Book Review: Lock In by John Scalzi + Novella Review: Unlocked
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (August 26, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Whenever I need a good pick-me-up or book to brighten up my day I always turn to John Scalzi, and he hasn’t let me down yet. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since I read Old Man’s War, and that’s also when I started associating his work with light, humorous sci-fi that’s also accessible and not too overwhelming for someone like me, who is predominantly a fantasy reader and not always in the mood for hard science fiction or heavy techno-jargon. In fact, many of Scalzi’s books were my gateway to the genre; they were perfect for when I was first getting my feet wet and trying to read more sci-fi.
So I was very excited to read Lock In, his latest novel about a future society of robots and humans. Of course, the big twist here is how this robot revolution came about, and the premise is unique and unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Indeed, Lock In is also quite different from all of Scalzi’s previous books – its tone is perhaps more pensive and serious, with a few scientific and technological concepts that are more complex and may be a little more difficult to grasp.
In this near-future setting, the world has survived a virulent flu that has swept across the globe and devastated much of humanity. This deadly new strain of the disease killed many of those infected in the first stage, but some of those who survived were also relentlessly hit with a second stage of symptoms which included acute meningitis. A percentage who went on to survive this second stage found themselves “locked in”, trapped in a state of being fully awake and aware, but having no control over their voluntary nervous systems.
This condition, named Haden’s Syndrome after the president’s wife who was the most famous person afflicted with lock in, was given much attention and a lot of money was thrown at it in the hopes of finding a cure. None was found, but a way to get “Hadens” walking and talking again was developed, thanks to biological advancements in neural networks and technological advancements in robotics. The brains of those locked in were essentially linked up to humanoid personal transports affectionately named “Threeps” (after C-3PO of Star Wars fame), allowing them to interact with the world once more.
Thus Scalzi sets the stage for the real story, which most closely resembles a mystery-suspense. However most of the above background information has to be pieced together as the reader progresses through the book, as we are pretty much dropped right into the thick of things without much explanation upfront. We don’t find out until about a dozen pages in the protagonist of the novel is a Haden himself. It’s rookie FBI Agent Chris Shane’s first couple of days on the job and already he’s thrust into a what looks to be a messy could-be-murder-could-be-suicide case involving an Integrator, who are rare individuals that survived the flu and the meningitis stage and didn’t get locked in, only to develop a brain structure which would allow Hadens to link up their minds to use their bodies as if they were their own or a Threeps’.
As you can see, the concepts in this novel are quite intricate and complex, and I’m actually really impressed Scalzi was able to get all the relevant information across without having to commit the cardinal sin of shameless, wholesale info-dumping all over these pages. After having a peek at several early reviews of Lock In from readers who found themselves slightly lost and confused especially at the beginning of this novel, I was a bit concerned that I would feel the same way, but surprisingly I did not. It’s true that not all the details and answers about the world are available right away, but I still found the story easy to follow and I ultimately liked the way knowledge about Haden’s Syndrome and its history were gradually presented to us. All the information came to light eventually, and it happened very naturally and in a way that didn’t distract from the storytelling.
And while this book is a tale of mystery at its heart, what I liked best about its was its subtle societal themes and messages about topics like disability, ethics in medicine, and other tough questions for a country in which millions suffer from a very expensive and life-altering condition. Scalzi explores the implications of this and the effects that Threeps might have on the population. I’ve always thought of his books as more “popcorn reads”, like with novels such as Redshirts or Agent to the Stars, but Lock In also surprised me with its depth and moments of thoughtfulness.
That being said, this book is still pure Scalzi in terms of his light, easy prose and plenty of humorous and snappy dialogue. Lock In was fun and entertaining, and I had a fantastic time reading this, but I also feel this is a next step for the author. It’s a huge part of what made this book such a great read, because to be honest, as mystery or suspense novels go, it’s not as mysterious or suspenseful as it could be (after all, it was pretty obvious who the bad guy was, and there’s really no having to guess whatsoever). But the writing, the premise of the story along with the background of Haden’s Syndrome and what it means for the world all came together in one perfect package for me. As a result I devoured this book in a bit more than a day and I loved every minute of it.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Tor Books!
If you haven’t read Lock In yet and have concerns about being overwhelmed by the details of Haden’s Syndrome, or if you’ve finished the book and would like to know more, I highly recommend checking out this companion novella that you can actually read online for free here.
Told in an epistolary format in the form of collected interviews, Unlocked features narratives from many different people, all in one way or another intimately involved in the history of Haden’s Syndrome and the Great Flu that precipitated it all. It’s meant to give you more information about the condition, as well some history on how the world struggled with and recovered from the epidemic only to end up trying to find a way to help the millions that experienced “lock in”.
Through the various perspectives, we get to find out what the devastating flu was like, how it was spread, as well as the response when everyone realized that the illness was unlike anything the world has ever seen. The most relevant part, of course, is what happens afterwards, when Haden’s Syndrome rears its ugly head. As someone who read Lock In first before checking this out, I knew that President Haden had a major role in galvanizing the country and uniting everyone’s efforts in finding a way to help the victims of the condition, and I was so happy that I got to have the whole story of how it happened here, in all its glory.
Just in keep in mind that this novella is meant to inform, so it wouldn’t be fair to go into this with the usual expectations for a story. There’s not a lot of plot or character development, which is okay because that’s not its goal. Nonetheless, I was completely fascinated by the way this book went through the different stages of the whole Haden’s Syndrome saga. Several of the characters also made themselves stand out with distinct “voices” as they related stories of their experience with Haden’s.
Unlocked shows just how invested John Scalzi is into the world of his book Lock In, and perhaps he rightly recognized that readers will want to know more about it. It probably doesn’t matter whether you read this before or after you read the full-length novel, but all I can say is, either way it’s worth it.