Another friend who has read most everything written by John Scalzi gave me Scalzi’s new book Lock In as a present, and I read it in one day. Aside from the fact that some of the characters couldn’t use their bodies and had to get around in specially adapted robot bodies, it read like a pretty straightforward mystery novel. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of science fiction, but this seemed like a science fiction setting with a story about characters you could find in any good murder mystery.
I’d read that Scalzi wrote the entire novel without using semicolons (he tells why) but before I read it, I hadn’t realized that he also wrote the entire novel without specifying something that is usually specified in other books. Jenny’s review first made me aware of it. All I can say–attempting to avoid spoilers for those of you who don’t like them–is that, having started this blog in the wake of my 2008 knee replacement, I don’t tend to associate much of the physical with what is “me.” I’ve always remembered a bit from a memoir by Reynolds Price (A Whole New Life) about how he shaped his life of the mind so it was immaterial that his body was in a wheelchair.
We’re introduced to the world of Lock In by a preface, purporting to be from HighSchoolCheatSheet.com, which explains the fictional “Haden’s syndrome,” including the “lock in” of some victims’ minds and the government funding “designed to rapidly increase understanding of brain function and speed to market programs and prostheses that would allow those afflicted with Haden’s to participate in society.” As the novel begins, the government funding is coming to an end and the Haden community is protesting. The protagonist, Chris Shane, has grown up with Haden’s and is just starting a first job as an FBI agent, which means that Chris has no preconceptions about what life is like with a body. Chris gets around in a robot body commonly called a “threep,” a Star Wars reference short enough and evocative enough to sound plausible as a nickname.
There are some interesting details about how it works to live in a threep, including that most Haden’s people are perceptually in two places at once, in their body and in their threep. At one point, a doctor tells Chris a story about a Haden who
“was full sense-forward on her threep all the time. Didn’t like feeling what was going on with her body. Hell, didn’t like acknowledging that she had a body. She found it inconvenient….which was ultimately ironic….She had a heart attack and didn’t even feel it….it came as a surprise to her that she could die. She spent so much time in her threep I think she believed it really was her.”
We learn that so far, in this world, innovations like threeps are only for Hadens, and that some politicians are saying that anyone with mobility issues could benefit, even though others argue that “jamming a second brain into your head is inherently dangerous.” We also learn that most locked-in politicans prefer using a host body, an “Integrator” to using a threep, because, as one of them says, “otherwise there’s a certain percentage of people who forget I’m a person.” There are Haden people who identify so strongly with their bodies that they argue that living as a Haden is not something that needs to be “cured” but “just another way to live,” strongly reminiscent, at least to me, of some of the arguments about lip-reading and speaking from members of the deaf community.
These ideas are interesting, but they’re very much by the way as this story progresses–the mystery is intriguing, and its resolution satisfying. Although I enjoyed the moment Chris realizes what it means to another kind of person to be “possessed,” I think that if you read Lock In, you will join me in admiring the painlessly fictionalized way Scalzi describes the workings of the Haden and Integrator brains in order to allow us to see how cleverly Chris solves the mystery and reveals the bad guy at the end.