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Dystopic thriller fuses sci-fi, whodunit

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American novelist and blogger John Scalzi has taken a break from his Old Man's War series to pen a diverting stand-alone near-future sci-fi detective thriller.

Scalzi's written other stand-alones, including 2012's Hugo Award-winning Star Trek spoof, Redshirts. But that, too, was space opera, albeit with a page from Douglas Adams. There are no space battles in the world of Lock In, set only a few decades hence. But Asimov's long-predicted age of the android has finally occurred, in an unexpected way.

The titular "lock in" is another name for the medical diagnosis known as Haden's syndrome. An incurable virus causes flu-like symptoms in most, meningitis in fewer, and Haden's in fewest of all. Nevertheless, the worldwide epidemic produced millions of locked-in victims, with voluntary nervous systems completely paralyzed yet completely conscious and sense-aware.

In a world where full-body paralysis was suddenly widespread, something had to be done. That something was a trillion-dollar government research stimulus on par with the precedents set by the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and so forth.

One of the outcomes was a robot revolution, with locked-in individuals re-entering the world via remotely-controlled Personal Transports, sophisticated vehicles that take the place of their organic bodies. However, some Hadens (as this new demographic has come to be called) choose not to engage with the world physically at all.

Rather, with the same neural network installations in their own brains, many choose to live in an online space called the Agora, a fully-immersible virtual world without the limitations of either Personal Transports or unaffected human bodies.

Still others, though mostly only the very rich, make use of integrators, professional human hosts with the same installed neural networks but with fully mobile bodies whose space they rent an hour or a day at a time.

Frederick Pohl once said that good science fiction should be able to predict not only the automobile before its invention, but the traffic jam that results. The story Scalzi chooses to tell takes place some decades after the original Haden's epidemic.

His traffic jam is the split between those who are pro-Haden and those who feel they are overly privileged, between those Hadens who want to be like everyone else with regular jobs and social lives (albeit with email and file transfer protocols as standard installs in their regular heads) and those who wish to spend their time in what is increasingly becoming a separate society, unconstrained by the physical.

Set aginst a background of protests, economic uncertainty, and controversial Haden-related Congressional bills, Scalzi gives us a murder mystery, a rookie FBI agent who just happens to be one of the most famous Hadens on the planet, and hints of a conspiracy involving every mover and shaker in the political and business worlds.

Not every sci-fi writer trying his hand at mixing genres pulls it off. There's no inherent clash between science fiction and mystery or thriller fiction; they simply require different skill sets. Scalzi ably employs his usual smart plotting and sarcasm-infused dialogue in the service of the mystery thriller format.

Lock In should please veteran whodunit readers and Scalzi fans alike.


Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 6:28 AM CDT: Formatting.

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