Head On: Fast-paced, funny, heart-breaking

Marion and Terry discuss Head On. Marion’s words are in black and Terry’s are in blue.

Head On by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsHead On
by John Scalzi

Head On by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsMarion: John Scalzi’s 2018 novel Head On brings back FBI team Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, this time investigating a murder that should be impossible. Hilketa is a violent game where the objective is to tear off the head of a specific opposing player and throw it through the goal posts, while defensive players whale on each other with swords and chainsaws. While it sounds bloodthirsty, no one is hurt; the players are high-tech androids called “threeps” (after the beloved C-3PO) controlled by those individuals who have “lock-in syndrome” and function via robot or entirely within the internet. These people are called Hadens after Haden Syndrome, the state of paralysis that followed exposure to a virulent influenza virus. In theory, no one can die from a Hilketa-related injury, but in an exhibition game, a player whose head is torn off immediately dies. Chris and Vann will find themselves investigating sports endorsements, league expansion, bigotry, high-end sex-robots, infidelity and jealousy to find out how this supposedly impossible crime happened.

As with the first Haden book, Lock In, the “how” of the murder is as important as the who and the why, and Scalzi delivers a clever mystery. While Chris has not changed much, we see Vann opening up a bit, and important secondary characters like Chris’s parents are expanded. As potential investors in the Hilketa league, Chris’s parents are affected by the murder, and they also have useful information that helps the investigation. A Haden housemate of Chris also assists the investigation, and a cat plays a crucial role.

Head On is fast-paced, funny in some moments and gently heart-breaking in others. Chris and Vann stay focused, mostly, on their case, but through their eyes (mainly Chris, who is a first-person narrator) we see changes happening to the Hadens as the effects of a law limiting government support for them come into play. Vann and Chris make mistakes occasionally, but they are never stupid cops. In fact, once or twice they were a little too obviously the smartest people in the room. Still, the story carried me right along and my interest never flagged.

I not only loved the mechanics of the murder, but near the end of the book, Chris delivers an arrest warrant in a totally original fashion, and I loved it.

Terry, you had mentioned the prologue to me before I read it. What did you think of that technique?

Head On by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsTerry: Scalzi almost lost me entirely in the first ten pages of the book! The prologue is written as if it were an extended sports story in a good newspaper (not surprising, given that Scalzi began his career writing for a newspaper). I wasn’t really up for learning the rules of a game that resembles football, only more violent. But then, I’m not a sports fan at all; those who are might find this section fascinating. For me, well, Scalzi has earned my attention with his past books, so I kept reading. I think you’re more of a sports fan than I am, Marion, so I’m wondering how all the sports talk in the book worked for you.

I was prepared for the prologue because you had told me about it! He did a similar thing with Lock In, so I wasn’t shocked. We watch a lot of sports talk shows at home, so the language seemed right to me.

As always, Scalzi’s gift for banter shone through in this book, but I also felt that some of his descriptions were more, well, descriptive than they’ve been in other books. Particularly, I loved the virtual home one Haden has in the Agora (and I notice you mentioned that below).

Scalzi, as always, has a nearly transparent style that keeps the pages flipping. And he never loses control of a complicated mystery plot, despite piling on complication after complication. I occasionally felt he was getting a bit too politically correct, even for me (and I’m an SJW from way back), but I quickly came to the realization that it’s all part of his provocation — he wants his readers to find their limits, to think about what they’ve previously simply accepted, all while telling a compelling story.

What did you think about the cat? I thought the cat played for wonderful comic relief, with a discussion with a group of Hadens that sounded like any college housemate issue; but the cat plays a significant role in the story.

I am very partial to cats, so this one made me smile. As a lawyer, though, I found it disconcerting that they simply grabbed the cat and proceeded to investigate the clues it presented without a warrant. There was no chain of evidence preserved! And they didn’t return it to its owner when its return was requested, which not only struck me as legally wrong but also morally — well, let’s say “questionable.” I don’t see any mention in Scalzi’s acknowledgements about consulting with a lawyer, which strikes me as odd for him, as he’s usually quite careful about details. But only a limited audience will get thrown out of the story for this particular complaint, so perhaps I’m just demonstrating my particular obsession with legal process.

Yeah, I saw a chain of evidence issue there, too. What I liked about the cat was the reason its Haden owner kept it where she did: because her physical body is allergic, and she can only interact with the cat in her threep. I thought that was another example of how Scalzi makes us think about things differently.

Chris is already developing a reputation as being someone who breaks loaner-threeps. What do you think about that as a trope in the series?

I think it’s hilarious. As further books come in the series (and yes, I’m really hoping there will be further books in this series), I’ll be looking for threeps biting the dust from the very opening, and keeping count of how many Chris manages to get destroyed. Any favorite moments in the book?

A scene I loved was when the Shane family is talking, and Chris’s mother cuts Chris’s hair. It’s such a tiny moment but I found it, to use an overused word, poignant. It not only reminded us that Chris is a human, biological being, but it gave us some insight into the mother character, too. A light touch extremely well done.

That same moment stuck with me as well. It’s also tricky because Scalzi still doesn’t want to give his character a gender, so describing Chris’s body at all is a fraught act. Nicely done. I also liked the description of a character’s home in the Agora, a virtual site where the Hadens have personal spaces designed to their desire, together with the discussion of the technology of building a personal space. It’s also a great example of how nothing goes unused in Head On. There are a great many clues inconspicuously dropped almost everywhere. And I confess I got a kick out of Chris pulling a Catherynne Valente book off a shelf — a nice tip of the hat by a writer to another writer. Marion, what did you think of the whole question of the able-bodied wanting to use threep technology? I found it a fascinating example of how claims of reverse discrimination pop up in the weirdest places. I wonder whether Scalzi will explore this issue further in other entries in the series.

I think that is going to be an ongoing issue, since it grows out of the change in the law that previously offered Hadens government support. Here, with the desire for able-bodied people to get the benefit of Haden tech for luxury purposes, not necessity, is a form of appropriation and I think we’ll see more, not less of those issues in upcoming books.

All in all, I think we both really enjoyed this. I love the way Scalzi is peeling back the layers of the onion and deepening the reality of the Haden world for us.

Yes, I did love it, as you can tell from my five star rating and yours of four and a half stars. I’d be pretty surprised if this book did not show up on award nominations lists next year. Scalzi has really done a wonderful job with the science fiction mystery, which is awfully hard to pull off at all, much less twice. One note, though: it would be difficult to appreciate everything in this book without first reading Lock In. Understanding threeps, for instance, including where the name came from, would be tough. But hey, if you haven’t read Lock In yet, that just means that there are two great books to add to your “To Be Read” lists.

Published April 17, 2018. John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports. Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it. Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field. Is it an accident or murder? FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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One comment

  1. I liked the last one a little bit less than everyone else here (though still enjoyed it), so happy to see my leaning toward picking this up seems like a good idea

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