Friday, 10 October 2014

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In by John Scalzi is the author's latest book and the third of his that I've read. Last year, I read and very much enjoyed Redshirts, which won a Hugo. Lock In drew my attention because of an excerpt I was able to read before requesting the ARC. And once I started reading it properly, I found it rather difficult to put down. (And it has a very long blurb, but it's a useful one so I'm not going to trim it.)
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.

Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.

This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse...
The main thrust of the plot of Lock In is Chris the new FBI agent's first case, which turns out to be more exciting than usual. Chris is a Haden's sufferer who generally gets around in a threep (robot body), The case is related to Haden's, which is the focus of the FBI unit Chris is assigned to. There's murder, explosions and corporate bad guys; it's an exciting plot. It's also a plot tied very closely to the worldbuilding, which is where the most interesting stuff is.

I'll discuss the more minor thing first because it will facilitate later discussion. This could be construed as a minor spoiler and if that bothers you, you should jump to the next paragraph. With Lock In written in first person, Scalzi has been very careful to not to indicate a gender for Chris, the protagonist. Haden's sufferers can live their entire lives online or inside threeps (which are usually androgynous, was my impression, but I may be wrong), which lifts most of the constraints on gender presentation. It's an interesting point to make but I have to say I found Chris came across as male. And I'm usually one to assume first person characters are female until some jarring pronoun/name corrects me. Your mileage may vary. In any case, it's interesting to note the extent to which the protagonist's gender doesn't change the story at all. (And if you're wondering, there was no romantic component to the plot, which I'm a little disappointed about because I think romance between Haden's sufferers would have been an interesting point to explore further.) But since I thought Chris sounded male, I'm going to cave and use male pronouns in the remainder of the review.

My favourite thing about Lock In was the background commentary on disability rights and treatment of people with disabilities. It is depressing, but not implausible, that a very specific subset of disabled people — locked in Haden's sufferers — are given access to the technology and medical treatments developed for them. This may sound obvious until you realise that other types of disabled people — quadriplegics, people locked in for other reasons and people with other mobility restrictions — aren't allowed to use threeps or the Agora. Not even an matter of the technology not being subsidised, just plain not allowed by the FDA.

In fact, the only reason so much money was ever thrown at Haden's is because a) the president's wife and daughter got sick and b) such a large number of Americans were affected. (The rest of the world successfully exists in this book, but we don't hear much about it other than that it also has Haden's and deals with them similarly.) It doesn't seem implausible to think that without a), b) would not have made as much of an impact. Indeed, the next president is about to reduce a lot of funding and subsidies for Haden's, which is a part of the background that's crucial to the plot.

The other disability-related thing I appreciated in Lock In was the way the Haden's community had developed in its own virtual space. And especially for people who were young when they caught Haden's, the virtual world can feel more like their natural habitat than the physical world which they are forced to use if they want to communicate (outside of email) with non-Haden's people.

So basically Lock In is a surprisingly good exploration of what happens when a plague causes severe disability in a large number of people. I think it deals with various issues well and I found the premise believable. It's also an FBI procedural tied closely to the worldbuilding. If near future SF and/or crime SF and/or medical SF is your sort of thing, then I highly recommend Lock In. Aside from all the stuff I've discussed above, it was a fun read.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: August 2014, Tor
Series: Not yet? (But there's at least one novella set in the same world)
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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