Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

Five months have passed since my last review — yikes! The semester can really wreak havoc with those of us on academic schedules. But, on the bright side, I now have a fairly significant backlog of books that I can review for this blog. First up is an unreserved rave for John Scalzi’s Lock In.

The short version of my review is that if you like smart, imaginative science fiction, you should buy this book immediately. I knew almost nothing about the book’s plot when I began reading but I was drawn into Lock In’s world from the very first page. Scalzi handles his exposition masterfully; information about this alt-universe version of the United States is revealed at just the right pace,* and without making the reader feel as if she’s drowning in unfamiliar terms. So if you’re game for a great sci-fi novel and you don’t mind going in blind, just take my word for it: this book is awesome and you should read it.

If you’d like to read a few minor spoilers before deciding if Lock In is for you, follow me past the jump.

Lock In takes place in the not-too-distant future. A disease called Haden’s Syndrome spread via pandemic about twenty-five years before the novel opens. While the disease was fatal to many, others survived unscathed. However, just over one percent of Haden’s patients became “locked in” — they retained total cognitive awareness and function but lost the ability to control their voluntary nervous system. When the novel opens there are roughly 4.35 million “locked in” Haden’s patients in the US. Scalzi brilliantly reveals much of this information in a copy of an article about Haden’s Syndrome from “HighSchoolCheatSheet.com,” my first sign that I was going to love this book.

By the time Lock In opens, Hadens are able to participate in society by using Personal Transports — essentially, robots that they can pilot using their remaining cognitive functions. (The characters in the book usually call these robots “threeps,” a deliberate homage to Star Wars‘s C-3PO.) Our protagonist, Chris Shane, is a Haden’s patient who was locked in as a child and has interacted with the world almost entirely via threep.

On the day the book opens, the US Congress has just passed a controversial law that will pull the plug on most government funding for Haden’s patients–meaning there will be no more financial help for locked in Haden’s patients who maintain threeps or hire caretakers for their physical bodies. Hadens are walking out of their jobs in droves to protest the new measure. It also happens to be Chris’s first day as a rookie FBI agent–and it quickly becomes apparent that the murder Chris has been assigned to investigate is related to the unrest among American Hadens.

Much of the book focuses on the murder Chris is investigating, but Lock In also spends time exploring what life is like for Chris and other Hadens. Scalzi has thought a lot about the cultural and economic impact that the pandemic and the “lock in” phenomenon would have had on the United States. There is some thought that certain organizations might be close to a cure for the locked in state, but some activists argue that being locked in is merely a different way of experiencing the world and a unique subculture, not a disease to be eradicated. These kinds of details raise Lock In above other sci-fi mysteries and make it an intriguing cultural thought experiment.

Finally, I was a good 40% of the way through Lock In when I realized that I had been assuming Chris was a man–and that I had absolutely no evidence to back up that assumption. In fact, Lock In very carefully avoids revealing Chris’s sex or gender (and the audiobook actually has two different narrator options–one male, one female). That could have been gimmicky, but Scalzi handles Chris’s ambiguous gender so deftly that it never distracts from the novel’s story. It also makes complete sense that traditional conceptions of sex and gender identity wouldn’t necessarily map onto the experience of someone who has lived almost their entire conscious life inside a robot body.

Lock In is thought-provoking, elegantly constructed, and just plain fun to read. Highly recommended.

Rating: Buy It

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

* Awkward exposition is a pet peeve of mine, especially in dialogue between two characters who already know everything being exposited. Few things will make me give up on a fantasy or science fiction novel faster than one character telling another, “Well, Bob, as you know, ten years ago aliens invaded Earth.” Yeah, I think Bob remembers that.

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