Lock In: An enthralling novel of big ideas

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In Lock In, Haden’s syndrome has created millions of people who are conscious and alert, but have no voluntary control of their bodies; they are, effectively, “locked in” to themselves. Government funded technology has developed ways to assist these, who are called “Hadens,” to function; both in a non-physical information-world called the Agora, and by using sophisticated Personal Transports or android bodies called “threeps.” (You might be able to figure out where that name comes from if you remember a certain gold-colored android from a popular trilogy of movies a few decades ago.) Chris Shane is a Haden, one of the two most famous Hadens in America, and a freshly-minted FBI agent. On the second day on the job, Chris and acerbic partner Leslie Vann take jurisdiction of a baffling case that involves a dead mystery man and an Integrator, a human who can let Hadens “ride” in his brain. This controversial murder comes on the eve of a week-long Haden protest against newly passed legislation that ends funding for services to Hadens. The Integrator, who is covered with the dead man’s blood, is the brother of a powerful and vocal Haden separatist, the coordinator of the protest demonstrations.

Terry read Lock In at the same time I did, so we decided to discuss it together. Kat just finished the audio version, so she’ll make some comments about that.

Lock In by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsTerry: The police procedural style murder mystery plays out against a backdrop of dramatic political, social and technological changes. As in other books by John Scalzi, these rapid changes have brought humanity to a crossroads. The changes are sufficiently complex, however, that Scalzi is frequently pushed into dumping information by the bucketload on his readers. Most of the time, this works. The initial dump, which purports to be an article on a high school cheating website, reads well, just as do the conversations between experts we would expect FBI agents to utilize, or with witnesses. Sometimes the information is shoehorned in, as in an initial discussion between Chris and a Navajo police officer. I mostly appreciated the information, even when it was a bit awkward. As a mystery reader, though, I was alert to some of the stranger turns in the conversation, thinking that the odder information would serve as clues.

Lock In by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsKat: Infodumps usually bother me, and there were plenty of them in Lock In, but I actually welcomed them here. That’s probably because neuroscience and psychology are my areas of interest, so the parts of the book that I was most fascinated by were the parts explained in the infodumps. What happened in the brain to make these people lock in? How did scientists and engineers solve the problem? And, most importantly to me, is that even possible? (No, and probably never will be.) How did society react to locked in people walking around in robotic, or other people’s, bodies? The mystery was of less interest to me, except that it served to highlight the problems that would occur in a society where some of its participants are not physically in the bodies they’re using.

John Scalzi signs a copy of Lock In for Marion.

John Scalzi signs a copy of Lock In for Marion.

Marion: The info-dumps that bothered me came more, I think, from the roommate character, just because I thought the whole arrival of the roommates was a bit too convenient. That was my main plot-quibble with the whole book. On the other hand, watching Chris go house hunting gave me an idea of what many Hadens would be facing under the new laws. I’m a mystery reader too, and to me, this was a “how-dun-it” rather than a “who-dun-it.” I liked how Scalzi played fair with the clues, something even veteran mystery writers don’t always do. And the “how was it done?” question in this book was fascinating.

Terry:  I liked that too, and it’s difficult to do with a science fiction mystery. There’s always the temptation to pull out a new gizmo and claim it fixes everything. Scalzi consistently avoids that temptation. The twists and turns of this particular law enforcement investigation are well-detailed, with no instances of Chris missing an issue because Leslie failed to point it out.

Marion:  I liked the characters, too. Terry, you’re a more thorough reader than I am, and you noticed something important about one crucial character that leaves room for a lot of speculation. My favorite character was Leslie Vann, Agent Shane’s partner. I must just like humorously bitter cop characters! Chris Shane’s first-person narrative voice reads as youthful and sincere, funny without being overly snarky. Chris is a fully-realized character.

