John Scalzi is among my favorite authors: I have a bigger post in the works where I talk at some length about his books. Meanwhile, this recently released novella introduces the changed world that will be the background of his upcoming book Lock In, and is written as oral history, i.e. through several eyewitnesses’ accounts.
The premise: a virulent flu strain sweeps across the globe, killing millions in its wake and leaving an equally impressive number of people prisoners of their own bodies – they are awake, and aware, but incapable of motion, speech, communication. The story gives an account of these events, of the profound social changes brought by Haden’s Syndrome (so named after one of its most illustrious victims, the United States’ First Lady) and of the consequences of mankind’s attempts to deal with the disease’s aftermath.
Unlocked represents a dark twist in John Scalzi’s usually lighter-toned writing: even though the alternating eyewitness reports are collected after the fact, therefore getting some emotional distance from actual events, there is a palpable sense of impending doom, the perception of an unavoidable catastrophe happening before our eyes – a tragedy that both terrifies and fascinates the reader. The stark, journalistic style of the reports does nothing to mitigate the horror of the unfolding drama and at the same time makes it both real and believable because, as we are reminded more than once, no one remains untouched by the disease. It’s impossible, while reading this account, not to think about how realistic this scenario is, how it feels like a news report rather than fiction.
It hardly matters whether this flu is a natural evolution of an existing strain or the result of a willful terrorist act, as implied and discussed by several parties: both options are explored, yes, but this is not the focus of the story. What’s really important is how the world reacts to a pandemic of these proportions and to the huge problem of the uncounted victims of the final stage of the infection, the one that leaves them helpless, locked in their bodies without access to the external world.
After the initial shock, the world starts to recover and to move pro-actively toward a solution for the Hadens – the collective name given to the lock-in-syndrome casualties. That solution will most certainly be the core theme of the upcoming book, so I’m not going into any spoilers here: suffice it to say that the small glimpses we are given about the social ramification of it (both short- and long-term ones) and the changes in public awareness, will allow Lock-In an in-depth point of view on disability, social standing and human rights.
As I said in the beginning, this story is darker and far less touched by the usual humor I’ve come to expect from John Scalzi’s writing, but it’s still as compelling as his other work, and promises more and better for the full-fledged book that will see the light next August. Luckily for me, not too long a wait…
My Rating: 8/10