I thought I’d make a new feature – Robo Reads – and start sharing a few book reviews here on AddAltMode. I’m the sort of reader who likes to pick a theme and run with it as far as I can, and since I’m doing the ‘robot thing’ at the moment it seems a good time visit and revisit some robot and/or AI fiction in the months ahead. But Robo Reads is going to be a fairly loose heading. Indeed, there are no robots or AI at all in this first entry in our book reviews category, but Lock In does explore a lot of the same kinds of issues and tensions around the relationship between humans and technology that are often present in robot-focused fiction. Plus, it’s important to start a book reviews feature with a recommendation for a cracking read and this is certainly that…
Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Published: 2014 by Gollancz
No matter how futuristic (or otherwise) its setting, good sci-fi always shines a searching beam on our present. The first of Scalzi’s books I’ve read, Lock In is a fairly brisk read with lots of punchy dialogue. Plotwise, it takes the form of a police procedural / whodunnit and very consciously evokes many of typical tropes of this particularly trope-heavy genre. The protagonist, Chris Shane, is a rookie FBI agent newly paired with Vann, who may be a more experienced investigator but who is also a hard drinking loose cannon type who comes dragging the excess baggage of her own haunted past. As Chris summarises: “she’s a ticking time bomb ready to explode and I don’t want to be anywhere near her when she goes off… Straight from the cliché checklist. Got it.” This wry tone neatly encapsulates the crime fiction element of the book. Chris and Vann are investigating a murder and their journey to discovery certainly provides enough interest and danger to be enjoyable but there are no particular surprises or great reversals when it comes to figuring out the identity or motivations of the perpetrator. No, what brings real novelty and depth, and makes Lock In such a fascinating read, is the wider social context of its setting and world building which shines a near future sci-fi spotlight onto a number of important present day issues: disability and ableism; class; socialised healthcare and – most fascinatingly, I felt – our relationship with technology, particularly how technology could impact on perceptions of race, gender and selfhood.
The world of Lock In is a world that has been hit by a pandemic, named Haden’s Syndrome after one its most high profile victims, Margaret Haden, wife of the US President. The consequences of infection vary: 95% of those affected by the virus experience little more than mild fever while 4% suffer the more dangerous symptoms of meningitis. The novel’s title refers to the remaining 1% who find themselves permanently “locked in” by the disease: that is, fully conscious but unable to move their bodies or interact in any way.
This fascinating premise could have been taken in so many different ways. It could have launched some kind of “buried alive” type horror story, or a desperate discovery/survival narrative dealing with the initial spread of the disease. Scalzi touches on these elements but does something rather more interesting, setting the action some years after the initial outbreak. No cure has yet to be developed but by this time those affected by Hadens are able to interact in the physical world either by forcing their consciousness into robot bodies – colloquially known as “threeps” – or by using Integrators, individuals who have been trained and modified to allow a Haden to control their body for an agreed period. Hadens also have their own virtual area, the Agora. From one perspective, those affected by the disease have evolved their own cultural identity which has benefits as well as problems, and the weighty question of whether a cure is needed at all is one that the novel does not shy away from.
As you’ve probably guessed, Chris is a Haden and the crime being investigated relates to the death of an Integrator, raising high profile questions about the potential to abuse Hadens-related technology. While Chris’s body remains immobile, cared for and maintained by a professional nurse in the Shane residence, Chris uses a threep (or number of threeps in the course of the story) to go to work and to experience a number of crime thriller staples: chases, gun-fights and intense interview scenes. It is only thanks to the additional durability of the threep’s mechanical body that Chris survives some of the novel’s more high octane encounters but being – quite literally – disembodied brings its own difficulties, both practical and emotional, some of which are played for laughs and some which make some very serious points about discrimination in society.
Recently the Comparative Geeks Blog discussed Gender in their “Science Fiction Today” series. How can the sorts of technological advances that are the foundations of science fiction – and some of which are becoming science fact – come to influence constructions of gender? Lock In is a great read in relation to this question because it shows how the use of robotic bodies and virtual meeting spaces could make typical constructions of gender and race unimportant. It was more than halfway through the book before I discovered Chris’ ethnicity and his/her gender is never specifically confirmed either way. But Scalzi doesn’t make a big issue of this, it’s not a case that gender is ambiguous, rather that it’s simply not under consideration. As is noted at one point, “Hadens who contracted the disease young… were less attached to the physical world.”
The novel certainly suggests that a greater integration with technology can lead to positive developments. But Utopian fiction this is not. Lock In also shows that removing one set of criteria on which prejudice can be built does not mean eliminating prejudice. Hadens encounter discrimination – such as the derogatory term “clank” – and even face physical violence (however ill advised it may for squishy human to attack a metal threep!) Scalzi also highlights the huge costs involved in providing care for the “locked in” bodies, in maintaining the Agora, and in purchasing and running threeps. The Shane family are extremely wealthy, granting Chris a degree of freedom that not all Hadens can enjoy. Ever the self-effacing first-person narrator, Chris frequently makes a joke out of “calling in my rich kid privileges.” Some very funny scenes arise as as a result, but the serious point remains, as do the underlying real word political questions relating to affordable health care – such as recent debates here in the UK about the sadly strained NHS. It’s a testament to Scalzi’s writing that the novel manages to invoke these weighty questions without ever feeling overly preachy or losing its momentum as a pacy whodunnit.
As with many works of science fiction, there’s a lot of information to be imparted and facts to be established before the story proper can commence. Works in this genre can very easily feel overly ”info dumpy” and while Lock In does have moments of this, it largely tackles the problem by signposting it head on. The book starts with an extract from a crib sheet on Haden’s Syndrome allegedly taken from “HighSchoolCheatSheet.com” which gives a neat introduction to the disease’s history and developments relating to it, both political and technological. Though it’s a rather dry opening to the novel, it works well to establish this complex setting and – in this dialogue-heavy read – neatly sidesteps the dangerous temptation to make characters spout too much exposition. That said, I still felt like there was much, much more to the world of Lock In than is presented here. Although the crime plot is important, and finally has very far reaching implications for the Hadens community, there were times when the world building felt a little squashed within the boundaries of the investigative plot. I sometimes wished Scalzi had taken more time to show us the wider context of Chris’ world, rather than rushing through to the next piece of the murder mystery puzzle. Since finishing the book I’ve discovered that a prequel novella exists, Unlocked. I haven’t had a chance to read this yet but it will be interesting to see how the two works sit together and I’d definitely like to delve deeper than HighSchoolCheatSheet levels into fascinating history Scalzi has imagined.
Both punchy and ponderous, Lock In combines gripping action with some very big ideas that cannot be tied up anywhere near as neatly as the plot that Chris and Vann investigate. If you haven’t read it already this is one novel that’s well worth your time.