I’d been hearing about this book for months before it came out, and kept checking to see if my hold at the library had been filled yet, when I decided not to wait anymore and just buy the audiobook. They gave me the choice between Amber Benson and Wil Wheaton (could have had both if I’d known to preorder) and I chose Wil Wheaton, presuming that the main character might have the same gender as his author.
The title refers to people who are victims of Hayden’s disease, a meningitis-like flu that causes complete paralysis and lock-in, where the victims are aware and alert but can’t move their bodies. When the novel starts, this horrible lock-in effect has been countermanded by neural-net technologies which allow Hayden’s sufferers to interact with the world using threeps, mobile androids, or through the agara, a shared online space.
This is a murder mystery which takes place within that post-Hayden world. Shane, a new FBI agent who is also a famous Hayden, and Vann, his partner, are investigating the death of a man found dead in a hotel. The man he’s with is an integrator (mobile human who can be the carrier for a locked-in Hayden) with a famous sister, and there’s also a headset neural-net which makes it look like a non-Hayden’s sufferer was trying to integrate, which is illegal.
I gotta say, I was skeptical at first because Scalzi spends a lot of time talking about Haydens this and Haydens that, and there’s quite a bit of exposition in the beginning. The end of the book includes a novella which goes into the back story, and if it had been at the beginning, I’m not sure I would have finished it. Scalzi seemed to belabor the Hayden/threep/agara/integrator things, and I was like “yes, yes, I get it. Now let’s have some plot.” This surprised me because it seemed like OLD MAN’S WAR integrated the exposition very well, so LOCK IN felt like a step back.
But as the book went on, the Hayden situation became more complicated, and the level of what I like to call “Gee-Whizery” increased. That’s what we read hard sci-fi for, to think about how technological advances affect humans and human society. After a while I started to feel that not only had Scalzi not gone on too long about the Haydens, but he’d not even touched the surface of how this would change people. What kind of rights disparity would happen in a world where you could be charged with assault for damaging someone’s artificial body, even though that body was replaceable? How long would it be before non-Hayden sufferers lobbied for the right to visit the agara or to remotely interface with the world through expendable bodies? Why wouldn’t swat teams and cops and miners and other high-risk occupations regularly use tougher threeps for their job? What is life like for the Hayden’s sufferers who are working-class and can’t get jobs that don’t involve bodies? There’a lot of unexplored territory here. (I started to think that if you had to choose, being a Hayden might be better, except for the no-sex thing, which would suck.)
I liked the plot. A strange murder case turns into a political game between underhanded moguls involving bombings and new untested technology and server farms. Because Shane is a Hayden, he can transmit himself instantly across the country, which was pretty darn cool. Because Shane is rich, he can buy new threeps as soon as one gets shot up. I thought having Shane’s father be a super-famous billionaire with political aspirations was a bit of a crutch, because most of the principal characters in the plot happened to have dinner with Shane at his father’s house, which felt a little contrived, but I guess you have to take shortcuts if you want to solve a complex murder mystery and bombing in 8 hours of audiobook.
The weakest part of this book, alas, is the characters. Shane should have been an amazing character. He’s the famous son of a famous man. He’s been locked in since he was a baby. He’s a federal agent on the first day of the job. He’s supposed to be a rich kid weighed down under the shadow of his more accomplished father, but I didn’t get a sense that his upbringing had changed him in any way. He felt like the everyman, like a movie hero who doesn’t need any background because everyone likes the actor who plays him so they don’t look too hard. It’s the Nicholas Cage affect. You don’t have to give the character an in-depth personality if Nicholas Cage will play him, because everyone already sees Nicholas Cage and knows he’s a good guy. If Shane had been described as the son of a nurse and a mechanic who was his high-school fullback, I couldn’t imagine he would have acted any differently. Shane’s partner Vann is basically the stereotype of every gruff experienced detective partner ever, and the fact that she was a woman with a background as an integrator didn’t change that for me. She acted like the stereotype, so calling her a woman didn’t alter that, especially since she was apparently always keen on getting laid by strangers, which is a very odd thing in a woman , but suits the gruff partner stereotype. It was like their distinguishing features had been tacked on, but not integrated into the rest of their personalities.
Shane is definitely the hero of this book. He makes the decisions, he makes the choices, he runs the show and gets all the best lines and even coincidentally happens to save a damsel in distress from some no-good ruffians in a rather snarky and amusing way. Well, snarky and amusing, and a little contrived in a boyhood superhero fantasy sort of way. Shane doesn’t really have a lot of conflict with people in his life, not serious “approach the world from different set of values” conflict. Everyone seems to be content to let Shane be the star of the show. The president of the Navajo nation asks Shane what to do. The spiritual leader of the Haydens asks Shane what they’re going to do. Even Shane’s father, who has been described as a relentlessly ambitious and intelligent man who metaphorically castrates other not-as-great men, asks Shane what to do. Shane’s like a superhero, but not a gritty and conflicted superhero like from the Watchmen, rather an airbrushed generic superhero in spandex who serves as a threep vehicle for readers to live vicariously through.
Also, the characters sounded too much alike one another. They sound not just like people of the same background and the same age, but people who all live in the same dorm and spend a lot of time together. They have the same phrases, the same pacing, the same vocabulary, the same way of thinking. The “he said” and “she said” got tedious, but they’re necessary, because otherwise you can’t tell who was speaking. A really genius voice-actor could have helped, just as if Wheaton had read a novel in which the people all had distinct voices he could have done a fine job, but Wheaton’s weakness and Scalzi’s weakness overlapped here. I didn’t mind this trait so much in REDSHIRTS, where the amusing banter was the driving force behind the humor, but LOCK IN isn’t about sitcom catchphrases, it’s about the sociological implications of astounding technological advances, and the comedically weighted phrasing doesn’t add value. There were a few exceptions. Kassandra Bell does sound different, and I liked the Navajos. Wheaton voices them differently as well, so he probably picked up on that.
I could see this book being part of a series. There’s a lot more to explore here, and Scalzi has set up a world on the cusp of great change. His future world has a lot of fascinating aspects, and I commend him on some interesting worldbuilding. I’d read a second book for that alone. I can’t say I care about the characters, however. I found them bland and forgettable.