In lock (and) step: Lock In, by John Scalzi

February 28, 2022 Adam Sell


In lock (and) step
By Adam Sell

The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by HUMAN team members.

It’s October as I write this, so I feel it’s only appropriate to name the scariest book I’ve ever read. It wasn’t a horror book, or even a thriller. It was a memoir, written (as it were) in the mid 1990s by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a firsthand account of “locked-in syndrome”, the term for when a person loses control over all of their voluntary muscles, save for the eyelids. No movement, no speaking, nothing. You can blink, and that’s it. But locked-in syndrome doesn’t rob your brain of its normal activity; no, you’re still perfectly conscious and aware. Bauby wrote the book one letter at a time, by blinking as an aide read each letter aloud to him for him to select from. That’s more than 200,000 blinks to write a relatively short memoir.

Being locked in, having the full use of your mind but with virtually no way to communicate in a fashion you’re accustomed to...yeah, that’s the scariest thing I can think of.

So even though John Scalzi’s Lock In isn’t by definition a horror novel, the premise has some very concerning implications. The backstory, before the real plot gets going, is that a plague has swept the world (sound familiar?), leaving 1% of all of its victims locked-in, unable to function on their own. The scale of the plague has led to dramatic technological leaps forward to support this community, namely in the development of “threeps”. Threeps—named for C-3PO—are robotic bodies into which locked-in people (“Hadens” in this universe, named for the highest-profile victim of the disease) can transplant their consciousness so as to continue living as normal a life as possible.

Hadens operate like your average human, but with a few bonuses. They can dial up or down many different elements of the human experience, like pain, pleasure, or even something as basic as hearing. They can access the internet at any time inside their own heads, making research and private communication remarkably simple. And they can repair or replace any part of their “bodies” that breaks down (or, in the case of our hero, is shot). Essentially, Hadens are the realization of the singularity, but with the requirement of a debilitating plague to facilitate that perfection.

Now things get a little more complicated. Of the people who suffer the full range of symptoms of the plague, one percent suffer the brain-rewiring consequences without actually being locked-in. As a result, one percent of one percent can host a Haden’s mind inside their own and allow those Hadens to interact with the world with a human exterior, not merely a humanoid one.

All of this is simply world-building for a fairly run-of-the-mill police-style murder mystery. Our protagonist, a high-profile Haden and the son of a superstar basketball player and would-be politician, joins the local police force as a detective. The first Haden detective in the department. And on his first day, there’s a crime involving an Integrator, one of those humans who can carry a Haden in their head.

From there, the story proceeds as a typical whodunit - our hero detective and his grizzled veteran partner with a secret pursue all of the leads, speak with the victim’s next-of-kin and to witnesses and experts, and snark back and forth at one another throughout. The book comes to a conclusion that was at once difficult to follow (I never was great at the “follow the money” trope) and a predictable yet ultimately satisfying comeuppance for an ancillary character who was at fault.

I know that I can be an idiosyncratic reader and reviewer for this Bot Book Review experiment. I can—and will—forgive a lot of so-called literary crimes provided the author’s world-building hooks me. That was the case in Sea of Rust, which similarly followed a relatively traditional trajectory, albeit in a novel setting. Conversely, it was not the case with Infernal Devices, which failed (in my perspective, at least) to do even a fraction of the world-building needed to overlook that book’s issues.

Lock In isn’t groundbreaking. It’s a murder mystery with a hat on. It can be a little clumsy in exploring discrimination against minority groups, including the aforementioned Hadens, indigenous people, the developmentally delayed, and people who sit in intersections of those communities. It ticked nearly every box you’d expect of a new Law and Order series. Our hero is indestructible, granted that’s by design, and that trait meets with a moment of reckoning later in the story.

But all that said, I bought in. Scalzi’s world of Hadens is compelling enough that I may well read the sequel novel, and I am not, for the most part, a series reader. Create a world in which I can imagine numerous stories, related and unrelated to the one at hand, and you’ve got me. It’s why I wrote Harry Potter fanfiction back in middle and high school. And no, I won’t be sharing any of it, thank you very much.

Lock In
By John Scalzi

Bot Book Review Rating: 4/5 stars

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