Coming off his big win – a 2013 Hugo “Best Novel” Award for Redshirts – John Scalzi had to work hard to avoid a letdown. Luckily for his fans and the reading public in general, the prolific and versatile author has delivered: for 2014, Scalzi gives us Lock In, a novel of the near future. Like all of Scalzi’s work this one is both inventive and thought-provoking. Unlike most of his work, it’s also a mystery – but hey: I did say Scalzi is versatile…
A Little Necessary Background
A generation ago the first cases of a pandemic disease, still uncurable, were spotted. The disease starts out like an ordinary flu. Most people recover unaffected, but a small percentage enter a second stage of the disease and are left “locked in”: fully conscious, but bereft of any control over their bodies. Thanks to a massive technological mobilization, the locked-in patients – called Hadens, after the U.S. First Lady when the pandemic first struck – can project their consciousness into mobile humanoid bodies, called “threeps” for “a beloved android character from one the most popular films of all time.”¹ A few people survive that second stage of the disease without becoming locked, but with a brain alteration that allows them to “Integrate” – a sort of state in which a Haden “possesses” them temporarily. All this requires brain implants and some pretty amazing software. That’s the universe of Lock In.
Murder and Mayhem
Lock In, available from Amazon.com
Meet Chris Shane, newly-minted FBI agent, son of a billionaire NBA star turned real-estate magnate, and Haden. Shane has a partner, Vann – not a Haden, but with a reputation for being difficult. Shane’s first week of work is destined to be a tough one, since the Hadens are on strike leading up to a massive demonstration scheduled for Saturday. The first case is… weird. An Integrator has been found in the room with a corpse, but denies having had anything to do with the unknown man’s death.
Things are about to get even weirder: as the demonstration grows near, Hadens and Integrators are suddenly going nuts. A second Integrator becomes a suicide bomber and yet another goes postal on the streets of DC, getting off several rounds at Shane and Vann – then also committing suicide. These things aren’t supposed to happen – there’s security software that prevents it. But it’s happening.
Enlisting the aid of a Haden housemate with mad coding skillz, Shane and Vann discover telltale evidence of a sinister, murderous plot – and also learn that they’re working under a deadline. As the critical moment draws near, the team must turn to tried-and-true cop techniques to catch the bad guys. Bad cop, worse cop, anyone?
Redshirts at Amazon.com
Although he originally cut his teeth as the author of a multi-book series set in the universe of Old Man’s War (these also include The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale), John Scalzi has never been particularly predictable in his writing. While I was not personally all that enamored of Redshirts, it’s apparent that the Hugo committee was – and I’m fine with that. Nevertheless, after reading both I found Lock In the better book of the two, probably because Scalzi didn’t seem to need to pad this one out by adding three “codas” at the end of the plot. Both novels, however, clearly demonstrate that Scalzi has mastered quirky speculation into the future of our society and our species.
Lock In is one of a handful of cross-genre mashups that combine speculative fiction with crime fiction – please, please don’t include VampRom in that small group, I’m talking about science here, not fantasy. Most of the species are borderline to regrettable – think Robert J. Sawyer’s mediocre Red Planet Blues or the awful Timecaster by J. A. Konrath, errr, Joe Kimball – but Scalzi manages to satisfy fans of both genres in a single novel. That’s pretty neat trick, when you come right down to it.
The introduction of the threep factor gives Shane an interesting set of “superpowers”: He can’t be killed or injured unless you attack the “meat” instead of the threep, and he can move across teh country at the speed of light by simply finding a spare threep into which he can project his consciousness. Of course, some details are better left unexamined, like addressing and other mundane stuff.
The novel’s narrated in first-person by Shane, with the mildly ironic tone that’s become a Scalzi trademark. A point of interest is that Shane’s first name, Chris, is gender-neutral; and Scalzi manages to write an entire novel without ever revealing whether Chris is short for Christopher or for Christine. When you wear a threep, apparently, it doesn’t make much difference. There’s also a single mention of race: Shane senior is black (though his mother may well be white). Scalzi likes to keep you guessing.
And keep you guessing he does, with enough minor plot threads left dangling that he could easily pick up the Shane-Vann partnership for a sequel to Lock In, just to fill in some of the blanks. Me, I’m thinking that might be a good idea.
¹ Come on, you’ll get it: Say “C3PO”: See-threep-e-oh!