Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Published: August, 2014
A blazingly inventive near-future thriller from the best-selling, Hugo Award-winning John Scalzi.
Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.
A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.
But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.
Characterization and badassery
What we have here is a crime thriller, set in a somewhat sci-fi (but more techie than futuristic) setting. It’s an interesting blend of genres, and one that worked to create a story that moved forward continuously, and kept me very interested in both the world and the story.
In Lock In, we get a story about a group of people who suffer from locked-in syndrome—which is a real thing. I first heard about it by watching the medical drama “House.” Who knows, maybe that was the first kernel in John Scalzi’s mind, leading him in a point-A-to-point-B creation of a world where many people were afflicted by this syndrome.
What follows is a story that riffs on a lot of what-ifs. What if a large portion of the population had locked-in syndrome? What if we could find a way to bridge the gap between their minds and the physical world? How would that affect society? Technology? Personal relationships? Laws?
That what-iffery is what I love to see in a book. Taking a part of our world, standing it on its head, and then following it to logical conclusions. At its heart, this kind of pontificating can lead us to epiphanies about the realities of our actual society and worldview.
So we get all this, plus a story. A mystery. A thingy for people to figure out. And it works. Some plot holes, sure. But I’d be willing to wager that Scalzi could fill in those plot holes but chose not to, because those details didn’t advance the story. Which is actually the mark of a seasoned writer, someone who’s caretaking the reader’s experience. So I’m good with that.
How about the badassery? A group of people who remote-control robots with their minds must be full of Transformers-style smashing and crushing, right? Well, no. Scalzi carefully crafted this world to make the “threeps” no stronger or more powerful than fleshy people, though they do get the benefit of not dying in the case of their threep’s destruction. They can also sort of “beam” their minds to anywhere on Earth that has the framework and a “threep” for the person to use. So some cool abilities, sure, which worked my sci-fi mania, but the intentional effort to make them more human is actually what’s cool.
Plot and pacing
Not a twisty or unpredictable plot, but one that works and entertains. The pacing is fine. It doesn’t wander off into explanations that don’t advance the story (see above), which keeps it all moving along.
Prose and editing
Both fine. The dialogue is what worked best for me, because it felt natural and revealed much more about the characters than anything else. Scalzi doesn’t spend his pages telling you who and what the characters are. He tells you what they do and what they say, and leaves it to you to work the rest out. (Which I like.)
Some mildly amusing dialogue, particularly between Shane and Vann.
I initially thought Chris was a guy, and I’m not sure why. I wasn’t sure at first, and at some point, something cued me in to male. However, it was pointed out to me by a clever follower that Chris’ gender is not specified. So that makes this book particularly interesting, and exactly what this blog is about. That gender doesn’t have to pre-define anything.
Overall, Chris’ partner Vann has more agency, and as a pair, the two of them serve as a protagonist team. Vann also seems like a somewhat rounder character. More flawed, more developed. But as I noted above, Shane’s character is mostly implied by choices and lifestyle, so Chris is no slouch either.
I really enjoyed the backdrop of this story–the setup of the Haden sufferers. I could see the commercialization of their plight as a very realistic eventuality. I was also intrigued by their virtual gathering place, the Agora, and how a community might develop accordingly. I’d like to see more of that, with a more sci-fi approach. Sometime in the next ten years, there will be another book in this series, so maybe that book will do that.