Book Review: John Scalzi’s “Lock In”

By Breeann Kirby

scalzi lock inJohn Scalzi, an active blogger since 1998, has been writing things for decades that make people laugh, think, engage, and, above all, connect with each other. He has won numerous awards for his works, including the Hugo (multiple Hugos in multiple categories, actually). Though he is prolific in both his fiction and nonfiction endeavors, Scalzi also takes the time to be an advocate for other authors, booksellers, and readers in the writing community. For Scalzi, humans connecting to each other and the larger community is valuable whether via the text of a book, cyberspace, or physical life.

The value and complexity of human connection is one of the central ideas in Lock In, published by Tor Books, an imprint of MacMillan, who publishes most of Scalzi’s long fiction. Set in the near future, Lock In places us a few decades after a highly contagious virus emerges that infects most of the world’s population; the majority of the infected experience flu-like symptoms and recover. However, about one percent of the population develops encephalitis and a reorganization of their neurological structure; some die, some recover with a slightly different brain structure, and others become locked in. The latter are fully aware but unable to move their physical bodies. In this world, lock in, or Haden’s syndrome, can affect anyone and everyone, regardless of age, race, or sex.

However, Lock In doesn’t dwell on the horror of being trapped in an inert body; rather, it lets the reader enter this reality after the world has figured out how to still allow for human connection between the Hadens (those locked in) and others. Because of their new brain structure, Hadens can interface their brains with mechanical humanoid shells, called threeps (after C-3PO), that allow them to leave their bodies and move about freely. Most Hadens live their day to day lives as cops, lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, business owners, and FBI agents in their threep bodies, returning to their flesh body only for sleeping. Further, Integrators, those who didn’t become locked in but have a disease-altered neurological structure, can also interface with Hadens, serving as flesh and blood facilitators for Haden interactions outside their frozen bodies. The world is business as usual again with Hadens integrated into normal society; however, when a human has a physical body that costs a lot to maintain and can jump its consciousness between robot bodies and (usually willing) Integrator human bodies, normal society has a lot of new cultural mores. Human relationships are very complex.

Lock In lets us learn this culture as we go along in a first person narrative told by the self-described “poster-Haden,” Chris Shane. In certain places of exposition, Shane clues us into the social rules of living as a Haden. Like any motorized vehicle, threeps come in a variety of models that signify a lot about the Haden who owns it: Shane tells us that threep “heads could be heavily customized, and a lot of younger Hadens did that. But for adults with serious jobs, that was déclassé, which was another clue to […] likely social standing” (pp. 38). The text has also brilliant moments of humor that give insight into the sometimes inane but entirely relatable human desires of this world. Shane’s FBI partner, former Integrator Leslie Vann speaks to an Integrator suspect:

“Bacon cheeseburgers,” Vann said.

“What?” Bell said. Vann’s apparent non sequitur had roused him out of complete silence.

“Bacon cheeseburgers,” Vann repeated. “When I worked as an Integrator I ate so many goddamned bacon cheeseburgers. You might know why.”

“Because the first thing anyone who’s been locked in wants when they integrate is a bacon cheeseburger,” Bell said.

[…]

“There was a Five Guys down the street from my apartment,” Vann said. “It got so that all I had to do was walk through the door, and they’d put the patties on the grill. They wouldn’t even wait to take my order. They knew. […] It took two and a half years after I stopped integrating before I could even look at a bacon cheeseburger again.” (pp. 31-32)

Locked in at a very early age, Shane’s wealthy parents used him to put a “human” face on the growing Haden population (yet he still has a surprisingly healthy relationship with his parents despite the fact he appears to have no friends or close relationships prior to this story). This campaign has proved fairly successful based on the social dynamics (at least of the upper class) in this novel. Scalzi writes the Haden-in-threep using human body terms, so though at first I pictured Dr. Who-like cybermen, I quickly forgot that a threep was a metal case and focused instead on its human occupier. It helps that our narrator is a Haden, so for him, being in a threep is business as usual, and the book’s language reflects that fact: “Tayla [a Haden] came over and rested a hand on my arm” (pp. 250). Or when Shane—who appears to be a bit of a badass—disrupts a group of men threatening a female Haden, he sees a “woman”; thus, we see a woman as well (pp. 144). Would we still be able to focus on Hadens’ essential humanity if this world were on screen and we weren’t in a Haden’s head? I don’t know. We’ll eventually find out since Lock In appears to be destined for a TV series.

The social implications of having a large number of people who need constant and costly medical care are great, and the novel opens on the cusp of a legal change that will affect the government’s funding of Haden health care, nicely establishing the tensions between the Haden haves (via government aid) and the non-Haden have nots. Because this legislation will drastically change the quality of life and economic resources for millions of people, Hadens and the big businesses that market to their needs are both making bids to secure their future. While the novel definitely acknowledges and touches on many social issues of today like treatment of the disabled and minorities, greedy big business, political maneuvering, and civil protest, the novel nicely avoids in depth examination of these issues, focusing instead on the action-packed murder mystery investigation by Shane and Vann. Perhaps because our narrator is a self-described if atypical “rich kid” (pp. 249), we only see in any detail how successful, educated, and wealthy Hadens operate in upper class society. In fact, most of characters of the book are comfortably upper class, with the notable exceptions being non-Hayden members of the Navajo nation.

Lock In depicts a corner of a complex world hovering on the verge of unrest with big issues and with everyday technology that actually revolutionizes how humans engage in the world and with each other.

However, in a 334-page novel, choices have to be made, and Scalzi, no stranger to addressing big issues with compassion and insight, tends to make the right ones. Lock In depicts a corner of a complex world hovering on the verge of unrest with big issues and with everyday technology that actually revolutionizes how humans engage in the world and with each other (such as Agora, the cyber world of the Haden). The elements that perhaps the story superficially addresses (such as Haden life in a socioeconomically disadvantaged situation) don’t feel like gaps in Scalzi’s creation but merely a limitation of our narrative point of view. And though we are called to turn a blind eye to the fact that in this story, the only Hadens we meet are financially comfortable and have no real concern for their human bodies, it ultimately works, keeping us from detouring off the path of the story (which is complex enough: who is inside whose body when and where). This Haden world is rife with nuances and possibilities. I can see a whole series of books set here, each equally engaging and together forming an intricate world of human connection.

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