These days Science Fiction is a crowded market. To 'make it' is a difficult and relative term. Each writer has their own journey to an audience and John Scalzi's has been an interesting one since Old Man's War was first serialised in 2002. His writing has a polish and shine to it that makes you think he’s been around a lot longer and it certainly outstrips many far more illustrious names.
Lock In showcases Scalzi's ability to take something familiar and adjust it. In this case we have a first person crime novel narrative about one man’s experience as a 'Haden' – one of several million people trapped in a permanent coma but able to interact and participate in the real world through a robot vehicle known as a 'threep'. Agent Chris Shane is new to his job with the FBI, but quickly ends up deeply involved in a murder case, which threaten the lives of all Hadens in Scalzi's near future society.
The book starts with some exposition to set the scene. It's a cold, straight explanation a bit like a history report getting us 'up to date'. After that, the story unfolds at a fast and engaging pace, keeping you 'locked in' throughout. Scalzi's plays the numbers well as we tear through Shane's account of events. Each chapter is short and carefully crafted to ensure you push on to uncover the next clue. Alien Nation comes to mind at times, although there’s not the same level of intimate prejudice, both stories use the future to discuss the politics of the day. In Lock In we have Obamacare and the political manoeuvrings of big corporations as they try to suck up their share of the Government subsidy and make a market for themselves afterwards.
Both of the political themes (corporatism and casual prejudice) get air time, but the detective novel plot is the main focus and Scalzi shifts this a little as well, working toward assured conviction, rather than holding back on who committed the crimes. It might have been nice to have a twist on this at the end and there are a few late contrivances to get us to our ending, but the characters are what we've come to befriend and these shine in the work. Shane and his cynical senior partner Vann are revealed to us by layers, as are others who bring baggage or are forced into difficult life choices. Scalzi's dialogue is pin sharp, with some very clear voices coming through in each scene. This is particularly true right at the end when we get to meet Cassandra Bell.
Lock In is a great read leaving behind a near future premise that invites further work. I hope we haven't seen the last of Agent Shane and Haden syndrome as there's clearly a whole host of other stories to be told after this. More social comment and exploration of the ideas outlined here would make for great reading and add something more to Scalzi’s established and growing reputation.
Written on 13th January 2015 by Allen Stroud.
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