My plans for Labor Day Weekend did not involve devouring John Scalzi’s Lock In. Sure, I planned to read some of it on the beach in New Jersey, interspersed between lots of heavy-duty reading of literary theory for a graduate course next week. But alas, the best-laid plans sometimes fall to whim, or, rather, to a thoroughly engaging book. Which means that while I did get through some of that literary theory (you didn’t get the best of me, Ferdinand de Saussure!), I spent most of the weekend devouring Lock In.
Yes, devouring. Somewhere in my literary theory-addled brain (have you seen that textbook? It’s like a brick), an inner voice points out that Roland Barthes wouldn’t be too happy about my consumption of a work with no concomitant production of a text, but then again, Barthes was also big on the Death of the Author and the only reason I picked up Lock In is that I voraciously devour anything John Scalzi puts out, so there’s no way I was going to get along with Barthes anyway.
Which is my lengthy, convoluted (but a lot less convoluted than most literary theory, trust me on that) way of getting around to saying that Lock In, John Scalzi’s latest novel, is really, really good.
In fact, if science fiction is the literature of ideas – a belief I repeat ceaselessly – then Lock In stands among the most excellent examples of science fiction I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter.
The premise of the novel is this: In the near future, a highly contagious mutation of the flu virus causes a worldwide pandemic, which, in one percent of its victims, causes “lock in” – that is, paralysis of the voluntary nervous system that leaves mental capabilities intact. The world rises to the challenge (rather quickly, too, but that’s an aside to be explored later), creating a virtual space (the Agora), Personal Transporters (think C-3P0 – they’re called “threeps,” after all) that are the “locked in” person’s way of experiencing the world, neural networks, and Integrators (human beings who can carry the mind of another to allow them to have human experiences). Naturally, this creates a new market centered around catering to people with “Haden’s syndrome,” as the disease comes to be called – and a change in society and culture, which attempts to adapt to these new iterations of humanity in their midst.
Within this new society, a murder involving an Integrator throws rookie FBI agent Chris Shane (himself a “locked in” Haden victim) and his partner Vann headfirst into an investigation that quickly turns into a technological/sci-fi-thriller detective story, and a page-turning one at that. As far as the murder mystery goes, it’s fairly engaging, but what really forms the core of the novel, what makes it a science fiction novel and not a murder mystery, is the world it creates and the ideas it tackles with it.
First, and most obviously, Scalzi creates a complex world that raises myriad questions about personal identity, consciousness, “being human,” robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. It’s clear that he has thought through this world in depth – even thinking up slang for it, working out jurisdictional details (for example, hurting a person in a threep is, legally, the same as hurting a human body), and thinking through the way a “locked in” person experiences reality. He asks the obvious questions – What makes us human? Does a human consciousness in an android body still constitute a human? Where is that person’s identity housed? Can they exist solely in a virtual reality? But he also asks the less obvious questions – do these locked-in people have some advantages over regular humans? How do we deal with this new iteration of humanity jurisdictionally?
Second, and equally interestingly, the book touches on disability and disability culture. Technically, victims of Haden’s syndrome is disabled – after all, they’re completely paralyzed. These victims have their own community (both virtually – the Agora – and in real life), their own slang, their own culture. This raises a number of questions, such as whether there can be a culture centered around a disability, and what curing that disability would do to that culture. What is a disability anyway, if being locked-in means access to an android body whose capabilities are far superior to that of a human’s? David M. Perry at the Huffington Post touches on this, lauding the book for its exploration of these questions and linking it to real world debates about deaf culture.
As in any good science fiction novel, of course, Scalzi doesn’t really throw the answers at you, though. He lets you ponder the questions – and that’s where the world of the novel comes in. This fictional reality is complex, with the world having gone through many iterations of changes to accommodate these new types of human beings – and it is the existence of that very world in which the story takes place that makes the novel true science fiction. It’s this futuristic fictional reality, different from our own in many ways, that through its very existence allows Scalzi to pose these questions and ponder the way we live now.
Which brings me to the one downside of the book, which can be aptly summarized in that it’s too short. By that, I mean that in reading the murder mystery, the reader gets only a short and high-speed tour through the world Scalzi creates. That means that the very thing that allows Scalzi to ponder the complex questions he raises – the world he creates – feels at times inconsistent, or like it’s missing something. For example, this book happens in the near future, which means that all the laws and contingencies in place for Haden’s victims in the legal system (and there are a lot of them) seem a little too good to be true. There’s a lot less prejudice than one would expect – especially of the religious kind. In many ways, the plot rushes by these questions, and while some questions are best left unanswered, sometimes it feels as if there are a few too many questions left unanswered by this book.
Still, despite some inconsistencies and problems in the worldbuilding, there’s a candid tangibility to the reality of this world. Scalzi has a quirky narrative voice, a great sense of humor (you’ll see what I mean when you get to a certain bit about the Founding Fathers), and an ability, in a few simple lines, to create dialogue and human interaction that feels unique. From the aforementioned slang to the zesty one-liners our protagonist shoots off, there’s just something so candid about how Scalzi writes people in a futuristic, sci-fi society that makes this at once a livable story and a sci-fi masterpiece that raises questions about our human existence.
And I just love that – sci-fi in a world that feels, of all the fancy words I can use, full of verisimilitude and yet full of interesting ideas and unique creations. And, to add a cherry to the top of this lovely cake, John Scalzi just announced that this novel is being developed for television, and I couldn’t think of a better book to make into a science fiction show. Hopefully the seasonal narrative possibilities of television will give Scalzi leave to answer the unanswered questions, explore this world further, and make this an even more stunning work of sci-fi.