Friday, February 6, 2015

Lock In by John Scalzi

Scalzi has gone in a new and rather cool direction with this near future plague novel, served up as a mystery. A highly contagious disease, Haden's syndrome, similar to meningitis and polio, has swept the world, killing millions and leaving millions more "locked in", completely paralyzed, though fully aware of their surroundings. As the First Lady of the U.S. was one of the early victims, the government threw massive resources into researching the disease, and while a cure has not been found, a palliative measure has been massively adopted - the implantation of neural nets in the brains of the victims, through which they are able to control android bodies called "threeps" (Star Wars fans will get it) and go about the semi-normal functions of daily life. There is also a virtual realm open to the Hadens, called The Agora, where they can interact more fully with others of their kind. There is a third type of Haden's victim, who make a full physical recover from the disease, but their brain structure is changed to the point where, with the implanting of a neural network, and some specialized training, they can allow the paralyzed Hadens to use their body to experience the real world for a time. They are called Integrators, and they are well-paid.

At the beginning of the story, new legislation has been passed which will remove most of the government funding supporting government research and medical treatment for this victim class. One of the Hadens, Chris Shane, the son of a prominent billionaire and Senate candidate, is starting his first day on the job as an FBI agent as things kick off. He and his partner, Leslie Vann, a former Integrator, are assigned to a murder case involving an Integrator, and things get complicated from there. There's a good "cop buddy movie" vibe to their interactions - veteran and rookie style.

Ok, so Scalzi has to use the cardboard cutout popular villain of the Left, the unscrupulous billionaire, to provide the impetus for the plot device, and it's fairly obvious that the Hadens are allegorical stand-ins for whatever the victim du jour of the Progressives happens to be, as they are insulted, assaulted and subject to both overt and subtle prejudice from "normal" people.

Despite this, it remains a good and entertaining story, and Scalzi's exploration of the whole "what if?" of an epidemic which leaves its victims unable to interact with the world in any normal fashion, and the technology arising from such a situation, as well as the potential economic, social and political effects, makes for a quick, yet thought provoking tale.

Sometimes, in investigative mystery novels, the protagonist has to travel to different locations, and loses time doing so, while the killer is  going about his plotting and mayhem. But Shane can simply jump to a "rent a threep" at Alamo or Hertz, in L.A. or Alburquerque. So that was a new twist. There's also a simple fact about Shane that caught me completely by surprise about two thirds of the way through the book, which in retrospect Scalzi foreshadowed quite nicely.

In the afterward, as he is thanking people, he mentions that he won a Hugo for Redshirts. Really? I must have missed something there, as I thought it was nowhere near his best work.

If you were a bit discouraged by the last couple of Scalzi's novels, this one will be a very pleasant surprise.


Loni said...

I thought Locked In was great. Did you know there's a prequel short story/novella? I think it's called Unlocked. I haven't read it yet, but it's available for free to read online.

Also, I think I like Redshirts more that you did...

Jon said...

Thanks Loni. I'll have to look for the novella.