Lock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the John Scalzi's latest book. It's a bit of a departure from the other books I've read of his, but he was visiting Saratoga Springs on his tour to promote it, so I thought I'd give it a listen. Audible gave me copies narrated by Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson with my pre-order, and I decided arbitrarily to listen to Ms. Benson's version.
Lock In takes place in a near future that could've been post-apocalyptic. A virus that first manifests with flu-like symptoms has forever changed the world. Not in its decreasing the population, though that is a thing. Some percentage of survivors of Haden's syndrome are locked in, bodily paralyzed but fully aware of everything going on around them. The story opens 25 years later, after the technology to adapt Hadens (the shorthand for those locked in) to normal society is so well established, the government is cutting funding for further research.
Our perspective character is Chris Shane, the child of a former basketball star, and brand new FBI agent. Shane was afflicted with Haden's very young, and can't remember ever moving around in a human body. Instead, Shane became the public face of Haden's, and those struggling to integrate into normal society with the adaptations created for them. Shane is assigned to a special Haden unit within the FBI, and immediately has a case, on top of security for planned rallies protesting the aforementioned legislation.
Shane's gender is never given within the story, and, believe me, I listened. Shane is always called "Agent Shane," never Mr. or Ms., and Chris is Marcus Shane's child, not son or daughter. Even the scene where Shane looks down on the lifeless body technology frees Shane from, there's no physical marker, no remark on the body's attractiveness, no descriptor of hair length or necessary personal grooming. Part of it is that Shane doesn't appear to identify with the body lying in the cradle. Shane has lived through the movements of a threep (a sort of personal robot Hadens can use to move around and experience life) for so long, the shape of the flesh Shane was born into doesn't seem to matter.
This adds a layer of meta to the story. Because, while Shane is integrated with the threep to experience the world, the reader is integrated with Shane, who's a blank slate. Reading as an analogue for integration is an easier explanation to wrap one's mind around than any amount the narrative might've offered. It's a much easier leap.
Scalzi peppers in a lot of other descriptors that make it easier to grasp Shane's experience. The first time Shane compares the threep to a car, it clicked into place for me: necessary to get around, an extension of yourself if you're comfortable enough with the technology, expensive and far from disposable, but not the end of the world if it's damaged. With such easy imagery, Scalzi makes this world seem very real.
That it's grounded very much in modern politics and attitudes also makes suspension of disbelief that much easier. I work with people with disabilities. I've seen very similar attitudes to the ones Shane encounters, and some of the conversations are, word-for-word, ones I've had with employers about the people I advocate for. The attitude that allows the gutting of funding for Haden's research is the same attitude that has our funding sources dwindling while people shout about wasteful Medicaid spending. The dehumanization experienced by Hadens is a sad reflection of how I see the population I represent perceived.
As much as the story wouldn't exist without Haden's, it's not about Haden's. It's an exciting mystery in its own right, populated with multifaceted and compelling characters. Shane might be genderfluid, but that doesn't mean every aspect of Shane's character is so hard to pin down. This is a smart, snarky character who views disability as just a facet of self, and one open to self-deprecating jabs. The story rests on Shane's very capable shoulders, even if they are made of machine parts.
This story works on so many levels. I was deeply impressed. It's a neat concept, taken to some intriguing places, with some well-thought-out worldbuilding. It's a futuristic police procedural filled with surprises. It's a character study about disability and what a mind can handle and what some people are capable of. Mostly, it's an entertaining story, with a low cost of admission. You don't need a degree in epidemiology to understand Haden's, nor do you need engineering or programming background to get the concept of threeps and integration. You can just pick up this story and enjoy the many levels it works on. Or, you can just enjoy the story for what it is.
And I'm not just saying that because of how appreciative Mr. Scalzi was of the apple cider doughnuts I brought him from Bella Napoli when I saw him on tour.
As I noted above, I listened to this with Amber Benson's narration. I don't know if it would've been that different with Wheaton's, but she did a wonderful reading. She captured Shane's voice superbly. If I hadn't been listening so closely for gender markers, I would've been convinced that she'd been hired because she was the closest human analogue to Chris Shane. It was an excellent reading experience. I recommend it.
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