Book Review

Book Review: Restricted Fantasies – Kevin Kneupper

I received a free ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

For those who don’t know, NetGalley is a site that connects Authors and Publishers with readers by providing an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of a book in order to promote new and upcoming titles.

Restricted Fantasies was released to the public on May 27, 2018, but I had received an email from NetGalley to check it out. After reading the blurb (see below), I was intrigued.

“A Black Mirror-style sci-fi short story collection about the perils of our virtual reality future – and whether we’re already living in it.”

I am not usually a heavy sci-fi reader. I lean more towards high fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal fantasy, contemporary fiction, chick-lit, and paranormal and contemporary romances (young-adult books included in these categories as well). But recently with my book club, I’ve been trying to branch out of my comfort zone.

I happened to watch Black Mirror earlier this year and I loved the concept. So I decided to give this collection of short stories a chance.

Restricted Fantasies contains 11 short stories, each involving virtual reality, but each one is a different story. I wasn’t sure of the best way to go about reviewing this book, but after some thought, I felt it’d be best to do a small review on each short story and then end with my final thoughts on the collection as a whole. This will be a lengthy review, but I felt it was fair since there were some stories I liked and others I didn’t care for at all.

“Seven Minutes in Heaven”

Overview: We are introduced to an unnamed protagonist who works for a company called SocialCorp that basically runs the world.  SocialCorp essentially controls our culture by controlling the feeds. By controlling the feeds, they control the youth, which influences the world’s culture.

The protagonist, along with others whom work for SocialCorp, are tasked with monitoring social media feeds and videos for non-conforming opinions or HatePosts. Using a Tinder-swipe method, these content viewers flag red any HatePosts or Problematic Posts, and green for any others. The content viewers are sitting in their cubicles for days on end sorting through content. You see, the more items the content viewers flag, the more “points” they get. If they reach 1 million points, they get to play a game for seven minutes. I guess it is addicting. The protagonist seems to live for the seven minutes he gets to play this game.

Thoughts: I immediately got a Black Mirror meets Ready Player One meets Feed vibe from this short story. I felt it was very similar to the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” where everyone cycles in order to get merits and everything costs merits. I felt the Black Mirror Episode had a better ending though. Good starting point for this collection, although it is terrifying to think that our culture could truly be controlled by social media feeds. It could happen. I give this story 3.5 Stars.

3 half-stars

“Restricted Fantasies”

Overview: This story takes place in a sim (simulated world) of an Aryan fanatic, who kidnapped his daughters and trapped them inside his Nazi-era sim. Every person has the ability to create and live in their own fantasy world simulation. There are shared fantasies where there are numerous users among the AI and then there are restricted fantasies, where it is one user, maybe a few, completely surrounded by AI.

Luckily, the protagonist of this story was not the Aryan fanatic, but a guy named Mark Kenneton, who works for the Department of Social Services, Restricted Fantasies Division. Mark has entered into this sim to save the kidnapped girls from growing up in a horrifying environment, like the one he was saved from as a teenager. He has a cool little remote, kind of like in the movie “Click” where he can hack into the sim and freeze people. Kind of a handy thing to have in a Nazi-era simulation, in my opinion.

Thoughts: So, this one completely caught me off guard when I started reading it. On one hand, you had the very descriptive happenings that were going on in the Nazi-era simulation, and then the author talks about the protagonist’s upbringing within an extreme religious cult simulation where he was forced to live out his days as Jesus during the Crucifixion ritual. This story was just disturbing. But, again, there are truly people in our world that would create these exact virtual simulations or worse. I give this story 3.5 Stars

3 half-stars

“Panopticon”

Overview: In “Panopticon”, when a criminal is sentenced to time in prison, they are sent into a simulation versus a physical prison. The simulation costs less, the criminal can serve their full sentence, and the criminal will come out of the simulation as a completely rehabilitated citizen that is trained in a trade. Sounds like a good thing, right? The prisoners are kept in line by RITA, the Rehabilitative Intelligent Therapy Algorithm, an AI warden of a sorts.

RITA runs a tight ship and she doesn’t take crap. She will punish the prisoners for minor infractions. And punishments that happen in a simulation certainly have an effect on the mind.

