Lock In, by John Scalzi

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 26, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

One per cent doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the United States, that’s 1.7 million people “locked in”…including the President’s wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse….

Thoughts: Scalzi takes an absolutely fascinating concept with Lock In and takes in unexpected directions. Where the obvious way to tell this story would be to have it be from the perspective of someone who has recently found themselves locked in and is struggling to come to grips with it (though that would still have made a very interesting story), he chooses instead to tell a murder mystery through the eyes of Chris Shane, a man who has been locked in since the age of 2 after falling ill with Haden’s, and, being fortunate enough to be born to a very affluent family, is able to have his consciousness ride around in a top-of-the-line “threep”, a humanoid Personal Transport affectionately nicknamed after C-3PO (which should give you a general idea of what threeps look like). The story starts with Shane’s first day on the job as an FBI agent, and immediately launches characters and readers into some serious action and controversy as government cutbacks and anti-Haden sentiments get worse, people get killed, and a huge conspiracy starts to come to light.

Shane is an interesting character to ride on the shoulders of, providing good insight into how Hadens, as those who have been affected by the disease, tend to live. He may be rich and able to afford a new threep at the drop of a hat, but he still faces many similar limitations in his life that other, less fortunate Hadens do. His body must be kept safe, because even when he’s walking around in a robot shell, if his fleshy body dies, he will die. He faces discrimination from those who are ignorant and those who are deliberately malicious. He experiences the perceived benefits and drawbacks of being a Haden, from having a body that can, in many ways, withstand more than a human body, to the community of the Agora (a Haden-only network, akin to a mentally-accessed Internet), to the thought that unless his body is properly taken care of by someone he trusts, he is extremely vulnerable.

Understandably, there are strong ties to disability activism in Lock In, and the expected debate about which form of treatment and accommodation would be better. Is it better to help those who are locked in adjust to new bodies and how their new lives will work, ensuring that they can still be productive and happy members of society? Or is it better to try to reverse the effect of Haden’s and ‘unlock’ individuals so that they can have functioning bodies? Many of these arguments struck me as quite similar to things  have heard Deaf people debate, and are often debated around and about Deaf people. On one hand, removing what society sees as a disability can have many advantages, or rather it takes away a disadvantage that comes from lack of accommodation. On the other hand, and as is demonstrated in Lock In, sometimes it’s not a matter of returning someone to a previous state, it’s actively forcing them to adjust to something new. Shane was locked in when he was 2, and barely remembers a time when he wasn’t locked in. Another character, Cassandra Bell, was born locked in, and so she grew up with the Agora as her primary means of social interaction, and without the limitations a body puts on a mind, learned quickly and was extremely intelligent. To unlock either of them would essentially be forcing them into a new situation that they can’t remove themselves from, taking away a sense of self and community, so that they can fit someone else’s idea of normal. It’s the typical all-or-nothing approach that many people have when dealing with disability, and Scalzi presents it in clear terms that make both sides of a complex and multi-layered issue easier to understand.

The book is largely a murder mystery/crime thriller packaged in a sci-fi wrapper, making it appealing to multiple large audiences without sacrificing good elements from either genre. They both work to complement each other extremely well, adding layers of diversity to what could have been interesting stories all on their own, but together they make something phenomenal. Just as it’s good to have stories about the brilliant scientist who discovers an alien race, or the daring commander of a fleet of space ships, so too is it good to have stories that are more relatable, showing how the future gets integrated into what we know of the world today. Lock In does just that. It’s not an unbelievable far-future with a larger-than-life cast. It’s set in the very near-future, where events have influenced how certain aspect of technology has developed, but society has stayed pretty much the same and so despite the main character being incredibly rich and able to afford things that most can’t even dream of, the whole thing feels so very relatable, and it’s easy to imagine living in such a future not too long from now.

I have to commend Scalzi for the way so much information is conveyed to the reader. You’ve got commentary on social activism and disability, a different level of technology than we’re used to now, and information about how big businesses work, as well as the usual amount of A-to-B-to-C explanations that usually accompany a good murder mystery, and it’s all presented believably, without pages upon pages of info-dumps and exposition. his was done primarily by having many of the characters be knowledgeable about their own fields and expertise, but not everyone knows everything, and so to bring the whole investigating team up to speed, things had to be explained by various characters. There were very few moments where I felt like things were being dumbed down a little too much for the reader’s sake rather than the characters’; on the whole, it was done with skill and style.

I cannot recommend this novel enough. It has wide genre appeal and a cast of believable and interesting characters and a plot that keeps you pushing for just one more chapter, no, really, I’ll stop reading after one more chapter, eh, maybe just one more after this… I had trouble putting it down. I just didn’t want to close the book and leave the world behind, even for half an hour. It’s compelling, it’s well-structured, and it has gorgeous commentary on numerous social issues that are relevent today. I don’t think I can heap enough praise on this brilliantly intelligent neurosci-fi novel. All I can do is close by saying that you will not be disappointed when you read Lock In. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t need my praise, not because Scalzi’s already such a huge name in science fiction or because greater people than me have given it such positive reviews already, but because it stands so well on its own, speaks with its own voice, and is deeply note-worthy whether I say it is or not.

(Also, if you’re looking for more in the same setting, there’s a novella available on Tor.com: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.)

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2012

Summary; (Taken from GoodReadsEnsign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Thoughts: Imagine living in an episode of Star Trek. Imagine the slow dawning of comprehension as your realize that every away mission involves more officers than needed and a couple of random people from random ship departments going into dangerous situations, and those random people never seem to come back alive. Imagine that your job relies in making stuff up in critical situations and only pretending to actually work, and being caught in bad situations when your superiors constantly duck out when push comes to shove and everything left in your McGuffin-covered hands.

…Okay, except for that last bit echoing real life for many people, welcome to the world of ensign Andrew Dahl, main character of Redshirts and baffled crewmember of the United Union ship Intrepid.

Scalzi tells a hilarious and very meta tale in Redshirts, both with genial foible-poking and fun-making at many of the tropes present in Star Trek episodes, and then turns everything on its head by making the whole thing a universe created by a TV show writer, taking the concepts of world-building and character creation to a literal level. It’s a common joke with writers that characters don’t often behave and do as they’re told, and this little in-joke is evident as Dahl tries to gain control and salvage both his life and the life of the show which sustains it.

Scalzi fills this book with an off-the-wall brain-twisty situation that’s at the same time wonderfully realistic, with well-developed characters and witty humour both in dialogue and narration. It’s not a long or involved novel for all that it’s a bit of a brain-bender, which makes it perfect for those who are looking for some light and intelligent SFF literature in their day.

Although that’s Redshirts’s strength, it’s also the book’s weakness, presenting a complex and inventive plot like in such a short book. I’ll grant you, dragging it out would have ruined the punchy humour, and the novel was fast-paced without being rushed, it felt very much like literary junk food – it’s there and then it’s gone. Perfect if what you’re looking for is some junk food, but it’s not the most substantial novel. Very much like a standalone episode of Star Trek, actually, which is another point in the book’s favour considering its premise, but it still feels largely insubstantial, and not particularly memorable.

Still, it was a fun read, witty and creative and it actually made me laugh aloud a few times, so it still gets praise from me. It’s worth reading if you’re a fan of Star Trek, and if episodes of the show featured prominently in your youth, but otherwise, it’s hit-or-miss as to whether this book will make an impact on you. Good humourous fun with creativity and intelligence, but don’t expect it to be life-altering.