Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Microreview [book]: Lock In, by John Scalzi

An Entertaining Sci-fi Mystery Slightly Marred by Too Many 'What If' Departures from Today's Society

Scalzi, John. Lock In. Tor Books: 2014.

Buy it here starting Aug. 26th, 2014.

Seems like everything I read these days has some connection to locked-in syndrome. But in John Scalzi's futuristic mystery Lock In, there's a twist: technology has unlocked said individuals, in bizarre and interesting ways. Imagine a world where a pretty serious virus, Haden's, has killed many millions but left a few percent in what is essentially a permanent coma—but with fully functional minds. An even smaller minority, once ravaged by the disease, develop the ability to 'integrate' (that is, host) those locked in due to Haden's, essentially loaning their bodies to those trapped into permanent immobility. Additionally, technology has apparently advanced far enough to offer Haden's patients the chance to interface remotely with robotic bodies.

While you're still wrapping your mind around all these fundamental changes from the world we know, add in a murder mystery that a prominent Haden's FBI agent (or his robotic simulacrum, in any case) must solve before the entire fragile community of Haden's and Integrators is imperiled. Whew!

Is it exciting? You betcha, thanks to Scalzi's gift with snappy dialogue and no-nonsense narration of action sequences. Is it intriguing? Oh, yes—especially where Scalzi begins to speculate, via his characters' speeches and actions, on issues of legal and moral definitions of humanity and questions of ethics (particularly when Integrators are concerned). In Scalzi's vision of the future, for example, legally an attack on a robot body of a Haden's patient is considered attempted murder, even when the person's body is, of course, unharmed by whatever damage the robot suffers. Is that how I think such a future would develop, legally speaking? No...but it was certainly interesting.

Where the story feels less successful, to me, is in the sheer number of foundational changes from our own world of 2014. Call me a traditionalist, but I've always preferred a 'single tweak' model of science fiction, where things in the fictional world are pretty much like the present world, except for one giant 'what if' variable. Ursula Le Guin is the master of this mode of storytelling, as evidenced by her magisterial Left Hand of Darkness (cyclic changes in gender), or that excellent short story about a world with sixteen times as many women as men. A single change allows us, the readers, to focus all our attention on this aspect of our lives, and speculate how different things would be if that one aspect were different.

Scalzi, by contrast, has introduced a slew of what ifs, any one of which would have been more than interesting enough to hang a story around, but all of which together end up in a less thought-provoking jumble, to my mind at least. I can't say much more without ruining the mystery aspect of the story, but I can safely say that despite my reservations, Lock In is well worth reading, so you can decide for yourselves whether I'm being small-minded in not wanting so many huge variables.

NB: Just like I, Zombie, the last book I reviewed, this book should definitely be read while listening to Metallica's "One", if only for the liberating feeling of having 'solved' the problem of locked-in syndrome!

The Math

Objective assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for generally great dialogue, +1 for the awesomeness of unlocking those locked in

Penalties: -1 for having too many sci fi variables all a-jumble, when any one would have done

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[Let me stop you right there, objector: here at NOAF, a 7/10 is positively great!]

Zhaoyun, passionate lover of sci fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction alike, has been flocking here at Nerds of a Feather since 2013.