Lock-In, John Scalzi

Tor, 2014, 336 pages, $28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0765375865

I had no intention to read Lock-In so quickly after its publication date.

I knew that I would read it eventually, of course.  In barely more than ten years, John Scalzi has become a best-selling SF author on the strength of a series of novels executing classic concepts with clear prose and smart-ass dialogue.  His fiction usually feature an easy-to-read mixture of light-hearted action that have made him difficult to avoid in any serious discussion of the current state-of-the-genre. (His strong Internet presence doesn’t hurt either.) His novels sell widely, earn decent reviews and regularly show up on the Hugo ballot.  I have a foot-long shelf full of hardcover Scalzi novels dating back to his debut Old Man’s War, and I knew that I would eventually get around to Lock-In.  Just not so soon, given my lack of time, overflowing to-read stacks and busy life in general.  Also: Lock In deals with locked-in syndrome, the kind of nightmare fuel that seems so far away from the lighthearted entertainment I’ve come to expect from Scalzi.

Then I woke up one morning with the worst acute torticollis of my life.  Reduced to lying down on the couch, any movement causing severe neck pain feeding back on itself in a spiral of spasms… my life quickly dwindled down to me, the couch and whatever portable device I was able to lift in front of my eyes.

Suddenly, Lock-In became far more relevant.  Thanks to the modern wonders of Wi-Fi and eBooks, I didn’t even have to get up to purchase it.  And so, for a while, I could forget the pain by reading about disabled people using remote bodies to live their life.

Lock In begins two decades after an epidemic (“Hayden’s syndrome”) that leaves millions of people “locked in” their own bodies, fully conscious but unable to move.  This having led to a massive research and development program, the future of Lock In features auxiliary bodies (“threeps”) in which locked-in victims are able to work and play.  Society is still adapting to this systematic separation of body and self, with further adjustments anticipated when the US government passes a bill ending the major financial incentives and government-sponsored programs that have led to such a technological revolution.

Against this larger backdrop, our protagonist Chris is a newly-minted police agent who quickly gets to experience a major case.  Except that Chris is a mini-celebrity by virtue of having been a visible early victim of Hayden’s syndrome and having a famous father.

When clues pile up that a simple murder case has wider and wider ramification, Lock In becomes an exemplary procedural SF thriller in which we get to explore a new future through the lens of a criminal case.  There are plenty of precedents to this kind of SF novel, from Asimov’s Caves of Steel to Kevin J. Anderson’ Hopscotch to Sean Williams’ The Resurected Man to (more relevantly) the comic book series The Surrogates –SF, identity issues and criminal cases have long enjoyed a beneficial relationship.  Not that this an easy kind of SF to write: Novels of this type have a tendency to mine the possibilities of a change until everything has been exposed by the end of the novel, leaving the impression of a very small universe.  Or they depend on implausible technological innovation and economic models, leaving the impression of a half-baked imaginary setting.

Fortunately, Lock In does it better than most: The rapid change in technology in barely two decades is explained away by Manhattan-Project-scale investments by the American government, the free-market forces shown at work in the novel are clearly patterned from the real world, and there’s a good degree of granularity and texture to the end-state, quite unlike some naive SF futures.  I still have a number of vexing questions about the adoption, or mandated lack thereof, of threeps for non-Hayden victims (including their use by military forces), but those tend to be second-order questions that aren’t immediately obvious from the story that Scalzi is telling.  Better yet is the feeling that not all of this future’s secrets have been revealed by the end of the book, keeping it credible at best, and at worst open to a lengthy series of sequels.

As for my early hesitations about the doom and gloom of reading about locked-in characters, I shouldn’t have worried: Scalzi is just as entertaining here, as the story picks up years after the mass trauma of the Hayden’s syndrome epidemic, and at a point when victims are no so locked-in.  This is an upbeat novel, often truly funny and at other times enlivened with spectacular action.  It’s a fast and easy read, and while I’m not overly happy about the linear way the story ends (or the way some early info-dumps are handled by dialogue rather than narration), it’s a book with good set-pieces and vigorous extrapolation throughout.

There’s also a bit of depth here that may not be obvious as readers race through the novel.  I was impressed, for instance, to see that Lock In does manage to address a number of issues relevant to disabled people (including the very notion that a disability is a disability), a group that is rarely represented in mainstream SF.  Other questions of identity abound, including something that I completely missed during my read-through: the gender identity of the narrator is never revealed, and in fact seems a bit irrelevant.  (Being named Chris and knowing that Scalzi is male, I naturally defaulted to “male” in identifying the narrator, a viewpoint that seemed bolstered by a few later anecdotes that code themselves as male to me.  But there is no textual evidence in the text to indicate for sure that Chris is male.)  Why I’m not usually interested by such games of narrative identity (see, for instance, my non-impressed reaction to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice), the beauty of Lock In is that you can, like me, read through the book and never even notice that it’s there.  Well done.

My torticollis ultimately lasted a bit longer than my experience with Lock-In (sleep carefully, readers!), but during that time it was hard to avoid noticing the novel making an appearance on the New York Times best-seller list.  I’m sure that a Hugo nomination will follow: Scalzi is one of the top SF writers of the moment and books such as Lock In, more ambitious than many of his previous novels, will keep him actively engaged in the discussion that is genre fiction.  If my neck was in any shape to do so, I’d nod appreciatively.

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