Throwback Thursday: Head On

A sportsman dying on the field wouldn’t usually be a case for the FBI. But Duane Chapman is a Haden, and the body being ripped apart in the Hilketa match is a threep. So what went wrong? And was it an accident?

‘By the time Duane Chapman died on the Hilketa field, his head had already been torn off twice’ is a hell of an opening line, and Scalzi’s return to the Hadenverse picks up the ball and runs with it from there.

Hilketa is a new sport where you score points by ripping the head off a player on the opposing team and carrying it across the goal line. With every player a Haden – and every body a threep (robot) – nobody actually gets hurt. At least, that’s the idea. In reality, the teams leave pain switched on (if tuned down to 5-10%). Losing your head is always going to hurt.

But it shouldn’t kill you.

Duane Chapman’s death is the start of a new investigation for FBI Agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, and I’m happy to say I enjoyed it every bit as much as their first (Lock In). In some respects it’s more of the same as Scalzi continues to kick the tyres on his world-building, but if you’re a regular reader you know I’m a sucker for well-considered world-building.

The joy to these books – apart from the fact that Scalzi writes a cracking procedural – is how naturally the plot flows from the core concept. In retrospect, everything seems obvious: if this is true, then terrible human beings will try that. Of course there’s a market for sex threeps. Naturally there will be someone protesting that Hilketa players are all Hadens (how very dare they exclude people like that). Whilst on the one hand it can be an absurd over the top action adventure (I like to keep count of how many threeps Chris trashes), it’s very carefully thought through.

A case in point: Hilketa itself. It is effectively a post-modern blood sport. The crowd are cheering on a bunch of people wielding hammers and swords who are trying to decapitate someone. And crucially, if the players were human, they would die. Scalzi spells it out in the end for those at the back: not dying makes Hilketa players something other than human. As Hadens, they are already othered on a daily basis; but Hilketa underlines that. On the other hand, it’s a high profile sport that normalises Hadens. Ultimately, it’s both representation and alienation. Scalzi knows he’s being problematic, and he reflects on it in the context of the world he has built.

I also like how Scalzi toys with expectations. By the end of the second volume I’m still no closer to knowing Chris’s gender. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even feel dodged. It’s just not relevant. Meanwhile, Leslie Vann is an absolute fucking gem of a character: short-tempered, cynical, belligerent and hard-drinking – and emphatically a woman (as are the majority of the FBI agents who show up). It is a joy to watch her go to work on lawyers, local law enforcement, other FBI agents and anyone else who gets in her way.

High-concept thrillers can be a hard act to follow, but with Head On Scalzi makes it look easy. And in case it all sounds a bit too serious – never fear, the sense of humour is relentless (more books should have a custody battle over a witness protection cat).

All in all, this is a cracking read – although I’d strongly recommend you read Lock In first. Not because Head On won’t stand alone (I think it covers itself sufficiently to do so) – but because Lock In is a joy, so you may as well treat yourself to a double helping of fun.