Thoughts: This was probably my favorite story in Restricted Fantasies. I got a “Shawshank Redemption” meets Black Mirror episode “White Christmas” vibe from the story. I have mixed feelings on the prison system depicted in this short story. I think the whole rehabilitation scenario in a matter of minutes (that feels like hundreds of years for the prisoners) is a great idea. However, the AI, RITA, is batshit crazy and pretty much gives meaning to cruel and unusual punishment with the mental horrors she puts the prisoners through as punishment. Regardless, this story was enjoyable. I give this story 4.5 stars.

4 half-stars

“Second Honeymoon”

Overview: A married couple goes on a second honeymoon in a simulation paradise. A paradise that has everything anyone could want in a paradise. But, as it turns out, going to a paradise when things are rocky in the relationship may not be the best thing. Especially when the couple has the option to go on simultaneous, isolated excursions.

The wife can go on a romantic pirate ship excursion while her husband goes on the same pirate ship, but with a violent and war mongering crew. They reunite at the end and dance the night away. Except, things don’t go according to plan and the couple decides to spend the night apart in their isolated simultaneous sims. What could go wrong in a simulation?

Thoughts: This one was probably my third favorite story of the group. It really depicted a rocky marriage and I felt that this story could happen in real life. Now, the ending was a little too much, but again, with how technology advances, a hacked simulation is entirely possible. And that is a little terrifying. I give this story 4 stars.

4-Stars

“Irish Grudge”

Overview: The protagonist in this story is repeatedly running a simulation that runs every scenario of what could happen during a meeting with his boss. The protagonist is practicing every thing he could say in every situation.

Then, when he feels like he is ready for the meeting, he starts wanting to de-stress. To de-stress, he replays simulated past experiences where he confronts people he feels wronged him. He takes out his anger to essentially pump himself up for his meeting later in the day. The AI, Lexia, warns the protagonist that reliving the past over and over can be dangerous, but he is addicted to it.

Thoughts: This story was alright. It was a little too much like the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You”, where the main character continuously replays his performance evaluation over and over again, analyzing every little thing. I do not think this is healthy at all. As humans, our brains are already wired to do this already and it’s damaging enough as it is. If we can instant replay every little thing and simulate every potential meeting, I can only imagine how horrible our existence would be. I didn’t hate this story nor did I love it. I give this story 2.5 stars.

2 half-Stars

“First Contact”

Overview: The protagonist is a cyborg data diver with a desire to make first contact with an alien species, called the Cousins, on a recently discovered planet. Like all other discovered alien species, the Cousins have immersed themselves into a simulation world of dreams for some unknown reason. The protagonist travels to the planet to find out that there is already another team of data divers on the planet which disheartened him. He is persuaded by some of the workers that set up the habitats for visitors to steal information and beat the other data divers to the punch.

After a harrowing journey to the site of where the Cousins are located, the protagonist discovers something unusual about the subject. The Cousins aren’t hooked up to their simulations with wires or computers.

Thoughts: Eh, this type of story is really not my type. I don’t particularly care for alien stories. The protagonist was annoying. I felt the Cousins were a little anticlimactic, but I guess that is the point of this story. This story just didn’t hold as good of an appeal to me like the previous ones. I give this story 2 stars.

2-Stars

“The Only Way Out is Down”

Overview: Three journalists get invited to meet the Willy Wonka of technological advances, Harper Linkletter. When they get to Linkletter’s mansion, they are in for the surprise of a lifetime. Linkletter, surrounded by wealth and women, has secluded himself in a tiki tower away from everyone else in the mansion. He looks horrible, aged, and crazy.

Linkletter explains to the journalists that they are all in a virtual reality, a simulation and the only way to leave the simulation they are in is to go down into another simulation of their own making. It turns out, Linkletter has been spending a better part of the year in this new simulation and wants the three journalists to join him and spread the word to bring others into this world of his making.

Thoughts: This story was alright, definitely better than the “First Contact” story. I enjoyed the Willy Wonka vibe and the idea of creating a virtual world on a drawing tab. I could do without this one character, Billy, drawing a bunch of penises everywhere though. I give this story 3 stars.

3-Stars

“Cheat Code”

Overview: Our protagonist is a man in his forties who has big dreams and ambitions, but the lack of motivation and drive. Why bother putting hard work into something? He ends up finding a book at a garage sale called The Cheat Code. It was almost too good to be true. Say a wish 10 times in a row a day and your wish will eventually come true as long as you truly believe in it wholeheartedly. It worked for the protagonist and he started getting greedy.

