Otherworld (Rock the Boat, £12.99), the first novel in a new YA thriller series from Hollywood actor and screenwriter, Jason Segel, and his long-time co-author, Kirsten Miller, is part of a growing genre of fiction deeply influenced by VR and games.
Segel first conceived of the book after donning an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. "This is going to change everything," he thought - and started to plan a book.
Not only does Otherworld feature next-gen immersive tech as the central plot mechanic, and explore the opportunities and dangers of such tech as a key theme - it directly replicates the aesthetics of gaming, in an attempt to hook a new generation on the joy of long-form books. Naturally, the launch of the series is also accompanied by a comprehensive cross-platform campaign, complete with crowdsourced competitions, merchandise and a social media tour.
We spoke to Segel and Miller about the inspiration and process behind Otherworld - and where they hope to take it next.
What was the inspiration for Otherworld?
JS: The idea for Otherworld came after I first demoed the Oculus Rift at Sundance a few years ago. My first thought was: This is going to change everything. I had been a big fan of a game called Myst when I was a kid—it’s a computer environment that you get to wander around, explore, and solve puzzles in. I imagined how extraordinary it would be to have that sort of experience in a truly immersive way. Then I thought, People will never want to leave. That’s sort of where it all began for me. I drew up a very rough outline and called Kirsten. I told her the idea, and our adventure began. If The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings went to their high school reunion and had a one-night stand, Otherworld would be their illegitimate child.
KM: My initial reaction to new technologies is to ask myself What will go wrong? Call me a pessimist, but from what I’ve seen, something always does. Jason imagined a game that players never want to leave. Together, we took that idea to an extremely dark (and logical) conclusion. I suppose my biggest contribution was the sinister real-world conspiracy at the heart of the story. I do love a good conspiracy!
Otherworld delves into a new world of gaming through virtual reality. What kind of research went into writing this book? Were you already gamers? Did you play video games while crafting the story? Are you more or less interested in experiencing virtual reality now that you’ve written Otherworld?
JS: I am super into tech-geek stuff. I am also really interested in how these emerging technologies will affect who we are as a culture and as a species. What will it do to the way we think? How will it change the way we live our everyday lives?
KM: Video games are like drugs for me. These days I try not to indulge (too much writing to do). But I was absolutely hooked on them for quite a few years. I’d spend entire weekends playing. I was really into Tomb Raider—possibly because it helped me live out my fantasy of being a female Indiana Jones. (And possibly because I’m a goober.)
I have an Oculus headset. (Thanks, Jason!) Most VR games leave a bit to be desired at this point (though my kid and her friends adore them), but VR has already taken horror to an amazing new level. I can’t wait to see how it changes the rest of the world of entertainment. I’m less excited to see how it changes the world in general.
Did you invent any of the technology in the book? Or does it exist already?
JS: Though some of the technology in the book may not be in consumer hands yet, I am fairly certain everything in the book exists in a lab somewhere, waiting for release. If we can think of it, some genius has likely built it already!
KM: Even the tech that seems completely outlandish has some basis in reality. Brain-computer interfaces? Check. Emergent AI? Check. Evil tech corporations? Check, check, check.
Has anything happened in the technological landscape (VR, AI etc) since you started plotting out Otherworld that has reinforced the need for such a ‘cautionary' tale?
JS: Yes. Our books are designed around a central question “What is real?” In the year or so that we have been writing this novel the question of “what is real” has been increasingly called into question in our own lives, allegations of “fake news,” the emergence of fake social media accounts from foreign governments etc. We are already living in a very scary present.
KM: Oh yeah, and we play with the consequences of these emerging technologies in the next book. The two that scare me the most? Adobe just introduced software that lets you replicate anyone’s voice. No one’s going to use that one for evil, right? And facial recognition software, which is soon to be everywhere. The idea that corporations can use it identify and track you—not just online but in the real world as well—is terrifying.
Have you considered what avatar you would chose and which weapon you’d take into Otherworld?
JS: I like to think I would choose a version of myself. I think the fact that Simon does actually says a lot about an internal strength he hasn’t yet realized.
KM: I’d like to be a stronger, more coordinated version of myself. (In real life I’m so clumsy I can barely walk straight.) And I’d definitely choose the invisibility cloak!!! That one seems like a no-brainer to me.