Lock In (John Scalzi)

Article by liz

Since their beginnings, speculative fiction and science fiction have served as a mirror to our culture: when held up to the light, we can see ourselves in the flipped reflection--how things are, how they could be, and how they should be. John Scalzi's newest standalone novel, LOCK IN, continues in this oldest, best tradition of great science fiction, holding up a lens to modern issues of privacy, personhood, and disability. This near-future thriller has a lot of meat on its bones, and something to satisfy everyone who comes to it, whether they're looking for a deep reflection on personal autonomy and public health in the future, or a twisty, fast-paced sci-fi mystery with zinging dialogue for the last days of summer.

LOCK IN takes place a few decades into the future, after a meningitis-like pandemic has swept the globe, killing millions and drastically altering the brain shapes of a small percentage of survivors. Most of these survivors become “locked in”--unable to control their voluntary nervous systems, unable to communicate, but completely conscious and aware. After the United States government funds an enormous public health initiative to find a cure for Haden’s syndrome (so named for the most famous sufferer of lock in: Margie Haden, the First Lady) a whole host of treatments are developed: neural networks which allow the locked in to communicate, personal body-shaped transports, and the use of Integrators--people who aren’t locked in, but whose brains were changed by the virus enough that a Haden’s patient can piggyback onto their brainwaves and control their body. Of course, this practice is highly regulated and licensed, and impossible to take advantage of--right?

Here begins LOCK IN. Chris Shane is one of the highest-profile Haden’s patients, having been locked in as a toddler and growing up in the public eye--Chris' first steps were taken in a child-robot-esque personal transport, on national television. The book opens on Chris' first day as an FBI agent, and first case: a case involving an Integrator, a murder, and corporate espionage of the highest order--just a few days before an enormous protest in favor of Haden’s rights is scheduled to take place in Washington, DC. Chris’ personal insight on Haden’s cases gives an insider perspective for the reader, but carries an outsider perspective on the world in LOCK IN; Chris inhabits the “marked” category, being the one who’s different from everyone else. Chris' empathy for other outsiders, and the marginalized communities being taken advantage of in LOCK IN, keeps a very human angle on this very technical future.

The futuristic parts of this book--the technology of neural networks, the personal transports, the cyberspace community of the Agora that Haden’s patients inhabit--serve as a catalyst to provoke the more human questions of LOCK IN. At the core, this story is about people and the way they treat each other, with the advanced versions of our own technology provoking interesting questions we’re only just starting to answer in our own time, about changing ideas of privacy and autonomy and the blurring lines of online life and real life in an increasingly digital and monitored world. The personal is very much political in LOCK IN.

Most interesting, though, is the way the world of LOCK IN is still recognizably ours, being set so near in the future. It has the same topography, the same groups of people with their same ideas and biases. The people being taken advantage of today--minorities, the disabled, the marginalized--are still being taken advantage of, and one thing LOCK IN does, with Scalzi’s signature humor and tact, is give these groups of people a voice and agency. This similarity to our world is what makes near-future stories so interesting and so powerful: they’re still uncannily close to real life. Near-future stories give us a chance to see where we’re going and maybe, if we don’t like what we see, a chance to avoid it. Scalzi avoids handing down an easy answer to any of the uneasy questions posed by a post-Haden’s world--you’ll have to decide on your own how LOCK IN will shape your ideas of personhood and “real life.” It’s not a clear-cut answer, but that’s okay. LOCK IN makes sure you’ll have fun getting there.

Join us for our LOCK IN event with John Scalzi on Tuesday, August 26! Click here for more details.

Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780765375865
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: Tor Books - August 26th, 2014

Unlocked Cover Image
ISBN: 9781466871793
Availability: Available Now
Published: Tor.com - May 6th, 2014

An oral history prelude to LOCK IN, UNLOCKED describes the outbreak of Haden's syndrome and the development of the technology of LOCK IN. This medical-thriller-meets-confessional novella is a brilliant look at how "lock in" affects every corner of the world.

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