Why Maze Runner's James Dashner abandoned dystopia for virtual realityS

James Dashner made a huge impact with The Maze Runner, his dystopian young-adult novel which is being turned into a major movie by Fox. Now he's back with a novel about virtual reality, The Eye of Minds. We talked to Dashner about why virtual reality could replace dystopia in young-adult novels.

The Eye of Minds is a pretty edgy YA book — it starts with a kid committing suicide in virtual reality (hacking her own neural interface so the death will be permanent in the real world, too) and just keeps twisting the knife.

In Dashner's near-future setting, there are super-popular VR games, which include full sensory immersion — but an evil hacker named Kaine has come up with a way to trap people in the VR world, so they can never wake up, and they eventually become brain dead in reality. The only way out... is to kill yourself.

So a young gamer named Michael gets recruited by the VR cops on a special mission: Track down Kaine and find out his secrets. To reach Kaine, Michael and his friends have to go through a bunch of tests and deathtraps, with increasing levels of horror and insanity.

The good news is, Dashner takes full advantage of the Matrix-esque potential for asking "what is real," and the weird paranoia of this novel is pretty infectious.

We asked Dashner why he'd moved away from the dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels of the Maze Runner series, towards something that deals more with artificial intelligence and technology. He responds:

I wanted to do something very different for my next project... and more than specifically [being about] VR, I hope that science fiction really takes a leap in young-adult fiction. I'm hoping the Ender's Game movie and a lot of the new science fiction movies that have come out this year [will spark] the next trend.... I think that's why the dystopian stuff got so popular, is [the fact that] it had all these fantastical elements, but there's this added creepiness factor of "What if this really happened some day?" It kind of scares you a little bit.

The other factor is that young people are way more dependent on gadgets, including phones and game systems, for their social interactions among other things. "They're so used to that," says Dashner. "That's just a part of their lives, so with this new series, I wanted to leap into the future a little bit and take them to something that they can still use their imaginations with, and they can see endless possibilities with."

Why Maze Runner's James Dashner abandoned dystopia for virtual reality

And the technology has improved in leaps and bounds — games are getting more realistic and the storylines are becoming more immersive. "The technology's taken a huge leap in just the last 15 years," says Dashner. "It just seems less like fantasy, and more like, 'When is this going to happen? When is virtual reality going to be so realistic?'"

The story of Eye of Minds has been in Dashner's head since he saw the Matrix films. (But he's never seen Caprica, in spite of being a big BSG fan.)

Another major influence on Eye of Minds: Christopher Nolan's Inception, and the notion of a "dream within a dream within a dream," with reality becoming harder and harder to distinguish from reality, says Dashner. "Virtual reality is so realistic that you can't differentiate it from the real world. How can you truly know that you've lifted out of it, that you've woken?"

In the second book in the series, he actually has a scene where they talk about the problem of waking up, and then waking up a second time and a third time — how do you know that you're really back in reality?

A crucial concept that makes the story work, for Dashner, is the notion of the link that keeps you attached to the real world — and what happens if people find a way to "get in and destroy that somehow."

The reason why Dashner's protagonist, Michael, is chosen to go after Kaine is because he's a super-hacker — but we don't see much hacking in this first novel. Dashner says he tried to avoid getting too much into the technical details "and all that," but in the second book we'll see the kids in the real world more, and they'll definitely have to rely more on their hacking skills when they're in reality dealing with computers.

And Dashner definitely hopes young people will read his book about heroic hackers and become more interested in working with computers. "My dad was a computer programmer, and I've always had that influence in my life. I think it's a really good direction for someone who has a sharp mind."

Dashner has seen some footage from the Maze Runner movie and "it was stunning. It blew me away." He's hoping there will be an official trailer pretty soon. He feels like director Wes Ball and the rest of the crew "have just done an amazing job of capturing the vision of the book and taking it to a different level." He also believes that this film "has an opportunity to differentiate itself from some of the YA movies that have come out, that struggle a bit... We'll see what people think."

Dashner's book tour for The Eye of Minds starts tomorrow.