Dream Bigger With Virtual Reality! (Some Anxiety May Follow.)

USERS, by Colin Winnette

Is anxiety the dominant emotion of our time? Anxiety, and its attendant feelings of fear and paranoia, abound in Colin Winnette’s richly imagined fourth novel, “Users,” where readers meet the fretful and endearing Miles in crisis. A lead creative at an unnamed virtual reality company, Miles has started receiving (letter-pressed) death threats and his company’s users are in revolt.

Guided by the slogan “Dream it and it’s yours,” the company invites people “to build customized experiences out of the content of their dreams,” which a V.R. program can then respond to, creating “a living fantasy, limited only by the speed of your internet and the company’s servers.” (In my first round of margin notes: “This isn’t possible, is it?”)

But most people turn out to have “impoverished” dreams, consisting “primarily of things they could already do in the real world,” and they don’t stay on the platform long enough. So the company begins offering in-house “Original Experiences,” to give our unimaginative minds “a boost, a little nudge toward the deep end.” The most popular is Miles’s creation, the Ghost Lover, in which users go about their regular lives while haunted by the ghost of an ex.

Forget today’s mundane data-harvesting concerns; Winnette’s V.R. company can “map the reactions, decisions, even lingering emotional responses … from what made a user blush to what made them cry out in pain.” And then, naturally, it sells that data.

Years after the Ghost Lover’s launch, Miles and his team face an outcry over accusations of conduct violations, bias and abuse of power. To avoid responsibility, the company pivots to simultaneous engagement, based on Miles’s latest idea, in which “multiple users … interact in, and with, the same experience at the same time.” Sales skyrocket; money pours in. To ensure the company’s continued market dominance, Miles invents his greatest creation, “The Egg”: a free-standing V.R. pod that can “manipulate and respond to a user’s whole body” via sensors and bionic sleeves.

While contemplating these frightening prospects, readers are also privy to myriad questionable business practices and Miles’s constant efforts to buy time for both himself and his company, and to avoid blame. For all the wonder these inventions evoke, it’s wonder laced with dread, since we know that they’re taking as much from users as they’re giving.

Though Miles rescues his company, he’s less successful at connecting with his inscrutable wife, Claire, or parenting his surly 10-year-old daughter, Maya, who gets the book’s best lines. His 6-year-old daughter, Mia, is regularly imperiled by her sister’s games. Much of the novel’s humor and tenderness emerges in these scenes of family life, where Miles’s anxiety renders him helpless, despite his fierce love for his wife and children.

Having noted early on that “we all kept horrible parts of ourselves alive in the dark,” Miles has his own terrifying experience within his invention, setting in motion his downfall. Later sections turn surreal, building upon the book’s skillful blurring of fantasy and reality.

Though “Users” is told in refreshingly unadorned prose that lets Winnette’s characters and ideas shine, I must admit I read in a state of fascinated humility as a late Gen X Luddite whose only brush with V.R. was a college demo in 1999. More than the marvelously detailed fictional innovations or the urgent questions about how we’re giving our most private selves to tech companies, what stayed with me were the passages of startling beauty about Miles’s fear of death and aging, and the bittersweet experience of watching his children grow up:

“He’d been confronted with it for more than a decade now, but it was no less incredible to him that her experiences were being recorded somewhere, stored for later use, and that she was mastering her ability to call upon them. Personhood, from out of nowhere, slowly taking shape before his eyes. He knew he should enjoy it while he could, before she learned to lock it all away inside a baffling human. The second she crystallized, he would lose her.”

“Users” is not only a book for today or a warning about tomorrow, but a timeless and moving story about fatherhood and one man’s yearning for a more meaningful life.

Jessamine Chan is the author of “The School for Good Mothers.”

USERS | By Colin Winnette | 274 pp. | Soft Skull Press | $27

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