Much as we like to think of reality as a concrete, palpable thing, immovable and unchangeable, the fact is that it is altered by any number of variables, not least how we perceive the world around us and what our mind accepts as real and not real.
It might look locked and loaded, done and irretrievably dusted, and oh, that it was, but as videogame developer Peter Banuk finds out in Ron Walter’s thrillingly absorbing novel, Deep Dive, it is an endlessly changeable feast or unending nightmare, depending on where you’re sitting in the grand scheme of things.
That grand scheme starts looking decidedly twisty and frighteningly strange to Peter one day when the workaholic owner of Omega Studios, a videogame company reeling from its first big flop, answers the call from his tech mogul friend Bradley to try a revolutionary virtual reality headset that will change immersive escapism as we know it.
Too good an opportunity to pass up, right?
That’s what Peter thinks, and though it means yet another guilt-saturated absence from the family home where wife Alana and daughters Cassie and Evie are once again playing second fiddle to his career, he can’t pass on the chance to have a seat at his friend’s edge-of-possibility table, especially if it could rescue his teetering career.
“Problem is, this isn’t just any game. Virtual reality is risky, but if the headset Bradley designed is really next-level immersive, it’ll not only usher in a new era of gaming, it will also save my career. I have to see the headset for myself. Have to know I’m not wasting my time. If Starflung tanks like Scorchfell, I’m done. Creatively. Professionally. Personally. All the time I spent building Omega Studios from the ground up, all the time I’ve spent away from Alana and the girls, it’ll all have been for nothing.” (P. 7)
Unfortunately, something goes disastrously wrong, and rather than doing some quick headset testing before racing home to cook Evie her favourite birthday dinner of goopy Mac and Cheese, Peter wakes up to find himself in a version of the world which ticks all of the usual boxes, even if they’re in unsettlingly different combinations, except one – Cassie and Evie has disappeared from existence.
At first, and quite reasonably so given the circumstances, Peter thinks he’s losing his mind, an idea that gains currency when his wife confirms he is still reeling from the death of someone close to him only a couple of years earlier.
Faced with two realities that each seem to be as real as the other, Peter has an impossible choice to make – does he believe his daughters are real, and thus the reality that informs his memories actually exists, or does he go along with reality as it now stands before him and chalk his children up to some sort of charmingly fatherly fever dream?
What a nightmarishly decision to make; you can understand why Peter, being batted back and forth by equally convincing arguments in favour of each reality, feels like he is rapidly losing a firm grip on what the real world actually constitutes.
At this point, Peter has lost any faith in the solidity and surety of things, his one firm grip on the hard, cold reality of the world around looking like some sort of cruel joke, one that gets increasingly less funny as the two worlds start to blur disorientingly together at the same time as some less than stellar human beings start to make getting home to Alana and the kids less and less likely.
Deep Dive is a brilliantly well-realised novel.
Gripping and tense and full to the virtual brim with the kinds of twists and turns and startling relevations that leave the heart beating at a million miles an hour, Deep Dive is that superb thriller novel that also manages to harbour a tremendous amount of humanity.
Walters, who writes with an obvious talent for combining events and emotions into one seamless whole – this is a gift because not everyone manages to get the balance right – takes his time, even in the middle of some intense pell-mell action, to build up Peter’s world, and his greatly conflicted place within it, such that when it is rent asunder, or at least Peter’s place within it is, we feel for the protagonist in ways that will make an emotional impact.
The novel isn’t simply then the story of one man’s attempt to escape a prison of some diabolically virtual making, but rather of a loving dad and husband realising he’s let the ones he loves most down and that he can and must do better, assuming he can get back to them at all.
Imbuing Deep Dive with so much affecting heart and empathy means that it is not just simply a thriller that excels every step of the way; it is very much that, and stopping yourself turning pages even well after bedtime proves all but impossible, but it goes further, turning the nail-biting race for home into a redemptive tale of one man transformed into the husband and father he always wanted to be but couldn’t quite find the time to live out.
“Like a dying star, all my pent-up emotions go nova the moment O’Laughlin mentions Alana. Filled with a burning, incandescent rage, I throw myself sideways, for once catching Finn off guard. He grunts, fights to maintain his balance, and lurches into a filing cabinet. Shepard curses, tries to grab me, but I duck beneath her arms and lunge towards O’Laughlin, fully intent on wringing his neck for threatening Alana, for threatening to lock me up, for what he and his cronies did to [redacted].
My fingertips have just grazed his neck when something hard slams into the back of my neck, plunging me into darkness.” (P. 161)
That is the very heart of this novel.
It has so much brilliant action and is everything you want from a thriller that asks some big questions in ways so imaginative your brain will bulge with the bigness of it all, with an originality that makes you glad writers dare to go where few others do, but Deep Dive is at its darkly exciting core, a story of one man who realises when he doesn’t have his wife and kids by his side just how much they really mean to him.
Deep Dive is very much a case of come for the intriguing, richly-realised premise which has all kinds of entertaining fun with the idea of the Sliding Doors-ness of reality, and stay for the humanity which is in every nervewracking moment of existential dislocation, every menacing gesture, every titanically violent fight for survival.
By bringing these two elements together in such a vividly imaginative way, Walters manage to get us on the edge of our seats while asking exactly how we feel about being there.
This is no emptily unemotional dash through a kaleidoscope of realities; it’s richly human, palpably alive, reinforcing both that the world around is a thousand times more beguiling and complex than we even begin to give it credit for, but that the things we should really hang onto, the things that really matters and will matter wherever or whenever we are, will always be with us even if we have to fight sometimes to keep them in our grasp.