Imagen, a new British tech startup, has come up with a sure-fire winner and path to riches: a fully immersive virtual reality system. Gone are the goggles and vertigo of old, instead biomolecules are absorbed via nasal spray and these interact with an adaptor worn on the ear. Using this, those who subscribe to the system can enjoy a dream world, better than the real one, the only limit their imagination. But there’s a dark side. Some people indulge in their worst fantasies and perversions; people can get addicted, preferring the dream world to reality; and there’s something else that the company is determined to suppress from the public eye.

Cassie McAllister is a former employee of the company. She’s been sacked and blacklisted, forced to sign a punitive gagging cause after she was found immersing herself for far longer than the regulated hours and completely dependent. Determined to find her way back in, she discovers the company’s secret by accident, and this has profound implications for her.

A User’s Guide to Make Believe is a techno-thriller, set in the near future, and in a world that’s all too possible to imagine. It touches on numerous issues that we grapple with today: the power of big tech, how these companies promise much, and how while they might deliver on what they promise, there’s always an inherent quid pro quo; the sheer amount of data these companies amass on us and what they do with it is also tackled; as is the intertwining of government with their corporate power and the implications this has for transparency and holding them to account, in other words, the corruption this can lead to.

Cassie is an engaging character, deeply flawed but likeable in her own way. The plot is intriguing and the story is of the moment. This is a dystopian vision of the dark side of our increasing reliance on technology and the corporate behemoths that supply us with it. This is a novel that is well worth a read.

James Pierson 3/3

A User’s Guide To Make-Believe by Jane Alexander
Allison & Busby 9780749025106 hbk Jan 2020