I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this work.
Readers of my blog will know by now that John Scalzi is one of those authors whose books I grab almost without looking at the back cover blurb, and this was no exception, especially considering that I enjoyed its predecessor Lock In very much. Once more I found myself caught in a captivating story that expands on the previously established background: for those who have not read Lock In and the prequel novella Unlocked, Scalzi postulates that a particularly virulent strain of flu sweeps around the world killing many and leaving a percentage of the survivors locked in their own bodies – brains alive and functioning, but unable to move or to communicate with the outside world. Haden’s Syndrome (so called from the USA First Lady, probably the most notorious victim of the virus) spurs the international community to find a way to bring the people afflicted back into contact with the rest of the world: first a neural net is devised that allows Hadens to communicate with each other in the virtual space of the Agora, then a sort of robotic, remotely controlled body (or threep) is implemented to grant them mobility and the possibility to interact with non-Hadens, leading as normal a life as possible.
Like its predecessor, Head On focuses of Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent, paired with the more experienced detective Vann: after reading the first book, I discovered from online discussions that John Scalzi had left out on purpose any indication about Shane’s gender, to stress how it doesn’t necessarily define a character, or what they can do. To say the truth, while reading Lock In I thought about Chris as male for no other reason that it made sense to pair a younger, inexperienced male rookie agent with a more seasoned, more pragmatic female partner like Vann, but on hindsight I realized that it didn’t make that much of a difference in their working and interpersonal dynamic. With this new novel I was ready to see how the lack of information on Chris’ gender would play in my perception of the story, and after a while I realized that it worked no matter what, that I cared only about Chris’ journey as the current investigation developed, and that was all that truly counted in the end.
The action starts some time after the events depicted in the previous book, and it does indeed begin with a tragic occurrence: a well-known sports player dies in mysterious circumstances during an important match, and the fact that the event is being aired and the players’ vital statistics uploaded for everyone to see, gives the start to a veritable avalanche of outlandish speculation. The match was no ordinary sports event, since it concerned Hilketa, a cross between rugby and the most ferocious gladiatorial games – a sport played by Hadens with their threeps, and one that is acquiring more and more attention not only from the Haden community, but also from the non-afflicted public and players, with increasing talk about including non-Hadens in threeps as Hilketa players. The threeps are an important part of the game itself, since the physical damage incurred by the participants is heavy, and because one of the rules requires that a player be labeled as “goat”, and their head forcibly detached from the body so that it can be used as a score-signing part by the opponent team – clearly not something one could do with a flesh-and-blood individual. When Duane Chapman, the rising star of the Boston Bays, loses his threep’s head for the third time in the same game, it becomes quickly clear that something is wrong with his physical body, and once he falls prey to seizures, death ensues in a matter of minutes.
How could the damage inflicted on the threep have repercussions on Chapman’s body is the first question facing the investigative team, and as Shane and Vann launch into their inquiry they discover several layers of financial and political implications underlying the structure of the Hilketa sports league, and here I must stress how John Scalzi managed to keep my attention focused on a topic that would normally not interest me, to put it mildly. I’m not a fan of spectator sports, and often think that the hype surrounding sport events sounds somewhat exaggerated and the emphasis of commentators quite over the top, even though I acknowledge the fact that my lack of interest might play a major part in that assessment: with Head On, though, the background theme did not bother me at all, and I found any mention of Hilketa and its surrounding apparatus quite interesting, which means that the author was able to draw me in despite my issues. Well done indeed…
The most interesting part of the story, however, is the one concerned with Hadens, especially in the way they are still adapting to a continuously evolving society that has partly lost the connection with the emotional impact of their tragedy – as it happens with many instances when they become a common fact of life. In a way, Hadens and their threeps are now an almost mundane fact of life, and the positive side of this is that there is no more question of their acceptance; on the other hand, however, this has led to the withdrawal of a good portion of government funding for afflicted people, so that many of them face economic difficulties in the maintenance of expensive threeps and in the much more costly maintenance of their immobile bodies, that still need to be cared for. It struck me deeply to see how the threeps, while affording Hadens the chance of interacting normally with the rest of humanity, have in some way robbed the syndrome’s victims of the recognition of their basic helplessness, of their continued need for specialized medical care.
And that’s not all, because aside from ordinary and extraordinary ‘creature comforts’, so to speak, the needs of Hadens concern human companionship too, something that is denied their paralyzed bodies as well as their threep “vehicles”: there is a moment where Shane’s parents are talking with their offspring through the threep, while at the same time Chris’ mother busies herself with some hair trimming on the actual, paralyzed body, as a way of still connecting physically with her child. In this instance Chris comments about the need for human touch that Hadens experience, the necessity to still feel connected, feel part of their families and of the outside world. It’s a very moving moment, one where we are brought to realize, once again, how our perceptions might lead us astray and rob us, and others, of some essential connection with our fellow humans, especially when they suffer from some kind of affliction.
There are many, many layers to this story underlying the surface of the investigation on the player’s death, and they are all intriguing and thought-provoking, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi novel, and once more I was not disappointed. The pace was brisk, the humor well-balanced, the characters believable: one could not really ask for more. Highly recommended.