First of all, there’s the title of this story. Lock In is John Scalzi’s term for people suffering from the lingering aftereffects of an encephalitic flu that will strike the world in the near future. Most people who get this flu recover with no ill-effect. However, a certain percentage are left in a persistent fully paralyzed, conscious state, termed lock-in. They can’t move or speak, and exist completely dependent on society for care. However, Hadens, another term used to describe the survivors of the disease, possess a brain structure altered to a sufficient degree that they are are able to easily download their perceptions into mechanical bodies, called Personal Transports, and into the minds of even rarer subset of people who experienced the flu, Integrators.
A strength of this book is that a reader gradually comes to understand the full scope of the Lock-In future. This fast-moving book provides details of the disease and how Hadens cope with it along the way, rarely through large chunks of undigestible exposition. Conversation, actions of characters, and the occasional helpful aside for the protagonist Chris Shane speed our acclimation to this familiar, albeit altered future.
One thing I really appreciated about this story was this propulsiveness. Scalzi doesn’t waste a lot time doing much of anything other than tell a story. It sets up the pieces of the mystery, offers one or two easily resolvable side plots and then at about the point the reader has it all figured out, the final confrontation is already underway. Although there is more going on here than the average techno-thriller, it reads with same breezy urgency of a Crichton novel.
That’s not to say that the late Michael Crichton was some how a piker on concepts in his novel, it’s just Scalzi has time and inclination, even in his tornado of a novel, to address outside issues raised by his speculation. As will be discussed later on in this review, Scalzi shows a natural ease with complication and ‘soft sciences.’ I have no way of judging whether or not the physics and computer science of this novel is legitimate, but I did buy the sociology. From the issues of tribalism to the more complicated questions of juriprudence, Scalzi paints a world unafraid of nuance. In Lock In people have become accustomed to people walking around in androids, but the way that manifests is more complicated than simply, “oh, some people are able to walk around like C-3PO’s.” Scalzi addresses the economy of care-taking that would develop around a significant population of intermittent invalids, an era of expansionist government intervention that would make Obama look like Rand Paul.
Scalzi also finds cranky, driven characters to set his plot into motion. Perhaps because his physical body is so immobile, the version of Chris out there in the world is fast and jumps around the continent with ease. I also liked that family is not skimped on or avoided. Chris has a dad. His dad has many admirable qualities along with many that are overbearing and suffocating. The way that Chris seeks his own autonomy even though his natural state is completely dependent is a facet of this story that just worked for me. The arc of the protagonist from someone dependent to independent serves the main plot, doesn’t distract from it. Chris’ snarky voice goes a long way to making this future feel lived-in and unglamorous. If this makes sense, I think most of the effects of the movie version of Lock-In would be practical effects, and the androids would be scuffed up and dusty. It is very easy to believe in this future.
Although I’ve already praised Scalzi’s work here to tease out some of the ramifications of his invented technologies, I think more could have been done. For example, perhaps shying away from frittering into a topic already over-worked from other stories, Scalzi spends very little time explaining the virtual world of the Hadens, and even less time actually taking us there. The events of the novel concern the real world, and that’s where the focus is. Still, I would have liked a few more moments exploring just what this kind of technology would make possible in terms of what human would be. Why couldn’t a Haden fork himself into multiple personal transports? Would it be possible to spread his perception across many different input sensors simultaneously, to gain a radically different gestalt of the world? What does it mean to grow up inside of a virtual environment with an awareness of that fact? Granted, Scalzi says this technology hasn’t been approved for non-Hadens yet, but wouldn’t there be a huge black-market for this technology among the unaffected?
In some ways this book serves as a metaphor for geek culture in general. The idea of lock-ins being their own subset of culture, needing intermediaries to exist in the real world, of there being an inaccessible corner of the net, all seems prefigured by what’s going on in the internet right now. Really what this book is doing is taking some of the discussion happening online about identity and anonymity and making them tangible through a murder mystery plot. But the questions this book dramatizing are already happening, have been happening, for decades.