Review: LOCK IN by John Scalzi (Gollancz/Tor)

Scalzi-LockInA solid sci-fi crime thriller

Imagine a plague that incapacitates almost 1.7 million people — and now imagine a cure that is even worse.

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves “locked in” — fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people “locked in” — including the President’s wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora”, where the locked-in can interact with other humans, whether locked-in or not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, allowing those who are locked in to occasionally “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…

Another very good novel from John Scalzi, offering an excellent blend of two genres. In Lock In, Scalzi takes core elements of the crime/conspiracy thriller and injects some excellent techno-sci-fi elements reminiscent of Surrogates and I, Robot. I enjoyed this.

Scalzi blends these elements very well, and the introduction of “threeps” (the robot avatars lock-in sufferers can utilise) and integrators adds a fascinating additional aspect to both the world and investigation. The story recounts the experiences of Chris Shane — the son of a prominent entrepreneur, a Haden, and also newly-minted FBI agent — and his first week on the job.

It is not your typical first week: as well as meeting his veteran partner, Vann (hard-drinking, hard-smoking, cynical — almost your typical hard-boiled detective), the US government has just passed legislation that will scale back federal funding for Haden sufferers. This has resulted in extensive demonstrations — further resulting in disruptions around the city and resentment from non-Hadens. With this as a backdrop, Agents Shane and Vann are called in to investigate the strange death perhaps caused by an integrator. On top of that, the demonstrations appear to be escalating, and after a research institute is bombed, setting back research on a possible cure for Haden Syndrome, Vann and Shane start to realise that there may very well be something far bigger at work. What are the connections between the initial murder and the bombing? How many more attacks will there be? And how is a mysterious, but very busy Haden rights activist involved?

Scalzi takes us through the investigation, which progresses much as a reader might expect. However, it is far from boring — the science fictional elements he’s injected into the story keep things fresh and interesting. His characters ponder the nature of identity and privacy — the Hadens because of their dual natures (ambulatory threeps and stationary biological bodies), integrators because of their ability to share their bodies.

Lock In is a tricky novel to write about. It’s follows a very ‘typical’ crime/cop thriller, and the pacing is also familiar. Scalzi’s prose is very straight-forward and concise. It’s the nuance that really sets this novel apart — over the course of the novel he gets readers to think about a whole host of contemporary issues, without preaching or bludgeoning us with an agenda. It is a testament to Scalzi’s success at weaving the sci-fi elements into the world and story — aside from an introductory chapter that gives a very brief explanation and ‘history’ of the syndrome, the author avoids info-dumps completely. Really well done. Despite the story’s relative brevity, he manages to pack a lot into it. I would certainly like to read more about these characters and this alternative world. I think Scalzi has created a world with a hell of a lot of potential for more stories.

Overall, this is a throught-provoking novel about individual and community rights, politics, identity, and a solid investigation. Definitely recommended.

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