If you’ve already read John Scalzi’s Science Fiction novel, Lock In, or its sequel that just came out, Head On, you know the title is a tasteless joke and I’d like to apologize right now for being unable to resist it. If you haven’t already read either of the aforementioned Scalzi books, then I will apologize after I’ve explained why the joke is tasteless. In the mean time, the most important thing for you to know is that my favorite Science Fiction author has started a new series and the series is excellent.
Lock In and Head On follow FBI agent Chris (No, I don’t just like this series because the protagonist shares my first name. It certainly doesn’t hurt it, though) Shane who isn’t what you or I might call an ordinary person. Agent Shane is what is called a “Haden” in his world. A Haden is someone who contracted a flu-like virus, survived all three stages of the disease (Stage 1 is flu-like, Stage 2 is meningitis-like, and Stage 3 is a coma), but never woke up from their coma. They’re still mentally all-there and capable of sensory input, they just can’t make move and their brains have been altered by the disease (which is why the title is in bad taste). Some of those who wake up from the coma also have their brains altered, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
Agent Shane, like a lot of Hadens, gets around the meat world by using what everyone calls a “Threep,” a nickname based on C-3PO from Star Wars for what is legally called a “Personal Transport Vehicle.” It is basically a high-tech robot body that communicates with the device implanted in his brain so he can experience the world with a minimal amount of lag and all the perks of being able to record everything, access the internet with a thought, and bail out of your body if it gets trashed (as happens more than once). There are certain limitations, of course, such as the inability to eat things and the rather pervasive (if relatively minor) prejudice humanity if famous for, but it allows Agent Shame and many of his fellow Hadens the ability to live a relatively normal life.
To further help the Hadens live a normal life, there are these people called “integrators.” Integrators are the people who progressed all the way through the disease but did not either fall into the coma or did not stay in it. Because of the way the disease altered their brain, they were also able to be fitted with a brain implant device that lets a Haden basically take a certain degree of control over their body. The control is limited, as the integrator remains conscious and aware the entire time, able to reassert control over their should the Haden attempt to do something illegal or harmful to the integrator.
There’s a whole culture that grew up during the decades are the disease first appeared, and they place a central roll in both of Scalzi’s books since the protagonist is a Haden who works for the FBI and his partner is an ex-integrator. The two work out of the Washington D.C. office of the FBI and investigate Haden-related crimes that fall into federal jurisdiction. In the first book, Lock In, the story kicks off with an integrator who is found next to a dead body in a hotel room after a sofa is thrown out of a window. The investigation serves as an excellent showcase of Haden culture and some of the finest subtle world-building I’ve ever read. It introduces readers to many aspects of Haden culture as the two FBI agents try to unravel the true tale of what happened in that hotel room and has a lot of nods to the way the modern, primary world works. I’ll admit I might like it a bit more than I otherwise might because it changes our world’s history a bit to fit better in the future Scalzi created along with showcasing the kind of positive development you’d like to see happen in our species, but it feels like it really could just be a couple of decades down the line from our current time.
The characters are all wonderful, each of them a complex person with layers. There are no caricatures in Scalzi’s novel and that’s worth mentioning because the circumstances of the story make it incredibly easy to justify using them. The books are better for having a full cast of complex, multi-faceted characters, and while there a lot of the same characters across the two books, different ones are highlighted in each book. You can tell Scalzi is building a series out of these books without even taking into account the novella explaining Haden’s Syndrome and its history in greater detail than either of the novels does.
Head On focuses around a sport developed as a result of the ability to destroy a Threep without killer the person inside it, as one of the players in a huge game dies during the match after behaving strangely. A lot comes up during the investigation, including a few nods to current events, but ultimately the story winds up feeling pretty similar to Lock In. Which isn’t a bad thing. Head On doesn’t feel like Lock In repackaged in a new book, but it has a lot of the same qualities and features the same character work and subtle story-building. The investigation is different and you can see some growth in the characters, but it ultimately was made to serve as a stand-alone book featuring the same characters rather than a sequel building off the last book in any significant way.
If you’re looking for some new, fun science fiction to read and like these sort of “cop” books as well, I highly recommend checking out John Scalzi’s new book, Head On and the first book in the series, Lock In. You don’t need to read them in order, but it does help if you do.