Wednesday 1 July 2015

Lock In - John Scalzi

It is the not-too-distant future, and the world has changed. After a worldwide epidemic of a debilitating disease, called Haden's Syndrome, whose worst (non-fatal) effect is lock-in syndrome, science and technology have made great leaps to help sufferers lead some semblance of a normal life. Firstly there are remotely-controlled robotesque bodies colloquially known as "threeps" (as in C-3PO). The Haden's afflicted person may physically be lying paralysed in a bed, but their minds can inhabit these synthetic bodies and do most of the things that everyone else can do. Then there is the Agora, a sort of fully-immersive internet, where people can meet in cyberspace without the hastle of computers or smartphones. Finally, there are the integrators, a small minority of people who can let the Hadens borrow their bodies for a while - but fully conscious, and are an essential part of the decision-making and action processes.

So, this is the world of Lock In. Quite a complex set of ideas to get your head around, and it's best to take the first chapter or two slowly to figure it all out, but it's a really fascinating concept for a book. After all, if a person's mind/soul/personality are all made up of electrical signals from the brain, then why not? Why can't they be remotely transmitted to other places outside the body?

The protagonist of Lock In is Agent Chris Shane*, a new recruit to the FBI - and a Haden. On Shane's very first day, an apparent suicide leads to the discovery that someone is abusing the Haden's technology for their own nefarious purposes, and it is up to Shane and partner Vann to get to the heart of the mystery. But the conspiracy goes far deeper than Shane could have imagined, with far-reaching implications...

Lock In is an intelligent science fiction novel which uses fantastical ideas to make you think about real-world issues, such as corruption in business, the dangers of the commercial side of the health industry, and raises questions about the ethics of  medical advancement, technology, and quality of life. The scientists in the world of Lock In see opportunity in disaster, and in treating Haden's Syndrome, they have made steps towards the evolution of a new life form. But what does this mean for the human race? In such a situation, do we have a moral obligation to fix what is broken or to take the broken pieces to create something new which could end up replacing us?

It is these questions which make Lock In something beyond a simple science-fiction detective novel. After finishing the book, I found myself missing it, sorry to have reached the end and said farewell to the characters, the world and the questions it provokes. An excellent novel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ready Player One, Scalzi's Redshirts (very different kind of story but the same humour and narrative voice) or Joss Whedon's TV series, Dollhouse. 

*It was not until it was pointed out to me that I realised that Scalzi never specified whether Agent Shane was a Christopher or a Christine. I assumed all the way through the book that the character was male, possibly because of the masculine-sounding surname, but I'm going to have to reread imagining the character as a woman. Apparently there are two audiobook versions, too, one read by Wil Wheaton and the other by Amber Benson (the lovely lovely Tara from Buffy!)

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