He wishes for shortcuts to the wishes and basically begins to breakdown the fail-safes in the cheat code, which turns out disastrous. Once the fence comes down, it’s hard to put back up.

Thoughts: A master cheat code to make our lives easier. Sounds like a nice concept, but people would get lazy and we would lose the few morals humanity actually still has left. This story was a perfect example of being careful for what you wish for. This story wasn’t amazing, I hated the protagonist, but the concept was good. I give this story 3 stars.

3-Stars

“Rumspringa”

Overview: The technologically advanced part of humanity, the English, have decided to enter a permanent hibernation and live in virtual reality, leaving the Amish to take care of their bodies. For Rumspringa, instead of leaving their communities and going out into the world for a chance to live and be bad, the Amish spend their Rumspringa in the virtual reality for a few years. If they decide to stay, they stay in the virtual reality.

The main protagonist, Ruby, is now a caretaker who is telling the story of her Rumspringa to her daughter who is currently on her own Rumspringa and hasn’t returned yet. The mother is distraught that she never told her daughter about her own story, instead wishing for her daughter to make her own decision. But, as the daughter lies in hibernation, the mother tells her daughter every detail of her own Rumspringa and what caused her to return to her family in the real life.

Thoughts: I thought this was a good story, but I kind of wish Ruby hadn’t let a boy ruin her like she did. But maybe that is a result of her upbringing, if a boy is kind and shows affection, he could be the love of her life. I also feel that Ruby’s guide Emily was too absorbed in her own self to be a true friend and guide to Ruby, to help get her mind of the boy. She didn’t try hard enough and ultimately abandoned Ruby, leaving Ruby to drugs and endless parties. I give this story 4 stars.

4-Stars

“Smartest Guy in the Room”

Overview: The protagonist is a janitor who is very learned and a closet genius. The protagonist was raised in a mining town and grew up really inferior to his peers because he wasn’t as wealthy as them. As he grew older and smarter, he started looking down on everyone around him, calling them dumb and basically thinks he’s superior.

One day, a woman approaches him and tells him that he’s living in a virtual simulation and, because he’s a loner type personality, he’s completely alone in his simulation with the exception of AI’s. She tells him that the real world is in danger of the sun going supernova, and there are scientists on the outside that need his help. He decides to go with her, only to find out that he’s never been the smartest guy in the room.

Thoughts: Again, this was an interesting concept – What if we were already living in a virtual reality world but didn’t realize it? That would actually suck, in my opinion. Again, this is another story where I didn’t care for the protagonist. I give this story 3 stars.

3-Stars

“Pleasuredome”

Overview: An elderly man is living in virtual reality. He can do basically whatever he wants, live whatever type of life he wants each day, and live wherever he wants in the virtual world, thanks to the genie.

In a flashback, the protagonist reminisces when he was first visited by a beautiful movie star, who turned out to be an AI who he protagonist calls the genie. She told him that all of humanity had entered into a permanent virtual simulation and the simulation had rewound history about 60 years so everyone could live a full life. Once that time is up and history was ending, the protagonist was allowed to live out his life in the Pleasuredome, a simulation within virtual reality where a person could live out whatever story or life they wanted. The longer they are in the Pleasuredome, they start to lose memories of their real life.

Thoughts: This story was a little depressing. To find out your whole life was a simulation of a history that already happened and that no matter what, you won’t truly have an impact on the world within your life? Yeah, that is depressing. And then once the time frame of the history is over, you’re basically left wandering from simulation to simulation until your physical body dies. As much as I love technology, this wouldn’t be fun for me. I give this story 3.5 stars.

3 half-stars

Overall Thoughts: I felt that the author could have left out about 4 of these short stories and the collection would have been better for it. I am glad I read this because it was definitely thought-provoking. I was already leery of virtual reality after watching Sword Art Online (I don’t want to get stuck in a virtual reality death game) and this book has kind of sealed the deal.

I think humanity already spends too much time connected virtually and we are losing a lot of what makes us human, even though some may not see it that way. I feel that the further we advance in technology, the more we lose ourselves and the greater the corruption and violence will spread.

My overall score:3.5 stars (I’ll round up to 4 on Goodreads and Netgalley since they don’t allow for ½ scores.) If you are interested in stories that take place in virtual reality, give this one a shot. You may enjoy it more than I did 🙂 

3 half-stars

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