It just isn’t right.
Every time I read a synopsis of a new John Scalzi book, I think to myself, this just ain’t gonna work. It’s either too simplistic of a premise (Redshirts), or too convoluted of a premise (Old Man’s War), or too kitschy of a premise (The Android’s Dream) or too silly of a premise (Fuzzy Nation). There’s just no way he can pull this one off.
But he does. Every single friggin’ time. And he doesn’t just pull it off, he frickin’ knocks it out of the park.
His newest novel, Lock In, is no exception. It’s in the “kind of convoluted synopsis” category. A couple of decades into the future, the Earth has come to grips with a viral epidemic (known as Haden’s syndrome, named after former First Lady of the United States Margaret Haden, who was infected in the first wave of the virus, setting up an unprecedented development of medical and scientific support) that left about 1% of the population in a state of “lock in” where the victim is awake and aware, but completely unable to move or respond to any kind of stimulus. “Hadens” are able to function in society by means of Personal Transports (mechanical bodies known in the vernacular as “threeps”, or, derivatively, as “clanks”, that can be maneuvered via mental commands by means of embedded neural nets modded directly to the patient’s brain), but they also have a Haden-only online space known as the Agoura where they can hang out and be with their own kind.
In the United States alone, 4.35 million people have been subjected to lock in since the virus first hit. With up to 450,000 new lock in cases being diagnosed every year (no effective vaccine has yet been developed), Hadens and their care have impacted every aspect of human development, with trillions of dollars of government money earmarked to “rapidly increase understanding of brain function and speed to market programs and prostheses that would allow those afflicted with Haden’s to participate in society”. One major program on the market was development of “Integrators” – a very small group of Hadens who experienced no outward effects from the virus but whose brain structure was altered, giving them the capability (with severe training and neural enhancements) to host another Haden’s consciousness for a time; through Integrators, locked in “clients” could experience being in an organic body rather than a mechanical one.
But after years of virtually unbridled research and development, significant backlash grew from a snowballing segment of the population who felt that Haden related issues had been over-prioritized by both the government and by private industry, actually giving people stricken with Haden’s syndrome “several competitive advantages over the population at large.” With Congressional passage of the Abrams-Kettering Bill, Haden related research could no longer be government subsidized; the same with the network of social services that had been awarded to those with lock in status. This caused a furor in the Haden population, which was starting to identify itself as a new race in a new world. And, as is the case whenever there is political or economic turmoil, the environment is rife with opportunity for those willing and able to take advantage of the situation, often for their own gain and regardless of who suffers from the outcome.
See what I mean about convoluted?
Enter Chris Shane, a young man on his first day on the job with the FBI. Not only is Agent Shane a Haden, but when he was younger, he was the poster child for Hadens – literally. Now he wants to shake off that image, and the shadow cast by his famous father, and simply become his own person. But from Day One (well, Day Two, as Day One was full of meetings with HR and filling out paperwork), events would conspire to make his entry into the Bureau’s corps somewhat… eventful. Things get complicated very quickly, with Chris and his veteran partner, Agent Leslie Vann, smack dab in the middle of it all.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
So what is Lock In? Is it futuristic speculative fiction? Is it a pandemic disaster novel? Is it a detective thriller? A cybercrime whodunit? A political puzzler? A somewhat bizarre cop/buddy tale? Yes, yes (kinda), yes, yes, yes, and yah, sure, yes.
But most of all, it’s a John Scalzi book.
That means that it’s smart, witty, involving and, strangely enough, thoroughly relatable.
In fact, regardless of subject matter or plot device, everything that John Scalzi writes is something to which we can relate – that’s what makes his books so good. Not because we’ve ever worked for the FBI, or been wide awake while in a completely catatonic state, or had a father who was a basketball superstar millionaire real estate mogul Senate wannabe (not many of us, anyway). But because we all want to make our own way in this world. We want to be our own person, to live life on our own terms (more or less). And many of us want, in some small way, to make a difference in the world in which we find ourselves.
As long as we can be a bit of a smart ass. That helps.
Admittedly, sometimes there is a lot of talk and explication in this book – there kind of has to be, with neural nets and brain structures and coding and integrations and all. To understand what’s going on at the level where it becomes vital and far reaching, the story has to become somewhat intricate, scientifically. But unlike other writers (very good writers) who delve into advanced technologies and cyber tech enhancements – or even the guts of today’s technology and specialized sciences – where I find myself holding on to the gist of the idea by my fingernails, knowing that I just have to have an inkling of what’s going on to understand the storyline, Scalzi has this amazing way of explaining even the, well, most convoluted of things so that I feel like I’m actually “in the know”. Not well versed, perhaps, but slightly more than a mere hanger-on. Kudos, Mr. Scalzi, kudos!
Actually, Lock In succeeds on so many levels that it truly is hard to define. There’s the fun of inhabiting a well developed world not of our own (but not all that different as to be alien), a host of believable and well fleshed out characters, amazingly great dialog, lots of fast moving action, puzzles and riddles that unfold in an entertaining and at times surprising way, plenty of sass, more than a few bullets, a well aimed frying pan, and a world where the aftermath of a pandemic is not – thank heavens – dystopian.
Once again – despite what you think heading into it, with Lock In, John Scalzi once again ends up hitting it out of the park.