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Aug 20

Book Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

What’s It About

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

Representative Paragraph

The early days of the disease…

 “I had a cousin who got Haden’s,” Davidson said, and internally I checked off the victory. “This was back with the first wave, when no one had any idea what the fuck was going on. Before they called it Haden’s. She got the flu, and then seemed to get better, and then—”

He shrugged.

“Lock in,” I said.

“Right,” Davidson said. “I remember going to the hospital to see her, and they had a whole wing of locked-in patients. Just lying there, doing nothing but breathing. Dozens of them. And a couple of days before, all of them were walking around, living a normal life.”

“What happened to your cousin?” I asked.

“She lost it,” Davidson said. “Being locked in made her have a psychotic break, or something like that.”

I nodded. “That wasn’t uncommon, unfortunately.”

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Commentary

John Scalzi’s Lock In is good entry-level science fiction.  It’s light on description, heavy on dialogue and doesn’t tax the mind with complicated far-flung ideas – like post humanism or the singularity – and hard to parse portmanteaus.  It’s the sort of novel you could recommend to a newbie before you ply them with the harder stuff like Charles Stross or Anne Leckie.

But entry-level does not mean simple.  Scalzi’s gift as a writer is taking reasonably complicated ideas – at least from the perspective of someone who doesn’t eat, sleep and dream of science fiction – and communicate them in a manner that’s (a) easy to understand and (b) extremely entertaining.  With Lock In he’s imagined a horrible situation, a worldwide virus that’s paralysed 1% of the population and which on its own would be the meat and potatoes of many a horror story, and applied a shiny science fiction gloss.  He achieves this through the introduction of virtual worlds, neural nets and robot avatars that allow the Hadens (those with the virus) to have a physical presence in the world.  It’s fantastic stuff.  High-concept and brimming with potential.

The point of view character for the novel – it’s told in first person – is Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent.  Shane’s first week on the job involves a murder investigation that has ramifications for the Haden community.  Scalzi deliberately doesn’t identify Shane’s gender.  It’s not something you necessarily notice while you’re reading the book, nor is Chris’ gender particularly relevant to the plot.  Instead it’s an unresolved question, an easter egg that slots seamlessly into a world where a small part of the population use genderless avatars.  Interestingly I read Chris as female.  It’s the vibe I received from the character though I can’t point to a single moment or line of dialogue that proves my case.

What’s more overt are discussions on class and sociology, or at least the cultures that build around disabilities.  In terms of class, it’s clear that Threeps are not cheap, and while most Hadens have access to the basic model, those with money can buy an avatar that has all the frills.  Chris comes from a privileged background,  his/her father was a sport star, now a politician, who is not short of a buck.  This means that she/he has access to the best Threep on the market, something Chris is fully cognisant of:

She [a real estate agent] glanced back to me and her eyes flickered over my shiny, expensive threep, as if to say not that you have to worry about that.

Class, status and power is also a key component of the story, with the murder investigation centering on the Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates of Hadens.

More interesting, though, is the culture that’s built up around the disability.  I’m always fascinated by debates around deaf culture and the threat posed by a cure for those who are proud to be deaf, to have sign language as their main form of communication.  Scalzi explores this very notion.  It’s been a several years since the virus and the Hadens have created a sense of community and culture.  And like deafness, it’s a way of life that would come under threat if a remedy to the virus was found.  This very issue becomes pivotal to the plot.  One of the secondary characters, Jay Kearney, firebombs a pharmaceutical company that’s working on a cure.

Jay Kearney: “But as I went on I began to realize that Haden’s wasn’t some life sentence. It was just another way to live. I began to see the beauty of the world we Hadens were creating, the millions of us, in our own spaces and in our own way. And I began listening to the words of Cassandra Bell, who said that people like me, people who were working to quote-unquote cure Haden’s, were in fact killing the first new nation of humanity to come along in centuries.

It’s a shame, therefore, that this aspect of the novel, while important to the motivations of some of the characters, isn’t one that’s explored in any further depth.  By the halfway point of the book, any commentary around Haden culture, or for that matter class and status, is subsumed by the plot as Sclazi pushes toward a dramatic, if predictable conclusion.

While I would have liked to have seen more exploration of class, status and disability culture I also accept that this is not that type of book.  Like good entry-level science fiction, it’s happy to start the discussion, happy to have readers reflect on these issues – and question their own gender bias – but not necessarily tackle the thorny problems that emerge from discussing these themes and concerns.  In the end story and plot take precedence.  In this case the story was fine, if a little thin and obvious, but I appreciated the world building and would be more than happy to see a world like this depicted on TV.*

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*Which might actually happen because Legendary have bought the TV rights.

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