Kat:  I thought that a few of the characters, including Chris and Leslie, sounded a little too much like the Scalzi persona, as many of his characters tend to do. They have that bantering, fast-paced, smart-and-snarky style that I associate with Scalzi online. If I didn’t know who wrote this book, I’d have guessed Scalzi right off. I listened to Wil Wheaton’s narration which was spot-on perfect but which, I’m sure, contributed to this feeling and to the fact that I didn’t notice what Terry did, either. By the way, there is another version of Lock In which is read by Amber Benson.

Terry:  I thought Chris’s father, a wealthy former basketball player who is considering a run for the Senate from his home state of Virginia, is also nicely drawn. Other characters are little more than ciphers — we learn next to nothing about Chris’s mother, for instance, and not too much about the villains except that they’re people with no ethics or morals and a lot of greed.

Marion:  And Dad’s a real estate mogul, don’t forget that.

Kat:
  Chris’s father was one of my favorite characters, too. I like that Scalzi didn’t portray him as I expected him to. (Though I think Scalzi’s playing with our expectations is getting a little gimmicky.)

Marion: I thought there was a bit of a gimmick with Chris’s father, too, but then I also think that we have a first-person narrator who’s a Haden, and this could be another example of how differently the Hadens view the world (certain things just don’t matter to them). And if you want an even more extreme example of that, there’s Cassandra.

Terry: Cassandra Bell! Even though we see very little of her, she intrigued me the most. She contracted Haden’s Syndrome in the womb, and has never known life as most humans do; in fact she spends most of her time in the non-physical world called the Agora. One gets the impression that Bell believes Hadens should not be cured, but should be treated as their own subculture, similar to the controversy in the Deaf community in our own world.

Kat:  It made me think of the Deaf community, too, Terry. And, in fact, Scalzi makes that analogy in the prequel, Unlocked. I loved the Agora. I wish I could visit it.

Marion: Overall, Scalzi did an awesome job of “scaling” his Hadens, so we see a range on a continuum; some who got the syndrome as adults and are more closely identified to their physical bodies, and those like Cassandra. I want to say that it feels like Scalzi is creating a “post-appearance” culture among the Haden, where status and role will depend upon your Agora avatar and the quality of your “threep.”

Terry: Of rather more interest than plot or character to all of us, though, was Scalzi’s implicit — and sometimes explicit — commentary on various social and political issues, the sorts of “what if?” questions that really drive science fiction. Is a faction of humanity going to choose a life where all of the familiar markers, clothing, age, skin and hair color, height or weight don’t matter? How big will the divide be between the Hadens and the old-style humans?

People who make snap assumptions in this book will face some surprises, making this book a nice comment on political correctness.

But tolerance for the “other” has its most biting effect when considering the rights of the disabled, which seems to be Scalzi’s principal point. I found it rather unbelievable that threeps are so readily accepted in society as fully human, despite Scalzi’s backstory in the novella Unlocked. Chris never seems to run into anyone who wants to treat a threep as a machine instead of accepting that it’s a person. Have we really come that far, in a world that contains large numbers who still don’t even think of women or blacks as people worthy of being treated with respect? It would be nice to think so. Perhaps Scalzi had a few doubts on this score himself, given his inclusion of an episode with a wheelchair.

Marion: I don’t agree that there is complete acceptance. Chris seems to run into people who are willing to work with threeps, but he is mostly in large bureaucracies and mostly law enforcement. One of the Metro cops makes an ignorant remark about “clanks” versus “threeps,” and a Haden is mugged by a trio of Haden-haters. I agree with you that most of the time it seems remarkably idealistic. Part of the problem, I think, is that Scalzi thoroughly and carefully insulated Chris from any direct negativity growing up, by liberal applications of money and fame. Maybe that’s a weakness in the book.

Kat:  Yes, there are some Haden-haters in the story, so society hasn’t completely accepted them, but remember that it’s been 25 years since the disorder started and almost everyone has a friend or family member affected. Most people would be very pleased about technology that lets their loved ones participate in the world, even if it does cause some Uncanny Valley discomfort.

