murder attempts from any sci-fi thriller, and you’ve got this book!
Thank you to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for the eARC!
Eliza McKay’s true passion is engineering nanomachines. Alas, the United States government revoked her licences to do so. Blacklisted, she resorts to other jobs—like extracting people whose personas have become stuck in the Swim, a collective cyberspace that people can visit for business or pleasure. Eliza’s latest job involves extracting a government spook, and as these things tend to go in a novel like this, everything goes sideways fast. The next few days entail tiny moments of respite in between intense scenes of terror and mortal peril. Along the way, Eliza has to decide whom to trust, who deserves her help, and how far she will go to finish the job.
Probably the inevitable comparison reviewers will make here is to William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace (which is not actually used in this book, but that’s what the Swim is). Gibson’s vision of a virtual reality achieved by directly networking one’s brain has indelibly shaped this entire subgenre. Generally, comparisons to him will not be favourable, so this is one of those rare cases where I’ll come down with the utmost compliment that I think Unger actually takes up Gibson’s legacy in a very appropriate and interesting way. She builds on Gibson’s influence on cyberpunk while taking into account things like quantum computing and the proliferation of VR/AR in today’s world.
McKay is also quite a likable protagonist, all things considered—yes, she has trauma and a healthy heaping of avoidance issues, but she is also very self-aware and emotionally intelligent. This is a nice departure from the hard-boiled hacker stereotype. At one point she remarks on how she’s going to need sleep soon; not only did this feel refreshingly realistic in a thriller, but it’s nice to see our protagonist considering her limitations. Similarly, she has a good support network: a friendly AI to help her out, actual friends she knows in person, some dysfunctional family dynamics (don’t we all?). All in all, Unger has put a lot of work not only into the world but her main character and supporting cast.
While the “good guys” are a force to be reckoned with, the antagonists in this story felt a little weak to me. On one hand, I like how the eventual “big bad” proves to be a sympathetic one. On the other hand, the red herring antagonist falls flat because he just doesn’t ever come off as much of a threat—and we only meet him once, then never really hear from him again. This misdirection, if that is what it is intended to be, misfires. The climactic battle in both the Swim and the real world is intense courtesy of Unger’s descriptions, but the build up to it feels lacking.
Indeed, the pacing at the start felt very slow (despite some explosive beginnings)—it really wasn’t until I was about a quarter of the way into the novel before I sat up and said, “Oh, there’s something here.” Even though a lot happens, I admit, the book dragged on for me. Fortunately, I was interested in enough in the story, in finding out who was behind all of this and why, and I liked Eliza enough, as I said above, to keep reading.
Equal parts exciting, then, and enervating, The Extractionist is a pretty strong contender for a new generation of cyberpunk that hews to the traditions of the subgenre while also carving out new ones given our modern society’s flirtation with a metaverse. Unger has a keen talent for description and characterization, even if her plotting and pacing left something to be desired (in my opinion). I had forgotten that I had previously read (but didn’t much like) Nucleation. So I’m glad I got to read another book of hers, one that I have enjoyed much more. Sometimes an author just takes a while to write the book that’s for you.