Lock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lock In is an easy book to get through. I listened to the Wil Wheaton audio version (I’m specifying narrators for a reason I’ll get to in a second) and like most of the John Scalzi books Wheaton has given voice to, this one flew by. It was a fairly easy story to follow, even with all the tech speak, and was wrapped up in a nice, accessible way. There weren’t too many surprises and everyone gets what the deserve by the end. Like I said, easy.
In fact, I think it might be a little too easy. The plot involves victims of a disease (Hayden’s Syndrome) who are “locked in” to their own heads. Their brains have been rewired in such a way that all non-autonomous body functions have been simply disconnected. They can still breathe and their hearts still beat, they still eat (through a tube) and eliminate waste (also, through a tube, albeit not the same one), and they still think. They are just incapable of communicating or interacting with the outside world. Except through a new technology called a “personal transport” or “threep” (named for C3P0) – a robot inhabited by the consciousness of the Hayden.
Scalzi does a decent job of creating the world where Threeps mingle with other, more fleshy humans and the plot of this particular book follows Chris Shane, a newly minted FBI agent and probably the most famous Hayden on the planet. This is also where Scalzi starts playing games. He goes to great pains to never identify Chris’ gender (hence two readers for the audio version, one male and one female), sometimes awkwardly so. Sure, it’s an interesting conceit, because depending on how you read Chris, different scenes might have different social implications. Scalzi is literally letting you fill in the gaps for yourself. Some scenes, depending on your own biases, could be read as either romantically charged or just two friends out for a drink. And in the world he’s created, hetero/homo sexuality is taken as norm so no matter which gender you perceive Chris, you get both genders as possible romantic interests.
Plot wise, the book opens with a possibly Hayden related murder on the eve of a huge political rally where the Haydens will be fighting for rights and government funding (which, due to an act of congress, is about to be cut off). All of this is fine. Like I said, it’s an easy, fun book to read. The bad characters are clearly delineated as bad, the good as good and the edgy as obviously edgy.
What bothered me, though, was Scalzi making sure we understood all the various political ramifications of what was going on, but never pushing the envelope beyond what he absolutely needs to do for the limited parameters of his story. What I mean is, there are certain things, which seemed obvious to me, which these remote controlled robots could be used for and which he never touches. The not-so-distant future world Scalzi has created is a Utopia with the only source of societal strife being Hayden or not. While he tells us about political differences, they never really seem like fully formed ideas. Granted, he did write a novella length “prequel” – Unlocked – which is promoted as an “oral history of the Hayden virus” where things get a little more descriptive but even there, the United States exists as an independent world with the rest of the planet only mentioned as a by product of where the disease has spread.
Where was the gritty world, even in passing? Where were the black market Threeps designed for sex play? Where were the military applications of being able to put a consciousness into a drone tank or plane? Where the underground mods to remove the strength inhibitors to give the robots superhuman strength? In any world recognizable as the one we live in today (and this one definitely is) all of those things would exist. And the FBI unit tasked with dealing with this particular culture would certainly know about them.
To me, this is the Scalzi fiction I’m familiar with. His non-fiction and blogging is top notch, and it’s obvious he’s a smart guy, but in his fiction, which I do enjoy, it all seems rather surface. To be fair, I’ve only read the lighter pieces but even those, like with Lock In, have the potential to at least hint at a bit of more gravitas which he avoids.
In a few months, I’ll listen to the other side of this, to the version narrated by Amber Benson, and I’ll let you know if it makes a difference.
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