In the near-future of John Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In, a pandemic called Haden's Syndrome sweeps the world. Some of its victims suffer flu-like symptoms, some die, and some experience 'Lock In', and are trapped in their own bodies, unable to move. This disease provides a sweeping backdrop for a fast-paced science fiction thriller that locks you into the pages, in typical Scalzi fashion.
Some spoilers ahead.
Following the spread of Haden's Syndrome, an Manhattan/Apollo scale project, the $300 billion Haden Research Initiative Act, is passed into law. This project seeks first to cure the infected of their ailment, and then to alleviate their symptoms by finding other ways to reintroduce them into the world. The result is the next best thing: pilotable robotics, à la the Avatars from James Cameron's Avatar. Quickly, the so-called Hadens become another class of citizen. This isn't really covered in Lock In so much as in the novel's accompanying novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. (Read it here.). The short piece serves as a good introduction to the story by explaining the world and setting the reader up for the story that plays out in the novel. It's a fun, 21,000 word info-dump, and it really should be included in Lock In, rather than the short excerpt from a fictional webpage in the beginning of Lock In, as it sets up the premise in a far more interesting fashion.
Lock-In opens with rookie FBI agent Chris Shane starting his second day of the job. A strike is raging against a piece of legislation, The Abrams-Kettering Bill, which would effectively end public funding for Hadens, transitioning their support to the private sector. In the midst of this, Shane and his partner Leslie Vann are called to a crime scene where an Integrator (a person who's piloted by a Haden sufferer, in lieu of a robot) has been found murdered. It soon becomes clear that there's serious foul play at hand, and the bombing of a company involved in Haden research only furthers the troubles. Scalzi's thriller unfolds at pleasurable speed, equal parts mystery and science fiction tale that simply seeks to tell a good story.
What sets Lock In apart, in my mind, is how clearly relevant it is. Running through the book is a discussion of major governmental assistance programs and their responsibility to people in need, as well as cases where certain segments of the population are carved out and treated differently, akin to the discussions of disability, racism and sexism that have taken up so much space in the nation's discourse over the last decade. Lock In serves as a good entertainment piece to examine these issues.
The affected Hadens population around the world is a population in need: those experiencing Lock In require continual medical care as they remain trapped in bed. Pilotable robots allow them to reintegrate into public life, while a virtual agora allows them to interact in virtual space. Unlocked explores some of the underlying discrimination issues through a couple of dates: individuals not permitted to frequent restaurants (as they take up space), while marriages and childrearing causes its own set of problems for Hadens. The equipment and care required to keep Hadens alive isn't cheap, and the threat of cutting down funding is reminiscent of talks of cutting social security. Bernie Sanders would certainly be an advocate for this program. In Lock In, Scalzi uses the book for a good bit of commentary throughout: Hadens, despite their robotic bodies, are still people. Angry protesters going out and hitting Hadens (or Threeps, as their robotic bodies are known) with bats, or running them over with cars, is eerily reminiscent of the anger we've seen in protests over the last couple of years, and that's no coincidence.
Lock In also uses its time as an able commentary on the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, by looking at the impact of a massive governmental program and political arguments for and against it. While it doesn't figure into the book as clearly as discrimination does, there's an underlying argument that looks at the value of a public program verses a privatized one.
As all of this is happening, Lock In rockets along with its murder mystery. Shane, as a Haden, is able to jump across the country as the investigation moves out from Washington D.C. to other parts of the country as the conspiracy grows in size. There's the requisite action, investigative work and snappy dialogue that keeps the book on track in effective order. Scalzi knows how to craft a solid commercial book, and Lock In is a nice step above the more indulgent Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas: it isn't as gimmicky, and it's on par with his other, better-known Old Man's War novels.
There are some downsides to Lock In: for the genuinely interest and constructed world that has been assembled for this, the story feels too 'by the books', and comes down predictably by the time you reach the end. Along with this, like many of Scalzi's other books, there's lots of exposition – characters standing around, talking about plot points to advance the plot, while much of the action moves forward as characters move from talking point to talking point, and it feels as though much of the character's agency is stripped away as they bounce around the country. Given that Redshirts and Ghost Brigades are off to television, the reliance on dialogue isn't unexpected, and it likely can't be too long before the book will be snapped up for adaptation: it'll make a great television event.
More annoying, however, are the points where this could have been a great book rather than a good one. Shane's partner Vann was an Integrator in the past, and we get to examine – briefly – some of the implications. There's a number of points where Lock In could have examined some much deeper issues: what is the toll on someone who's been locked in, long-term, on an individual level? And what's the toll on someone living a literal out-of-body experience, day in and day out, for their entire lives? What is the implication of taking over someone else's body forcefully? These are all issues that are touched on, lightly, but there's never enough concrete depth to really impact the overall feeling, theme or plot of the novel. They're mentioned or briefly addressed, but dropped as the book runs past, on its way to the next part of the investigation. I just wish that there was a bit more substance when it came to the characters to really mull over after I closed the book.
Lock In is a fun read, however, and certainly one of Scalzi's best novels to date. Long-time fans of his works will be entertained by its snappy dialogue, interesting plot and excellent world, and newcomers will find that it's an accessible science fiction novel, one that'll undoubtedly be a gateway drug into science fiction (much as Redshirts seems to be) and to a screen near you. Lock In is slick, fast and exciting throughout, one that we'll hopefully see again.