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.
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.