In the near future, a highly contagious disease causes roughly 2 percent of the population to become prisoners in their own bodies. The U.S. government invests massive amounts of money to help victims of the illness, known as Haden’s syndrome, have normal lives, even without the control of their voluntary nervous systems.
Two options gain popularity. In one, Haden’s sufferers are able to use their minds to control robot bodies – called threeps – that allow them to move around and interact in the world. The other option lets Hadens control the body of another, specially trained human known as an integrator.
It is in this world that Chris Shane, a Haden’s victim who uses a robot body to get around, joins the FBI and on his first day is thrown into a bizarre murder mystery. The rest of the novel is essentially a science-fiction police procedural that’s infused with a snarky voice and sharp commentary about the intersection of industry and politics.
In short, John Scalzi’s Lock In is a fun, quick read that explores interesting ideas. Scalzi deftly weaves in critiques of broad swathes of the current political, economic and cultural environments, and my brain chewed on a lot of these issues between reading sessions. Even though this novel falls just short of full page-turner-hood, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who watches Washington and Wall Street with their head in their hands or to anyone who’s interested in biotechnology, the science of the brain, or the idea of transferred consciousness.
The following section is mainly for discussion with other people who have read the novel.
Some mild spoilers are below.
Here’s what I liked about Lock In:
The main character’s smart, wry sense of humor makes the story move briskly despite the often mind-bending forces at work. The supporting characters also have distinct, crisp voices that made spending time with them pleasant. The effect was similar to being at a party of smart, interesting people.
The scientific aspect of the story was fascinating. The idea of linking mind to machine has always intrigued me. Pushing the concept to the extreme of decoupling Haden’s sufferers’ minds from their bodies and gaming out the legal, cultural, and political dimensions of that separation gave me a lot to ponder.
The possibility of people inhabiting other bodies made the murder mystery setup of the story more interesting. I don’t watch detective shows or read many police procedurals, but the loophole that any given person might actually be someone else kept the act of piecing together this puzzle more enjoyable.
Here’s where Lock In fell short for me:
I never felt like Shane had much at stake. Early on, the main points of sympathy for him were that he was part of a group of that had been discriminated against and that he was starting a job that promised to be difficult. Given that he was a rich kid who didn’t need the job and that he was one of the most famous and privileged Hadens, I couldn’t generate a ton of empathy for him.
Also, the threat to his life didn’t develop until late in the book, and even then, the risk that he’d actually die seemed low. So for most of the novel, the main draw is whether he’ll solve the mystery and prove himself competent. That was intriguing, but I didn’t feel like anything bad would happen to him or to the world if he didn’t crack the case. As the case progresses, we see that there is more at stake, and the back half of the back is more compelling than the first half. So presenting the larger implications of the conspiracy earlier on might have added propulsion to the story.
To be sure, this is a mild criticism of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. And I’m coming off of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I found to be an addictive read, so my bar is temporarily higher than normal. I definitely recommend picking up Lock In.