Fiction Reviews

Head On

(2018) John Scalzi, Tor, £7.99, pbk, 335pp, ISBN 978-1-509-83510-2


Hilketa is a new game featuring opposing teams of robots that are effectively avatars of human conrollers.  It is a violent game with the object to remove the head of an a specified 'goat' opponent team player and to use that to score a goal.

And then in one game, after a particular robot had been repeatedly playing 'goat' (a supposedly random selection choice) and had his head removed, the controlling human – one Duane Chapman – died!

Not only had this never happened before, Duane Chapman was a high profile player. The question was, was this simply an accident, or had their been health and safety negligence, or was the death something more sinister? When a senior Hilketa executive commits suicide, shortly before agreeing to speak to FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, the latter hypothesis is something that cannot be ignored.  And when Duane Chapman's flat catches fire before the agents can check it out, the idea that Chapman's death was a criminal act becomes hard to ignore…

The background to this novel is that it is the near future and that a small, but significant proportion (1%) of the population have become paralysed by the Haden global pandemic. They can though live their lives from their beds through robots, and so Haden syndrome patients are ideal for becoming Hilketa players.

This novel builds on the world Scalzi created in Lock In (2014). And if you liked Lock In as I did (see my review previously linked) then you'll thoroughly enjoy Head On.  This is a great detective thriller with the added SF dimension of humans using robotic avatars that Scalzi explores brilliantly. For example: Haden patients can jump from controlling one robot to another and this second one might be in a different place, even a different city, which is a bit like teleportation.  Also, given the thorough, detailed human sense interface human controllers have with their robotic avatar selves, the technology is all their for similar interfaces with virtual cyberspace realities. Fantastic stuff.  But for me where Scalzi really scores is with his sassy, conversational dialogue that not only reveals his protagonists' different characters, but really speeds the story along. Wonderful stuff.

From a hard, mundane SF perspective, I was though surprised that the novel did not mention the term 'pharmacogenetics' which is an increasing thing amongst those who horizon-scan biomedical science.  Pharmaceuticals and genomes are both far from new in science fiction, but Head On is among one of the first SF novels to include pharmacogenetics and that – for those into the developing history of SF and its relationship with science – is something of note.

The down side?  Well there is one and that is the truly boring, italicised introductory chapter which is one heck of an info dump and – if you are not into sport (and I am not) – is so boring that I gave up on it two pages in.  Yes, it is that bad.  Indeed, having finished the novel (and enjoyed it) I gave that introductory section another go.  Nope, still boring.  It was unnecessary and dull: possibly it is an insult to readers' intelligence.  Now, I mention this in case some of you have the same problem.  Don't worry, just skip it. The novel really is a heck of an SF adventure thriller and a great read, so do not be put off by this early section.

But I digress. I enjoyed this second 'Haden' novel.  So, as with Scalzi's Old Man'sWar series of books, I look forward to his next Haden yarn.  Hint, hint, Mr Scalzi. (But no boring introductory info dumps. Ya hear? Show, not tell.)

Jonathan Cowie

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