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.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey

Working mostly through the internet has introduced me to a whole new set of problems around time, ones that are probably going to shape our future. As we enter an era in which men in London write accounts for managers in Hong Kong whose factories are somewhere in the middle of Asia, time starts working differently, professionally speaking. The same goes for leisure. If the new episode of Sherlock shows at eight o’clock GMT in the UK, how quickly do BBC America need to show it before they start losing viewers to torrent sites? (Answer – straight away because that show is awesome.)

The only real way of getting round this
The only real way of getting round this


So if it’s Tuesday in Australia…

I’ve noticed two different aspects of this in the past week.

First up is the employer day problem. I’m doing some work for a chap in Australia. Problem is, half the time Australia’s on a different day from me in England, never mind a different time. And Australia’s a big place, so I imagine it’s not all on one time zone. If I say I’ll provide some articles on Tuesday, when do I need to send them to reach his Tuesday? Do they need to go Monday night or sometime in the middle of Tuesday? Do I have until Wednesday morning?

Yes, I could work this out for myself if it was a big issue. But the point is that, for a couple of hours a week, it’s an issue at all.

The other thing is blogging. I read an interesting article (sorry, lost the url) that gave data on the times of day to post blog posts to maximise links (7am) comments (8am) and views (10am). But whose timezone should I be working on here? Should I go by American time, as that’s where the largest number of potential readers for my blog are? Should I go Greenwich Mean Time, as my core readership is built around fellow Brits I know outside of the electronic sphere? What about the people reading me in Australia and Estonia (hi guys!)?

And now for some science fiction

The issues I’ve stumbled across are ones I can work out with some research and a bit of trial and error. But they highlight the fact that our sense of time is no longer as geographically bound as it once was. That has potential for the future, and for social science fiction.

Cory Doctorow beat me to this one by a decade with his novel Eastern Standard Tribe, but there’s still much more to explore. Will we start to align not by daylight but by our professional schedules? Will we one day be split not by Greenwich Mean Time, Dubai Time and East Coast Time, but by Accountant Time, Cleaner Time, Writer Time? Will there be some mishmash of the two? Are there people already living in Britain but on Australian time because that suits their lifestyle? Or on New York Time, Hong Kong Time, Berlin Time?

There’s a character in this, and a story. I haven’t quite come up with either yet, but if you have an idea then maybe share it below. Or go write about it yourself, because everybody should take the time to write.

And has our fractured temporal landscape (note to self – use that in a book) affected you? Let me know how. Share below. I’m curious.


Picture by Toenex Lacey via Flickr creative commons.