Review of Lock In by John Scalzi
by John Scalzi
This summer saw the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge splash onto social media. ALS terrifies me. A deadly disease that slowly robs you of your ability to move but doesn’t affect your reasoning? I’m not particularly fond of physical activities, but I like embodiment; I like being able to engage with the world actively. The idea of being unable to do that but remaining sound of mind sounds like a terrible way to go.
Lock In is a thriller set in a world ravaged by a disease superficially similar to ALS. Haden’s syndrome lays waste to the voluntary nervous system, and worse, it isn’t genetic but instead infectious! It’s like a deadly flu that paralyzes some people. The incident rate is high enough to spur research into brain-computer interfaces and cybernetics, resulting in Hadens (people who have become “locked in” as a result of Haden’s syndrome) being able to interact online with each other and in person through personal transports colloquially known as “threeps”. In even rarer cases, someone who contracts Haden’s doesn’t get locked in but instead becomes an Integrator, someone who can host a Haden consciousness for a limited time in their body.
Several other reviews have likened Lock In to Philip K. Dick. I didn’t make that connection myself, but in hindsight it’s apt. Much like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner), Lock In is a science-fiction novel that foregrounds a mystery thriller plot. You can’t quite ignore the science-fictional elements; they are essential to the plot. However, this novel exemplifies the idea that science fiction, rather than being a genre, is in fact a setting.
There’s a lot to like about this book, both from a science fiction and a mystery perspective. Haden’s syndrome provides an interesting point of divergence from which Scalzi creates this entire future. One of the major background issues is who foots the bill for Haden care in the United States; a new law has just passed that essentially shuts down government funding for Haden care. (Does this sound at all familiar or topical?) Tensions between the Hadens and non-Hadens are running high. And, of course, various corporations stand to lose or benefit from this new law….
The viewpoint protagonist is Chris Shane, an FBI agent and a famous Haden. Scalzi uses Shane’s “locked in” nature to good effect. Shane is embodied only by a threep, and as such can travel across the country very quickly if there is a threep waiting on the other end to act as host. While Shane’s partner is following up a local lead, Shane often ends up chasing connections in Arizona or LA. One thing I hate about science-fiction thrillers is when the author doesn’t take into account the new capabilities or consequences of a change they have made. Scalzi definitely does this.
In general, Lock In once again demonstrates Scalzi’s versatility. He is comfortable writing so-called military science-fiction adventures for his Old Man’s War universe. But he can also do the near-future thrillers, like The Android’s Dream and now this. And Redshirts was a fun departure as well. I always enjoy seeing a different facet of a writer.
For all these reasons, I want to love Lock In. Alas, I only like it.
In the end, it was a bit of a disappointment, as far as the plot goes. Shane is a great protagonist. I love Vann as well. There is plenty of humour between them; the dialogue is definitely Scalzi’s. But the plot … the villain of the piece is obvious almost from the moment they appear. There is no subtlety, no ingenuity to this mystery. The details of its implementation, sure, that’s clever. But the motives, the human element of the mystery? Predictable. Bland. Uninteresting.
For the entire time I was reading it, I enjoyed Lock In. It’s a good ride, and that includes the conclusion. I think Scalzi is one of the best writers of “unadorned, unapologetic crowning moments of awesome”. But there comes a point where so many such moments together start to feel like overindulging on candy. And just like binging on candy, you’re left feeling both sick and wired. And that’s not a great feeling.
So Lock In is a fun novel. I liked it. I recommend it. But for all the murder and intrigue it contains, it lacks the chewy centre that would make it worth more than an afternoon’s read. The mystery was not all that complex, and the thoughts it provoked were transitory. I don’t find myself ruminating on it much. By all means, pick it up, but it does not quite measure up to what I want to see from Scalzi.