There’s a breezy, casual ease to John Scalzi’s science-fiction novels, whether he’s writing Robert Heinlein-inspired military fiction with the Old Man’s War series; straight-faced offbeat comedy with the Star Trek-inspired, New York Times bestseller Redshirts and the alien-ad-campaign story Agent To The Stars; or bafflingly “remaking” a classic with his published fanfic novel Fuzzy Nation. Even when his ideas are complicated, his language is simple to the point of bluntness. In many ways, his latest, Lock In, resembles a Cory Doctorow novel: an accessible, quick-moving story driven by big, heady ideas, but written in a readily graspable style, with a protagonist more distinguished by his circumstances than his personality. Like many Doctorow leads, Lock In’s first-person POV character, newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane, is as straightforward and simple as the prose describing him. That said, he doesn’t need a complicated set of motivations. His day-to-day life is complication enough.
Chris is a victim of Haden’s Syndrome, a rare condition brought on by a global pandemic that killed hundreds of millions. Haden’s sufferers—in common parlance, Hadens—survived the disease, but wound up fully conscious inside functional but paralyzed bodies. (That condition, “locked-in syndrome,” is real. French writer Jean-Dominique Bauby was a particularly famous case.) With hefty amounts of technological help, and thanks to some brain-structure alterations caused by the disease, Hadens can largely shift their consciousnesses into robotic Personal Transports and interact with the world remotely yet up close, like the people in Surrogates. Or, if they can afford the exorbitant fee, they can hire an Integrator—someone with the proper Haden’s Syndrome-affected brain structure and neural implants to let Hadens “possess” their bodies. Chris, who became a Haden very young, is one of the Haden community’s most recognized personalities. The son of a sports star turned millionaire philanthropist and nascent politician, Chris largely grew up in the public eye, as a literal poster boy. The book doesn’t take a breath to get into his reasons for joining the FBI; by the time he actually starts his job, he’s already hip-deep in crisis, having a knotty murder mystery on his hands, a partner with significant issues and enemies, and a major Haden protest in Washington D.C., which leads to a series of hate crimes against Hadens.
All this plus the Haden’s Syndrome background is an awful lot for one 336-page book to tackle, and Lock In would be stronger if it handled it in more depth. There’s so much going on in this novel it would be hard to keep up if Scalzi didn’t keep things so simple. The cast is large and sprawling, including Chris’ famous family and their various employees and hangers-on, a series of industrialists and protestors and Hadens with political axes to grind over the recent Congressional de-funding of the major Haden support program, the many figures involved in various ways with the murder case, and Chris’ household full of new roommates in D.C. And then there’s his chain-smoking, hard-drinking, bed-hopping partner, Agent Leslie Vann, who as much as admits early on that she has a Mysterious Past, then tables it until the late-book point when she’s ready to lay it all out in one cut-and-dried monologue.
That kind of bald exposition also periodically gets in the novel’s way, as Scalzi dumps information on readers with no effort at artfully concealing it: “‘It’s good that you have a high-end threep,’ she said, using the slang term for a Personal Transport,” runs one particularly awkward bit of dialogue. (Speaking of exposition, “threep” is derived from C-3PO, which Scalzi implies rather than explains, in a much subtler bit of world-building and audience-trusting.) An awful lot of both the dialogue and the prose is aimed at conveying as much information as possible as quickly as possible.
But Lock In’s saving grace is that it’s such fascinating information. The murder mystery is a particularly odd one, involving a loveseat thrown through a hotel window, and various clues that don’t initially add up. Meanwhile, Chris’ situation as a rich, famous Haden who isn’t toeing the Haden party line is complicated, and adds a subtle background tension. Above all, there’s a constant sense that his world is big and complex, that Scalzi has ideas to burn here, and can let many of them bubble along as backdrop. (In particular, the way he suggests the importance of the Hadens’ giant collective virtual world, the Agora, without visiting it is an immense tease. It makes this book feel like an early draft of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash that never dips into the Metaverse.) Scalzi’s latest resembles Mira Grant’s Feed and Ben H. Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy in the way it uses an immediate mystery as an access point to a hugely complicated, creative new world, then uses that world to flesh out the mystery—and in the way it pays close attention to its science-fiction details, without making them into the plot. It feels like he’s created a mighty big world for this comparatively small story, but better too many ideas than too few.