Marion: I loved the wheelchair scene! When Chris shifts consciousness into a threep in Los Angeles, it is broken, because it belonged to a criminal and got damaged in a shoot-out. The threep can’t walk, so the L.A. field agent offers Chris a wheelchair for the damaged threep. I thought it said a lot about the gaps in acceptance of Hadens, without being preachy. It was in the Los Angeles FBI Field Office, so that seemed totally realistic to me. Plus, it was funny!

I’m impressed with how many big societal changes he worked into this story; technology, social policy and just social changes, in a framework of a police procedural. It’s a solid 4.5 book for me. I think I read the book too quickly on the first go-round to catch all the subtleties, but I’m hoping (and betting) that there will be more books and stories in this world.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTerry: I agree, except that the house-hunting plot quibble didn’t bother me. Someone just starting a new job is likely to be house hunting! I found the book enthralling throughout. I’d rate it a 5.

Kat: Lock In was probably the most thought-provoking AND entertaining book I’ve read this year. (I’ve read many thought-provoking books and many entertaining books, but most didn’t manage to be both.) As I mentioned, I listened to the audio version which was produced by Audible Studios. I chose Wil Wheaton’s narration, but readers may also choose to listen to Amber Benson’s narration. Both are excellent (I listened to a sample of Benson) because both Wheaton and Benson “get” Scalzi’s characters. As a bonus, the audio version includes the prequel novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome which is narrated by a full cast of well-known and excellent narrators.


Lock In by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsSo because I picked up my copy of John Scalzi’s Lock In late, doing so based on Terry’s Sunday Status comment, I wasn’t able to take part in the review party Kat, Terry, and Marion threw (at least, my ego and I are going with that story instead of the “they didn’t invite me” one). Which might have turned out to be a good thing, as I might have been the annoying guy harshing everyone’s buzz. Not that I didn’t enjoy most of Lock In, but I seem to have enjoyed it somewhat less than the 4.5/5 ratings given it by those three.

I thought the premise was fantastic — several decades ago, a flu-like pandemic (Haden’s Syndrome) took several million people and “locked” them into their bodies so that they were fully conscious and aware but with no control of their bodies at all. A massive governmental effort ensued to create and distribute technology that would allow the so-called “Hadens” to become fully functioning and integrated members in both the physical “normal” society and a specially-created-for-them virtual society known as the Agora. This was been achieved in two ways: “threeps” — android bodies remotely controlled by a Haden — and “Integrators” — humans who, thanks to a different kind of reaction to the disease, have the ability to let Haden’s “ride” their bodies for a contracted period of time. We enter the story just after passage of a bill that basically declares victory and that will severely reduce government subsidies/funding for Haden services. In response, a pro-Haden movement is descending on Washington to protest the bill’s passage.

All of this could have been the story itself, but instead, Scalzi uses it as background, albeit highly important background, to what is essentially a police procedural/murder mystery. Chris Shane, rookie FBI agent (really rookie — it’s his first day) and a rich and famous Haden, is called into a murder scene involving Nicholas Bell, an Integrator. Complicating matters further is that the Integrator is the brother of Cassandra Bell, a famous Haden spokesperson and coordinator of the Washington protest. As one expects in these sorts of stories, as Shane and his veteran partner Leslie Vann dig deeper, things only get more complicated, broadening out from the death of a single person into acts that might affect all of society.

