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Scared where tech is taking us? Does ‘Playing With Death’ offer a glimpse of the future?

PUBLISHED: 15:49 13 September 2018 | UPDATED: 16:53 15 September 2018

'In our story, VR is used as a metaphor to explore broader concerns that FBI Special Agent Rose Blake has to tackle' - Lee Francis                                   COURTESY LEE FRANCIS

'In our story, VR is used as a metaphor to explore broader concerns that FBI Special Agent Rose Blake has to tackle' - Lee Francis COURTESY LEE FRANCIS

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I’ve tried to pitch it as ‘Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix’, says Lee Francis, who’s written the book with Simon Scarrow

Lee in his custom-made 'Skin suit' in Norwich Waterstones     Picture: COURTESY LEE FRANCISLee in his custom-made 'Skin suit' in Norwich Waterstones Picture: COURTESY LEE FRANCIS

No-one can accuse Lee Francis of ignoring his publicity duties. Not when he dons skin-tight costume and helmet and calls at bookshops to bang the drum. It’s perfect for the futuristic tale he’s co-authored – “a suit built from scratch, made in China to my custom size and design, based on the Skin suit as used in the book”. Ten out of 10 for imagination and commitment, that’s for sure.

Skin suit? It’s at the heart of a not-so-fanciful story that poses the kind of questions we can’t ignore as we rely more and more on technology.

In Playing With Death the discovery of a mutilated corpse lands FBI agent Rose Blake with an appalling puzzle. The victim was alone at home. No signs of forced entry. How did he burn to death?

There are melted strips of rubber on the body. It turns out he was wearing The Skin – a high-tech invention that takes users to a virtual world.

When another body is found, with identical injuries, Rose realises a merciless murderer hiding in the most shadowy corners of the Dark Web is playing a deadly game with no rules. To try to stop it, Rose – a woman with a family – must put herself in jeopardy by playing too.

While Playing With Death is a pacy crime thriller, it also raises issues most of us don’t understand or would rather ignore: How do we control and police virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI)? Should we?

The story is the work of Lee and Norfolk-based historical writer Simon Scarrow. Simon was his media studies lecturer in the days when Lee was a student (“a young upstart!”) at City College Norwich.

Lee Francis unmasked! 'Our access to digital worlds is now only a tap away, but what does that do to us as human beings? What happens to our lives in the real world if we spend so much time in artificial ones?'    Picture: COURTESY LEE FRANCISLee Francis unmasked! 'Our access to digital worlds is now only a tap away, but what does that do to us as human beings? What happens to our lives in the real world if we spend so much time in artificial ones?' Picture: COURTESY LEE FRANCIS

It wasn’t long before Simon swapped the classroom for the life of a full-time writer and built up his 17-book Eagles of the Empire series of Roman military fiction, along with other titles. But he and Lee, who shared a deep interest in film and the power of words, kept in touch, did some writing work together, and have now created this thought-provoking tale for our times. “I’ve tried to pitch it as ‘Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix’,” says Lee.

“Simon and I started formally developing this project together back in 2013, when VR was still very much a far-fetched concept,” says Lee.

“Simon actually conceived of the initial idea of a ‘Skin’ way back in 1995. When we finished writing Playing With Death in 2016, what started as science fiction is now verging on a contemporary reality. In our story, VR is also used as a metaphor to explore broader concerns that FBI Special Agent Rose Blake has to tackle.

“Our access to digital worlds is now only a tap away, but what does that do to us as human beings? What happens to our lives in the real world if we spend so much time in artificial ones? Will we get critically dependent on these things, to the exclusion of everything else? Moreover, how will our interactions with AI develop? For better, or worse?”

Quite.

Lee acknowledges “it’s a thriller, so it exacerbates the worst-case scenario for entertainment”, but it’s clear we humans need to make sure we control technology and its use, and don’t end up being led or abused by it.

The 31-year-old has “certainly noticed in the last five years how technology-oriented the whole world has become. The mother is an FBI agent, but she’s also got a son and is trying to adapt to this stuff. We wanted a series that reflected this, and that not everybody has caught up yet, and is trying to work out how we factor this into our lives, for good or ill”.

Norfolk's Simon Scarrow. Lee's former media studies lecturer and famous for his Roman military fiction. Now they're co-authors on a thriller     Picture: DENISE BRADLEYNorfolk's Simon Scarrow. Lee's former media studies lecturer and famous for his Roman military fiction. Now they're co-authors on a thriller Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

What does he think about virtual reality and artificial intelligence?

“VR I think is great because it allows you to recreate some great gaming situations, and the educational possibilities could be fantastic as well. We could walk around an Ancient Egyptian tomb without having to be there; it would be fantastic for kids.

“AI is one of these things where we have to be very careful: when the cat’s out of the bag, it’s not going to want to go back in. We vastly over-estimate our ability to control things.”

Playing With Death is published by Headline at £7.99 (paperback). For those brave enough, a free prequel app is available on the app store (“Catch a Killer”) which allows people to go undercover and send messages to a (fictional!) serial killer…

‘Daniel Radcliffe borrowed my DVDs’

Lee Francis

Family moves to Norfolk in about 2002

Parents had originally met in Norwich

He goes to City College Norwich and does A- and AS-levels

2006: Leaves for university

Gets BA (hons) first class degree in film studies at Kent

Spends several years working in worlds of film, TV and advertising as script reader and assistant director on major productions such as Harry Potter, horror film The Woman In Black and Spooks

‘I remember casually chatting to Emma Watson as I handed her a bottle of water, or telling people to shut up while we’re filming! Quite basic stuff, really. On the flipside, on The Woman in Black I got to hang out with Daniel Radcliffe (lead star) and he borrowed some films from my DVD collection, which was surreal. He’s a really genuine, grounded, nice chap’

Has had screenplays and crime thriller TV series developed and/or optioned. ‘Sadly, they have still yet to be made!’

Is working on a second book with Simon Scarrow

Now lives in Lake District

Parents still in Norfolk

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