Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: 'Lock In' by John Scalzi

Review by Susan Grigsby

As a child growing up in Chicago during the fifties, one of my greatest fears was of contracting polio. (It is a wonder that growing up in the 50s has not led to a neurotic generation. Oh, wait.) More than polio itself, I feared the monstrous imprisonment of an iron lung.

The March of Dimes would show PSAs at movie theaters that were more frightening than the grade B sci/fi flicks we were there to see. A fully functioning brain locked in a body that could not even breathe on its own. Vaccines (thank you Dr. Jonas Salk, and so many others) removed that childhood threat, but what if there was a new one? One for which a vaccine had not been found?

A new virus that could make childhood nightmares seem as harmless as an Easy Bake Toy Oven.
Twenty-five years ago, doctors and hospitals were receiving their first cases of the disease that was initially misdiagnosed as a variant of the Influenza A virus subtype H5N1, and then briefly known as “The Super Bowl Flu,” and “The Great Flu,” and then finally, after the full extent of the damage it could cause was known, named “Haden’s syndrome.” The disease would claim millions of lives and sentence millions more to “Lock In,” a paralysis of the body that leaves the mind fully functional.
Named after the First Lady of the United States, who was an early victim, and whose husband used all of the power of his office to find a way to treat the disease, Haden's Syndrome touched almost every person on the planet. Family members, neighbors, friends - everyone either was a patient or knew a patient who was locked in. They became known as Hadens and recovered their mobility through the transfer of their consciousness into mechanical robots named Threeps, in honor of C-3PO.

A very few recovered from the disease with an altered neural network that allowed Hadens to 'borrow' their bodies and briefly, once again, experience the world as a human. Known as Integrators, these individuals were highly trained to allow the consciousness of another to take over their bodies, while they hovered in the background, ready to reclaim their bodies should a visiting Haden attempt to abuse its privilege.
And with that, let's take a look at a police procedural set in a world were the privatization of the government's role in providing help for Hadens is taking place.
Lock In
by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books
August 26th 2014
336 pages

Chris Shane was once the poster child for Haden's Syndrome, being the only child of one of the most visible and popular men on the planet who was a former basketball star and now a possible candidate for the US Senate. As such, she has access to the wealth that allows her a state of the art Threep, in which to conduct her duties as a brand new FBI agent working with Special Agent Vann, herself a former Integrator, on cases involving Hadens.
The first case is the mysterious death (suicide?) of what appears to be an unregistered Integrator. As the investigation unfolds, we get a look at what it means to an entire segment of the population when politics results in the defunding of a support system. The resentments and anger on both sides of the issue ramp up during the week leading to a protest rally in DC.
As in any good mystery, one murder leads to another and then another as Agent Shane, who can travel anywhere within seconds by swapping Threeps, is sent to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona and to the Los Angeles Field Office. No jet lag. Nice combination of sci-fi world building and the elements of a mystery/political thriller.
Since the story is told from Shane's point of view, we get to experience the apartment hunting of a Threep. Although her physical body is at her parent's home, cared for 24 hours a day, she needs a place in DC to call her own and that will allow her a safe, private place to charge her Threep. Those of more meager means tend to rent small closet-like spaces that allow only for charging the robot while the consciousness roams the virtual Agora that has been established for Hadens to hang out in. A cross between a message board and a video game, they can meet in a public space or enjoy a private domain that they can create as part of the whole.
Any novel by John Scalzi is fun - Redshirts (reviewed here) won last year's Hugo. When I found that Lock In was going to be a science fiction mystery it immediately went to the top of my pre-order list, ahead of Louise Penny and even, Tana French (though her novel won't come out until midnight tonight).
Since I am rapidly becoming addicted to audiobooks I planned to pre-ordered that as well. In a creative marketing move, offered two audio versions of Lock In. One is by Amber Benson and the other is narrated by Wil Wheaton. Both actors, Wheaton known for his work on Star Trek TNG ,and Benson for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Pre-ordering one version, would get you the other, free. So I did. At midnight on the 25th the Wheaton version showed up on my app, and I began listening to his interpretation of Lock In. I loved his work on Redshirts. His rhythm, timing, inflection did so much to enhance the story that I began to wonder if his wasn't the voice Scalzi heard in his head as he wrote the novel.
He is just as good in Lock In, if not better, but I was terribly curious to hear Benson's narration. Just for the novelty of the thing. So the next day I began listening to her. Now the novel was being told from the perspective of a female protagonist. All of the sudden, I was three quarters of the way through the book and it occurred to me to wonder how Wil was doing.
Wheaton's narration is so accessible that it feels like he is in the room with you, just casually telling you a story, so it is no surprise that I felt a slight betrayal at having abandoned him for Amber Benson. Listening to his narration for the conclusion, it became apparent that John Scalzi was performing an minor act of magic with words.
In not clearly identifying the gender of the protagonist, Scalzi allows the reader to experience the tale as either a man or a woman. The reader gets to decide. He has created a world in which both genders move comfortably on terms of perfect equality. Which in itself is remarkable. For women who have long hungered to star in the science fiction of their imaginations, here is their chance to do so on truly equal footing with men.
Listening to the book in both versions, it appears to be more than a clever marketing move, it is a thought provoking concept that allows the reader to participate in telling the story. And that is kind of cool.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here