A new book from John Scalzi is always a treat, but for this one I had even higher expectations, both because it promised to be different from the author’s usual “stomping grounds” and because the short story “Unlocked“, released a few months ago, showed tantalizing glimpses that I could not wait to explore.
The premise: a virulent strain of flu has swept the planet, killing millions in its wake and leaving one percent of the affected population “locked-in” in their own bodies, which means their brain and consciousness are active, but unable to connect to the body and therefore reach the outside world. With time, a partial solution is found for the Hadens – i.e. the people so affected, named after the best-known flu victim, the First Lady: a brain implant that enables them first to participate with others in a virtual community (the Agora) and later to interact with the rest of the world through android simulacra, or “threeps”.
When the novel opens, a new frontier has been reached: some of the flu survivors have undergone such a change in their brain structure that they can interface with Hadens and so offer a flesh-and-blood host – an Integrator – able to experience the world in a more tangible manner. The novel is narrated from the point of view of Chris Shane, a Haden, who starts the very first day on the job as an FBI agent by being called with senior agent Vann to the scene of a murder involving an Integrator, and it’s clear from the start that there is much more to the story than meets the eye. The investigation brings Shane and Vann along unexpected paths, toward the discovery of a deep-rooted conspiracy involving several levels of the business and political scene, one that could dramatically affect the Haden population worldwide.
I’ve often praised John Scalzi’s deceptive lightness in style and storytelling, and “Lock In” is no exception, more so than other books: this fast-paced, dialogue-intensive novel offers an inside view on the social changes occurring after such a devastating event as the epidemic, but also a series of reflections about disability and the way people react to it from both sides of the equation.
The book outlines quite clearly the range of social reactions toward the victims of such a large-scale event: in the immediate aftermath of it, when the emotional impact is still strong, solidarity reaches its highest levels, only to decrease as times passes and habit and familiarity set in, with such consequences as the perception of Hadens as a collective burden that’s becoming increasingly hard to bear. The strength of the novel comes from the ease with which this situation is outlined: Scalzi does not preach or lecture, but simply shows how this affects society with a series of subdued, almost off-hand scenes that nevertheless deliver a meaningful message, like the detail about threeps not being allowed to take a seat in public places like bars and restaurants, since android bodies have no need for rest and comfort and it’s considered a waste of space – what remains verbally unexpressed, but is glaringly obvious, is that threeps and Hadens have come to be viewed as possessing fewer rights than the average citizen, and that there is no allowance for their feelings when their social interactions are forced into awkward positions, both in the mental and material sense. Hadens have almost become non-persons, or second-class citizens.
On the other side of the fence, Hadens embrace differing viewpoints concerning their situation: people who were so affected after living a normal life span are more inclined to find a way to still be a part of the wider social tissue, while those who were locked in at a very young age (as one of the characters who was affected before birth), and therefore have little or no ground for comparison, don’t see their affliction as such, but rather as a different way to be a human being, to the point of refusing the use of threeps, preferring the virtual interaction of the Agora to more “hands-on” relationships. They don’t view themselves as sick, and of course refuse to be cured in the event that a solution to the lock-in problem is found (a possibility that is explored in the course of the story). Considering the non-person treatment I mentioned above, it’s hardly surprising that the Hadens who have less experience of the outside world would prefer its virtual equivalent, a place where they can be whatever they want, with no limitations.
And this last consideration brings me to one of the book’s most interesting sides, one I became aware of only a couple of days after finishing it: in this post on his blog, John Scalzi revealed that the story is written in such a way as to leave Chris Shane’s gender unspecified. The very nature of threeps – android bodies – removes any gender-bound difference from the equation: for example, in the course of the novel Shane is involved in several physical confrontations and their outcome is not dictated by the character’s gender-related strength, but by that of the threep – or rather threeps, since Shane goes through a few of them in a short span of time, in what becomes a sort of recurring gag. This narrative choice raises very interesting questions concerning the perception of gender from an outside point of view: for example I assumed that Chris would be male because, based on my incomplete mastery of the English language, the name “Chris” seemed to point to a male subject, and besides I thought that the pairing with agent Vann (a woman) created an interesting contrast between a senior female operative and a male rookie, especially given Vann’s attitude. But in light of the above revelation, and some hindsight, I was able to see that Shane’s identity, interactions and performance as an FBI operative work just as well from a female perspective and that the character’s gender becomes irrelevant in light of the peculiar condition of a threep-handling Haden. More important still, it became clear that any character’s gender need not be tied to its role in a story…
So once more I have to praise John Scalzi for his effective blending of entertaining narrative and thought-provoking elements: for me that’s become one of his trademarks, and one that I’ve come to expect from his books.
My Rating: 9/10