Since his breakout novel Old Man's War was published a decade ago, John Scalzi has blazed through science fiction, earning a well-deserved reputation for writing humane, funny, snarky novels that possess real depth and feeling, as well as a sharp eye for the poleconomy of technology.
But with Lock In, Scalzi takes his work to an entirely new level: this isn't just a book that sensitively and intelligently explores the issue of disability in an age of technological enhancement; it's also a top-notch round of the science fictional "what-if" tournament; and a first-rate police procedural whose ticking-bomb plot serves to rocket the whole thing along at incredible speed.
Lock In is set in a world where millions of people have fallen victim to a pandemic flu called Haden's (after the name of First Lady Margaret Haden, who fell ill with it in spectacularly public fashion and became a global symbol for it). Many perished. Of the survivors, a small minority — but still numbering in the millions — were "locked in": fully aware and awake, able to feel their bodies, but unable to engage their voluntary nervous system, completely paralyzed and trapped inside their own brains.
The world rallied around the Lock Ins, spending hundreds of billions developing an incredible suite of brain-machine interfaces. These allow the Lock Ins to interact with computers and the Internet through implanted neural peripherals, setting their minds loose from the confines of their physical brains.
In Scalzi's world, the Lock Ins share a virtual world called the Agora; and tread the real world in sophisticated telepresence robots called Threeps, which come in a variety of models from basic to extremely advanced. Tens of millions of Americans work, live, and love in these animatronic puppets, their fleshy bodies cradled in special anti-bedsore couches, fed by nutrient drip. The whole thing is financed by a spectacularly expensive set of government grants, the continuation of the research projects that created the neural interface technologies.
And now those subsidies are coming to a close. A controversial bill has been passed that reclasses "Hadens" as not disabled, and not entitled to any kind of extraordinary aid. From now on, Hadens — or their families — will have to pay retail for their threep bodies, for their medical attendants, for their access to the Agora. This does not go down well.
The story opens on the verge of the largest civil rights march on DC in generations, as Hadens from across the nation gather to make their displeasure felt. One Haden who won't be marching, though, is Chris Shane, son of a famous sports-star philanthropist and political hopeful, and a newly minted FBI agent. Shane is reporting for duty just as Hadens across the nation are walking out on their jobs, and before he can even catch his breath, he and his partner are called to the scene of a Haden-implicated murder.
So begins the story, through which Scalzi tours the promise and peril of telepresence in great detail, finding in the threeps entirely new wrinkles on the crime drama that are as clever as they are fascinating. Crime drama is a genre that's taken a beating since the advent of the Internet and the mobile phone, since so many of its touchstones turn on people racing across town (or the world) to convey a vital piece of information before it's too late. Ian Banks's 2003 novel Dead Air was the first book I read that made the ability to instantaneously convey information into a plot strength, but, 11 years later, Scalzi's still breaking new ground.
That's because telepresence-robot-embodied cops are both physically invulnerable (blow up a cop's threep and all you do is force her to go and get another one out of central storage or rent one at the nearest Avis outlet) and can travel instantaneously — Chris Shane visits a victim's family on a Arizona Navajo reservation in the morning, goes straight to an LA post office afterward, then reports in to his partner at the FBI offices in DC, hopping from one threep to another. In a less-imaginative writer's hands this would be a suspense killer, but Scalzi turns this networked consciousness business into a plot strength.
And that plot is in the service to a set of human stories — stories that illuminate questions about what it means to be disabled in a world where bodies are both more and less important than ever, what responsibility the world owes to its most vulnerable citizens, the malleable nature of identity and privilege. It's never preachy, but if Lock In doesn't make you think, you weren't paying attention.
You could hardly ask for more: a book that grabs you by the lapels and won't let go, a book full of wit and humor, a book that makes you reconsider our world and where we sit in it. This is Scalzi's best book to date, and that's saying rather a lot.