Reviewed in the United States on October 30, 2014
John Scalzi is the synthesis king of cultural memes. In Scalzi’s most excellent clever style of writing and idea formation, this book knits together dozens of recent popular plot devices funneling them into an interesting new alternative universe.
I must admit I’m a HUGE Star Wars fan, and I’ve always adored 3CP0. The idea that Scalzi pursues in ‘Lock In’ of using 3CP0-style robots, Threeps, to act as Personal Transports for Haden disease survivors is SO cool I can hardly stand it. It’s so cool, I’d almost volunteer to have the virus injected if it wasn't for the horrendous physical costs if infected. Unfortunately, at the ‘present’ time period introduced in the first chapter to the reader, only Haden survivors are given access to Threeps. Haden’s devastating effects on the body, if the patient doesn’t die, are so horrendous nobody sane would want to go through this disease.
The book includes a ficticious document fully describing the history and effects of Haden’s syndrome as follows in part: “Haden’s syndrome is the name given to a set of continuing physical and mental conditions and disabilities initially brought on by “”the Great Flu,”” the influenza-like global pandemic that resulted in the deaths of more than 400 million people worldwide, either through the initial flu-like symptoms, the secondary stage of meningitis-like cerebral and spinal inflammation, or through complications arising due to the third stage of the disease, which typically caused complete paralysis of the voluntary nervous system, resulting in “”lock in”” for its victims. // The physical origin of the Great Flu is unknown, but it was first diagnosed in London, England….more than 2.75 billion people worldwide were infected during the disease’s initial wave. // The disease's progression exhibited differently in each individual depending on several factors, including personal health, age, genetic makeup, and relative environmental hygiene. The first flu-like stage was the most prevalent and serious, causing more than 75 percent of the overall deaths associated with Haden’s. However, a similar percentage of the affected presented only the first stage of the syndrome. A second stage of the syndrome, which affected the rest, superficially resembled viral meningitis and additionally caused deep and persistent changes in the brain structure of some its victims. While affecting fewer people, the second stage of Haden’s featured a higher mortality rate per capita.// Most who survived the second stage of Haden’s suffered no long-term physical or mental disabilities, but a significant number—more than 1 percent of those initially infected by the Great Flu—suffered from lock in. An additional .25 percent experienced damage to their mental capabilities due to changes in their brain structure but no degradation of physical ability. An even smaller number-not more than 100,000 people worldwide-experienced no physical or mental declines despite significant changes in their brain structure. Some of those in this latter category would go on to become “”Integrators.””
I typed all of this out because it perfectly sets up what the author explores with the various characters as they figure out what the nefarious mystery is behind a number of murders and/or suicides.
Our hero, new FBI agent Chris Shane, as one of the first victims of Hadens when a child, and because his father is rich and a Senator of the U.S. Congress, is able to afford the best threep models. Threeps are not super powerful robots, but are made to mimic human strengths and qualities as much as possible. There are a few advantages built in of course, such as the ability to turn up or down any of the normal human senses that have been replicated. However, since the robotic carriers are of metal material, they don’t eat. While a Haden individual is mentally riding aboard the threep via computer systems, the actual person is resting in a bed somewhere else, frozen in position with feeding tubes and catheters, with a nurse standing by in attendance, but having had a neural net implanted and grown into the brain. With the net, the frozen and disabled body is able to transfer its mind into a threep. Apparently, to the transferred mind, it feels as if the person is in two places at once - the hospital bed and the robot.
Integrators also have a neural net planted and grown into their brains, but instead of projecting their minds elsewhere, they act as human robots for Hadens who have the money to hire their services. When a Haden transfers their mind into an Integrator, they are able to take over that living person’s body and live like a normal flesh body.
There are rules and regulations for all of this activity. The entire world’s way of life has been changed to accommodate politically and socially the new demands that Hadens, threeps and Integrators have brought. However, other than the technological advances, people are still people. Civil rights legislation mean that Hadens like Shane are able to be FBI agents. But since people are still people, as usual there is prejudice, murder and other crimes, jealousy and class and race hatreds.
Shane, with his new partner, the experienced and burnt-out Leslie Vann, ex-Integrator, together find themselves in the thick of a murder investigation, a murder which should not have been possible because of the technology involved. But by the end of the week, Shane has gone through 4 threeps, more murders and various confusions caused by the hidden intentions of several politicians and rich industrialists involved in the future management of, as well as public financial support of, Hadens.
Since this is both a mystery and a science fiction novel, I found myself enjoying the novel enormously. It hit every note required by both genres. I found it amusing and clever despite its derivative bones. While John Scalzi copied most every idea introduced into our culture that lately entertains us on movie screens and television, he took it farther several steps into a territory which almost had me envying being locked in.
Those readers who love these two genres, as well as loving clever writing, will not be disappointed. I think this is book one of a series yet to come. I’ll be waiting for the next one.
In the meantime, if the sociological challenges which are hinted at in this novel were cute but a tad lacking in traumatic weirdness for you, gentle reader, mental discombobulations caused by mind/body transferences have been explored in other books as well with really different angles, depths and universes.
Kiln People by David Brin
Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies by Richard Morgan
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
There is a prequel on-line: