The Extractionist: Enjoyable, left me wanting more

The Extractionist by Kimberly Unger science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Extractionist by Kimberly Unger

The Extractionist by Kimberly Unger science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWith The Extractionist, Kimberly Unger presents a pretty typical futuristic-internet-cybersetting-with-a-name background (in this case the cyberverse is called “the Swim”), but enhances the familiar setting with an original spin — a class of workers called Extractionists whose job it is to rescue people who get “stuck” in the Swim by reconnecting their Swim persona and their real-world body.

I loved the idea, and mostly loved its embodiment in Eliza McKay, the book’s protagonist, but felt the story could have been executed better.

McKay’s job is actually a fall-back position she takes on after she was banned from the high-level nanotech research she really wants to do (the reason for her being “burned” is gradually revealed).

Extracting is part engineering / tech know-how and part art, and McKay is good at both aspects, helped by her own abilities and also by her cutting-edge “X-wire” technology that allows her to plug directly into the Swim via embedded tech in her brain.

X-wires are rare not just because of the sophisticated technology, or the fact that many people don’t want connectors in their brain, but also because they have been known to cause psychotic breaks during or post-installation.

When a government agent working a major case gets stuck in the Swim, his team leader hires McKay to perform the extraction and, as one might assume, things do not go according to plan, nor is everything (or possibly anything) what it seems to be, and McKay soon finds herself dangerously embroiled in a complex and possibly fatal tangle involving corporate crime, rogue agents, AIs, killer software, and possible double-agents.

The technology in The Extractionist is vividly imagined and presented, both within the Swim and in everyday life, at least within the tight focus of the plot (the big picture impact of the tech is not quite as clear).

Unger has a deft hand in smoothly and clearly introducing a new tech and the ways in which it might be used (or abused) and also, as with the Extractionist job, puts an original spin on certain well-trod elements. For instance, one enters the Swim not as oneself, but as a “persona,” a “programmatic copy of the mind that could think the same, act the same, experience the same [then] the new memories are copied back and the person woke up with all those experiences in place, as if they had experienced them literally.”

Kimberly Unger

Kimberly Unger

It’s this difference that allows for what McKay does, because if someone while in the Swim experienced something “game changing, life changing, a shift in perspective,” they couldn’t simply be copied back, as the persona was no longer quite the same person. Beyond the necessity for plot purposes, though, it also offers up some intriguing questions about personhood, and whether personas are “real people” or not.

Questions also arise with the AIs and bots that pepper the story. McKay treats them all with the same respect, sometimes more than she gives “real people” and is annoyed/angered by those who do not. So as far as the “techno” part of this techno-thriller goes, Unger pretty much nails it.

Characterization, with McKay at least, is also a strong point of The Extractionist. Smart, quick-thinking, and willing to take risks, McKay is also prickly, desperate to get her ability to research back, and self-aware of her flaws (such as that willingness to take risks, which has two sides to it). She’s an engaging, lively, entertaining character, one who is easy to spend a lot of time with. And while at the outset she is presented as the typical lone-wolf hacker with no true bonds (something highlighted by opening the book with her working a case in Singapore), as the story progresses, Unger makes clear she in fact has a network of friends, and when the novel nears its climax, she turns to them to help get her through things in one piece.

While McKay comes fully alive though, the other characters are far less well drawn, more like sketches of characters.

Meanwhile, if the techno part of The Extractionist is excellent, the “thriller” part I’d say is the weakest and least interesting aspect of the story. I’m not going to go into details so as not to spoil the plot, but little of it felt compelling, fully thought through, or brought to a natural conclusion, so that it all seemed more a bare-bones skeleton constructed more for hanging the far more interesting aspects (the technology, the main character) on.

Honestly, had the whole corporate scheme and government agency twin elements been completely excised and it would have been enough to just watch McKay go through what she does without the alleged high stakes. I was far more interested in her responses to the bots in comparison to others, her relationship with her own AI, and the questions of personhood and how workplaces can be toxic.

That said, I’m generally not a best-seller/thriller kind of reader, and so I’m happy to admit this could just be my preference for greater focus on character and theme, though I still think there are plotting issues even if one sets that aside.

The prose is serviceably smooth throughout The Extractionist, elevating I’d say when describing the Swim. The only real issue I had with the prose, and I’m assuming/hoping this is just an artifact of an advanced reader copy, is that the pronouns were noticeably and frequently problematic, with multiple moments where the pronoun was unclear as to its reference, some moments where pronouns or descriptors felt off, and even several occasions where pronouns switched gender for the same person. I even began to wonder if McKay had originally been written as a male character and then switched to female with the author catching only most but not all of the necessary changes. Here’s hoping that gets cleared up in final publication.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in McKay’s head and Unger’s descriptions of the technology in this futuristic world while finding myself mostly uninterested in plot machinations. The Extractionist is an enjoyable quick read that left me wanting more.

Published July 2022. In her breakout technothriller, virtual reality expert Kimberly Unger has created the iconic, badass, cyberpunk heroine that you desperately need: Eliza McKay. McKay is disgraced underground hacker who is just trying to take back her career one dangerous job at a time. But when her latest contract throws her into the middle of a corporate power struggle, she finds herself fighting for her life in both the real and digital worlds. Eliza McKay is an Extractionist: an expert in the virtual reality space where people’s minds are uploaded as digital personas. When rich or important people get stuck in the Swim for reasons that are sleazy, illegal, or merely unlucky — it’s McKay’s job to quietly extract them. And McKay’s job just got a lot more dangerous. After McKay repels an attack on her Swim persona, hired thugs break into her house to try to hack her cybernetic implants directly. Meanwhile, the corporate executive she was hired to rescue from VR space is surprisingly reluctant to be extracted. Something is lurking in the Swim, and some very powerful people will stop at nothing to keep it secret. This job might be the big break McKay has been waiting for — if she can survive long enough to beat the hackers at their own game. In The Extractionist, virtual reality and gaming expert Unger has created an unforgettable cyberplayground where the rich still make their own rules, but a skilled operator remains the wildcard.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I love the name “the swim!”

  2. I also had an ARC of this, and largely agree with you. The pronouns are an awful mess (and there are a number of other mechanical issues with the writing, so many that I have some doubt that even a good copy editor will remove them all before publication). For me, though, the thriller pacing and tension worked OK.

    The interface metaphor gets overliteralized at times, too, but that’s cyberpunk for you.

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