Since Marion, Kat, and Terry (hereby shortened to MKT) started with the info dumps, I’ll start there as well. Like Marion, I was most bothered by the ones that came from Chris’ roommate Tony. One reason was simply that they were just that — long paragraphs in near-monologue form dumping a whole bunch of information to the reader. Sure, the info was both interesting and necessary, but it seemed an inelegant way of presenting it. The other reason was actually more bothersome, and that was because the fact that Tony knew so much and could get so involved felt far too providential. The wholly coincidental nature of it meant I could feel the heavy hand of the author here, a feeling I generally prefer not to have while reading. It reminded me of good old Chet from the Hardy Boys series — in every book Chet had a new hobby and it only took reading two or three of the books to know that in every one that hobby would eventually be connected to the new mystery. Coincidentally, of course. It also seemed a little odd that this roommate would be suddenly handed what is possibly a landmine of a case to work on with almost no discussion. In that vein, there was a similar, of smaller, feeling of coincidence, of everything being too neatly constructed, with regard to some of the other characters/events as well — Chris’ dad being a billionaire real estate mogul with some very important connections, another roommate being in the wrong place at the wrong time at the exact moment Chris was at the right place at the right time, and so on. These were more niggling complaints, but still noticeable.

I’m generally in agreement with MKT on the characters. Like Marion, I’m generally a fan of the bitter-yet-funny veteran cop character, and Vann was a well-executed example of that type, one whose backstory helped flesh her out a bit as well. And I enjoyed her adversarial relationship with one particular local policewoman. Chris’s character also felt perfectly realized, capturing a freshness of youth combined with a bit of rich kid sense of privilege. I can’t say if he is too “Scalzi-like” as Kat says; he and Vann do banter quite competently, but book/movie/TV banter is always better than real-life banter (I try, but my son keeps telling me I fail). And I loved Chris’ father’s character from beginning to end, despite the convenience of him to the plot. On the other hand, I’m with Terry on the villains — they’re a bit too two-dimensional and stock for me. I also thought they were a bit too obvious, so much so that from about 25% of the way into the novel, I was really hoping I was going to get tossed a major twist of some sort.

I wasn’t, but luckily, the mystery wasn’t actually of key interest to me. My favorite part of the story (besides the smooth and engaging first person narrative) was the social background. Like Kat and Terry, I immediately made a connection to deaf community in the controversy over whether “curing” Hadens was destroying a new culture and thought that aspect was handled thoughtfully and respectfully. The whole question of how society views Hadens, the first government push, the backlash resentment to those on the government “teat,” the fear of the android bodies, the question over what happens if this technology becomes common to everyone and not just Haden’s were the sort of near-future science fiction questions I love to see grappled with. And I liked as well that Scalzi did not shy away from class issues with regard to those questions — for instance, having one of the characters point out to Chris that, “You’ll be fine because you can afford to hire someone like me… And the middle-class Hadens will probably be able to pay for a monthly subscription of updates… Poor Hadens, on the other hand, are kind of fucked…. It’s not spam if you agree to it. They just won’t have much of a choice.” Race also rears its ugly head in spots, along with other sorts of bigotry, both conscious and unconscious, more unique to the sci-fi context but that can be easily generalized to our own (part of the point, obviously). These many insights into social behavior, often taking a critical stance, were I thought the best part of Lock In.

As mentioned above, I enjoyed it, if not quite so much as my esteemed colleagues. The prose was smooth, the pacing well executed save for the occasional infodump slow-down, the main characters engaging, the society sharply created and thought provoking. And as another plus, it called up fond memories of Asimov’s robot mysteries (ahhh, nostalgia). But the mystery was a little too obvious, the villains a bit too stock and flat, and the coincidences a little too, well, coincidental, for me to give it a 4.5 or 5. I’d call it a slightly weak 4 and happily say I’d read another set in this world.

~Bill Capossere

Lock In — (2014- ) Publisher: Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. One per cent doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the United States, 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 restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “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…. John Scalzi’s Lock In is a novel of our near future, from one of the most popular authors in modern science fiction.

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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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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. Gosh, Marion. You are so stingy with your 5-stars and it happens that you have TWO 5-star reviews up today! That will probably never happen again!!

  2. Bill, as always you show insight, taste and discernment, especially in all the places where you agree with me.

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