John Scalzi made a name for himself writing science-fiction in one of its classic forms: warfare in space. His excellent Old Man’s War series is a thoughtful roller-coaster ride through interstellar firefights against alien civilizations that doesn’t ignore the human element: his characters think and feel and interact realistically, even at the height of their outlandish adventures. It’s epic space opera that maintains an intimate focus on individual growth.
His latest, Lock In, at first appears to be a step in an entirely different direction. It’s not set in the far-flung future: its world is instantly recognizable as our own, albeit with one large difference. Due to a highly contagious virus and its aftereffects, 1 percent of the population is now physically “locked in,” unable to move or respond to outside stimulus. Fortunately, the afflicted are far from helpless: due to advances in technology, they’re able to communicate and engage with the world through robotic bodies (nicknamed “threeps”) and via “Integrators.” These are humans also affected by the virus, but only to the degree that they can temporarily accept the consciousness of a locked-in person.
It also seems a different sort of novel for Scalzi in that it trades the tropes of military sci-fi for those of the police procedural. There’s a possible murder, a mystery whose solution has far-reaching implications for everyone, locked in and otherwise. There’s a conspiracy, rife with shady political and corporate figures, and enough clues that readers can puzzle out the culprits alongside the protagonists. The story is a lot of fast-paced fun and a breeze to read, a swiftly paced, thoughtful read for any season.
It isn’t a departure from Scalzi’s past work, but a deepening exploration of his themes. Many great writers tend to stick with what interests (or even obsesses) them, revisiting pet concepts again and again. The interests that underlined Scalzi’s grand space-opera-from-a-grunt’s-eye perspective are also found in Lock In. What is consciousness? What makes a person a person? Are things like age and gender and race, personal appearance and physical ability really meaningful in terms of identity, or are they transitory factors that could be easily traded out while the person remains the same? Modern society is obsessed with identifiers, understandably but to a fault. Scalzi’s future worlds posit a reality where those sorts of identifiers become meaningless, just props and costumes. It’s a refreshing perspective: wonderfully humanistic, even idealistic. I like looking at the world through his eyes.