The Extractionist, by Kimberly Unger (Tachyon)
In a world in which people upload their minds into virtual reality, things sometimes go awry and they get stuck in “the Swim.” Enter Eliza McKay, freelance Extractionist. Highly skilled in navigating virtual reality, thanks to a combination of experience, native talent, and extensive implanted hardware, she’s the go-to specialist for difficult retrieval cases. Now she’s on assignment for a government agency, trying to preserve the investigation results of an agent’s digital persona gone missing in the Swim. One thing after another goes wrong, and soon she’s faced with a choice of pulling the agent out without what he’s learned or having to try ever more risky strategies. Then thugs break into her house and try to hack her cybernetic implants. And something dangerous is lurking in the Swim.
Like Unger’s debut novel, Nucleation, The Extractionist features vivid and highly imaginative hard science fiction world-building. I’m not a tech person or familiar with virtual reality, but the characters and situations were compelling enough to keep me reading, and eventually the internal consistency made sense to me. The story is full of fascinating details, like the need to replace neurotransmitter chemicals after a prolonged VR session. Unger writes with the ease of familiarity with challenging technical material, so that even if I couldn’t explain what was happening, I knew she could. The sureness of an author’s voice can carry us into worlds and situations we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Unger’s work is cutting-edge science fiction. I can hardly wait to see what she comes up with next!