The flupocalypse didn’t wipe us out, but it left 1 in 100 people paralysed – or ‘locked in’. One of them was the POTUS’s wife, so we gave a shit. But 25 years later, a new US government is stripping away the life lines that keep Hadens in touch with the physical world, and there’s a killing to be made… literally.
John Scalzi is a reliable teller of yarns: fast-paced and action-packed, with a personable tone and a big canvas. Lock In is no exception. Chris Shane is the child of a sporting hero turned politician, a poster child for the Hadens. His physical body sleeps in his parents’ home, hooked up to the best medical equipment and the net; his consciousness can hook into the Agora – a virtual world that allows a Haden to escape their paralysed body – or ride in his synthetic body (known, in a brilliant nod, as his threep. Thanks, John). Now, he’s finally qualified as an FBI agent – because being a Haden (or at least a rich Haden) doesn’t have to limit your life choices.
When a murder is reported in a DC hotel room, the assumed perpetrator is an Integrator – an even rarer survivor of the flu, who effectively came out the other side as a low-level psychic, able to grant a Haden access to their body for the full physical experience. Sound like it could get messy? You’d be absolutely right.
This is a rollercoaster police procedural, complete with a senior partner with a dubious reputation, a lot of property damage (he spends a fortune on threeps) and an escalating body count as the case continues. It’s also a top-notch corporate thriller – expect politics, sabotage and protesting as firms manoeuvre to take advantage of opportunities offered by the shift in political leadership.
That means it’s also rich in socio-political commentary – Hadens face frequent prejudice (you can’t trust a person without a face; it’s easy to hate a machine) and while the government claim they require no further support, it doesn’t take more than a moment’s reflection to realise that this means thousands of poor American Hadens are going to face impossible medical bills for the 24/7 care their bodies require. Even the Agora is to go up for sale – so how long will the Hadens retain any form of outside contact without a steep bill attached? (and without it, how can they work to earn the money to pay for it?)
I liked how much thought Scalzi had put into the implications of his initial set-up. Haden’s Syndrome isn’t just a cool concept used to dress up a traditional thriller; it informs the plot throughout and allows Scalzi to make unexpectedly subtle comments on perceptions of race and gender. He also gives consideration to the micro-aggressions and challenges that the Hadens would face. Sure, you can zip from one side of the country to the other in the blink of an eye – no need for that long-haul flight – so long as you can download into a spare office threep (has anyone kept up the maintenance?) or rent a threep when you get there (just as well Chris has a trust fund). At least you’re good for absorbing damage when the bad guys open fire.
With its liberal sensibilities and diverse cast, I assume this got right up the nose of more right-wing readers, but I had a blast. Do I think it deserved a Hugo? Not really, but it’s an awful lot of fun and well worth a read.
It’s worth noting that I totally failed to spot quite how clever Mr Scalzi was being with his use of language in Lock In. So if you read Chris as a woman, you wouldn’t be wrong. I’m not wrong either – there are no clues either way, as it turns out – but I fell straight into the assumption that a first person narrative about an FBI agent written by a bloke must be about a bloke. But it is merely an assumption, and this novel goes a long way to showing (even compared to the likes of Ancillary Justice) just how little it matters.