Lock In by John Scalzi

John Scalzi is a really interesting author. As a public personality, he’s passionate and politically engaged, not afraid to touch hot button topics. Yet his best known book is Redshirts, a book built on the silly idea of extras from Star Trek realising that they’re part of something odd, TV characters developing a fourth-wall-breaking self-awareness.

Lock In is a much more realistic sort of science fiction, and one engaged with the political and social issues Scalzi cares about. The passion and insight he shows on his blog oozes from the story. And yet there’s also something of Redshirts about it.

Plot Time

Chris Shane is a lock in. As a kid, Chris caught Haden’s syndrome, a disease that leaves sufferers trapped inside their bodies. Thanks to technology, Hadens sufferers can interact with the world through walking, talking robot avatars. But as Chris begins a career with the FBI, political and social debates over Hadens care are coming to a head.

On Chris’s first day as an agent, a strange Hadens-related murder takes place. But when you can’t always tell who’s in a body, unravelling a crime can get tricky fast.

Scalzi Gets Smart

This is a smart sci-fi novel. Scalzi follows the likes of Bruce Sterling and Paolo Bacigalupi in carefully thinking through the consequences of technological change. The responses of government, business, culture, and civil society are all explored. As someone who’s studied social science, I love this.

The choice of story structure is clever too. Using a noir-style mystery story, Scalzi has the perfect format for the truths he wants to reveal. Noir’s mix of high and low life, dark secrets and deep greed, push the story along. The stripped back writing keeps it moving at an appropriately pulpy pace. If all you want is a cracking good story, here it is.

Thinking About  the Future

But if you want more, that’s here too.

Writing a few years ago, Scalzi has tapped into some of the hottest political issues of this year. The ethics, politics, and economics of health care. What happens when that care is reduced. The disenfranchisement of vulnerable minorities. It’s a dark vision, not comfortable but incredibly relevant.

Like Redshirts, this is also a book that pulls the rug out from under our preconceptions of what it is to be human and to be real. It’s a very different technique, a very different perspective, but the underlying question is still the same – how far can I be from what we consider normal and still expect to be treated like a person?

In Scalzi’s eyes, the answer seems to be “as far as you like”. In a time when we’re once again battling for diversity in society, that’s a good message to have.

Redshirts and recklessness – my recent reading

I’ve been reading some pretty cool stuff recently. I don’t seem to have time for full posts on any of it, but here’s a few things you might enjoy…

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Imagine if all those Star Trek extras who get killed on away missions realised how much danger they were in. Then imagine them trying to make sense of the weekly horror and terrible fatality rate that is their lives. That’s what this book is about.

Redshirts is odd stylistically. There’s almost no description, just a lot of dialogue and occasional action. That lack of description adds to the sense of anonymous people caught up in their terrible anonymous fate, as well as letting you imagine the trappings of your favourite scifi show as the backdrop to their lives. It’s the sort of meta-textual game that’s intriguing for a stand-alone novel but wouldn’t stand up to a series, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

If you’re a Star Trek fan or enjoy watching a writer play stylistic games then it’s well worth your time. If not you might find it a little frustrating. But if I have more than three readers who never watcher Trek then I’ll eat my hat. Or at least a hat shaped cake.


The Thief Trilogy by David Tallerman

I wrote a whole post about why I enjoyed the first book in this series, and it turns out that the rest live up to its promise. It’s a fantasy world without much of the wizz-bang magic stuff, in which the main fantasy elements are an invented country and some loveable giants. Thief and protagonist Easie Damasco continues to do the right thing against his own better judgement, and in the process follows a nice character arc from selfish prat to something at least vaguely akin to a hero.

This is a fast moving, action packed series with a certain wry humour to it and a nicely developed setting. The likeable supporting characters help to carry the reader through despite Easie’s initially despicable attitude to life, and the giants in particular are surprisingly loveable. Even Easie is hard not to like, with his sense of humour up there with his sense of self-preservation, and the clear hints from the start that he sort of wants to do the right thing, however much he protests against it. I’m going to miss these guys now the story’s done.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

If the art of the short story lies in succinctly portraying a single fascinating idea then Chiang has it nailed. Stories of Your Life and Others was something I only picked up as part of a reading group, and that I then fell far too far behind in reading to take part in the discussion, which is particularly vexing because these are fascinating ideas, from digging through the vault of heaven to trying to learn the language of a previously unknown alien species. The characters have emotional depth, the settings and events are interesting, but because it’s short stories I didn’t have the constant page-turning thrill of a longer work where you keep wanting to know what will happen next. Recommended for the cool concepts and self-contained emotional journeys, but if you’re anything like me you’ll read it over weeks of dipping in for one story, not in an over-excited binge.


NaNoWriMo update

Day one and I haven’t done my daily writing yet, but I’m sure I will. I just wish that I’d gotten round to planning chapter one in advance, or even coming up with decent names for the characters at the planning stage. I can’t write a half dozen scenes about Cardinal Cardinalface.

On Thursday I counted up all the fiction writing I’ll be doing in November. Between NaNoWriMo, a heavy freelance workload and my flash Friday stories, I need to write around 185,000 words of fiction to hit my goals this month. Plus about 15,000 words of non-fiction for this blog and another ongoing freelance gig. That’s a pretty staggering 200k in total. What’s even more staggering is that in theory it’s doable.

If I can do this then I can do anything I set my mind to, which I guess is the attitude NaNo is meant to foster. Have at you word count!

How are the rest of you getting on with NaNo? And having read my book recommendations, do you have any of your own that you’d like to share?