Fiction Reviews

Lock In

(2014) John Scalzi, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 336pp, ISBN 978-0-575-13435-5


It is a few decades in the future and a disease has swept the world. At first it seems like influenza but a few get meningitis-like symptoms and a few of these fall into a sort of catatonic state and of these, again a few never fully recover.

These are only 1% of the population but in the USA that is still 1·7 million people. However though even in these cases the virus passes, the recover is not full and the patients though seemingly unconscious, are fully aware of what is going on: they have Haden's syndrome. These people are 'locked in'!

The world throws its science and technological resources at the problem and treatments are developed, but the best the locked in can hope for is a tele-presence whereby their brain waves can activate a loudspeaker and move mechanical arms while visual feeds can electrically stimulate their optic nerves. However such is the size of this small but numerous minority that developments continue.

Two long-term solutions arise. The first is the amalgamation of the televisual and mechanical arms into android bots controlled by the patients. These drone bots, or 'clanks' or 'threeps' (named after some 20th century movie android robot) enable the locked in get around and almost enjoy life interacting with others; they can even hold down jobs. This electronic tele-presence also leads to another possibility, that instead of controlling a threep the patient can enter a virtual reality, 'The Agora'.

The second solution is that some people, integrators, through a net encasing their brain (similar to the one the locked in use to control threeps or enter the Agora) can let the locked in directly share their experiences.

Of course the US government funding to help cover all this does not last: remember the US is state-phobic and don't have the cost-effective benefit of something like good old Britain's National Health Service. And so the Abrams-Kettering bill is passed to reduce governmental spend and this will soon be implemented: something that most of the locked in resent as they will then have to pay for the expensive threeps.

Against this backdrop, a locked-in patient – Chris Shane, the son of a wealthy politician – starts out his first day (by using a threep) as an FBI agent. He and his partner, functional alcoholic and sex addict Ms Leslie Vann, are investigating an incident the police were attending that soon turned to murder. The murderer himself was an integrator.

And so Shane and Vann embark on their first case together, a case that is bound up with the Haden issue…

Scalzi has a popular following in N. America and presumably one over here. (Though it is difficult to tell as since we do not see him at European conventions I can't judge any reaction to him being on a con programme or interest in signings.) He is probably most noted for his Hugo nominated novel Old Man's War. And Lock In is a very worthy addition to his oeuvre.

If there is a problem with the novel (and note the 'if'), then it is that there is this specific Haden's syndrome set up which necessitates a three-page introductory section to set the scene for the reader. Now, personally I prefer stories that explain themselves as they go along and if I were uncharitable I'd put such an introduction down to a writer's lack of skill. However, in this case that would be decidedly uncharitable as what it does is enable us to launch into straight into what is effectively a detective story based firmly on a solid SF riff based on clear genre tropes that include: global pandemic; a population divided (with physical and psychological divisions); mind transference; and drone androids. This introduction circumventing scene-setting exposition helps keep the novel down to around 300 pages. (I really do not like the 500+ page toe-breakers we all too often get these days.)

The adventure itself simply bowls along and is a proverbial page-turner. There is much in this novel's favour and little that can be said against it. To strip the story right down – and at possible risk of a spoiler but I think the savvy reader will soon recognise the novel's territory a few chapters in – what we get is a detective story with the SF tropes used to disguise the perpetrator(s). This is fair enough: strip down any Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle, or take away a magician's smoke and mirrors and one is surprised how it was we were mislead or puzzled for so long, but then we also get the wonder of how it was we were so easily bemused. Nonetheless, given the set-up I did soon wonder why a more real-life, socially relevant implication of the set-up was not being explored. Indeed, as the novel progressed a part of me was getting a little frustrated at this – to my mind – obvious dimension. Fortunately, I was wrapped up in the story and so any concerns were far back in my mind. However, as we came to the novel's final chapters I almost let out a whoop as Scalzi introduced the very element I had been contemplating. (I will not explain this here as it will become obvious to you when you read the book, but if you really do need a hint then think changing population pyramids.)

Now, the above did not spoil what is a very engaging SF thriller, but I do think that the idea of using threeps, agoras and integretors, to address an exaggerated form of a genuine, and increasingly important, real-life issue is such a neat idea that it really does deserve proper exploration in another novel. Them's me thoughts. Scalzi, hope you go for it if motivated.

Downside to the novel. Only one really. It took me a while – if I ever succeeded that is – to visualise what these android threeps were like. On one hand the slang term 'clank' made me think of them as lumbering cylon or Marvin the paranoid android type mechanicals. On the other some of the fight and action scenes brought Terminator-style robots to mind. This duality in my own (limited) mind was a supposition of views that never really collapsed into a single perspective. This one thing aside, I quickly bought into the novel's tropes and (as I have already hopefully indicated) hugely enjoyed the ride.

Apparently I am not the only person to have liked Lock In as, when the 2015 Hugo Award long list was published (something that for some unfathomable and seemingly decidedly daft reason happens soon after  the awards' results are announced) Lock In came 10th!  So if my endorsement of Lock In is not good enough for you, then perhaps you might consider the views of the Worldcon Hugo voters.  Lock In is a delightful, futuristic detective story, firmly in the thriller vein with perhaps just a hint of noir.  It is a concise, engrossing read.

Jonathan Cowie

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