Lock-in review


Lock-in is a novel by John Scalzi, from 2014. It has some interesting ideas. Oh, and it’s a science fiction police procedural.

Science fiction police procedural?

Lock-in is written from the point of view of Chris Shane, who just started a new job at the FBI. Chris is a ‘Haden’. Haden’s Syndrome is a (fictional) disease that struck our world in Lock-in and causes flu-like symptoms in the population. In a small part of those affected, the disease progresses to a kind of meningitis that changes the wiring in their brains. Because of this they are fully conscious, and remain alive, but they cannot consciously control their muscles any more. They are, as it is called, locked into their own bodies.

The world jumped to the task and created neural interfaces that were integrated into the brains of those affected, which allows them to remote-control robots called ‘threeps’ to interact with the world. It also allows them to interact with a virtual world called the Agora (metaverse, anyone?)

For an even smaller number of people, the second phase of the disease causes meningitis, but their brains are scrambled differently. These folk are not locked in. They live on as normal, but gain the ability to ‘integrate’, to use a neural interface to let other Hadens ride their bodies like they do threeps.

So, the fictional disease and technological advancement of the novel make it a science fiction story. The main character working for the FBI and solving crime make it a police procedural. Hence ‘science fiction police procedural’. Chris’s other housemate is Tayla

Lock-in characters

Chris Shane is the main character of the novel. Chris is also its only viewpoint, as the story is written in first person. The Shane family is wealthy, because Chris’s father Marcus invested the fortune he made as a basket ball player into real estate. When Chris developed Haden’s, Marcus used that wealth to help make the world better for Hadens. It makes for some interesting dynamics for the protagonist. It makes Chris sympathetic, no need to work, but chooses to take a job at the FBI, but also a minor celebrity, who is recognized every now and then by victims and suspects.

Agent Leslie Vann is Chris’s partner. She used to be an integrator. She has a neural interface in her own head, which would allow Hadens to use her body as a threep, if she allows it. But she stopped working as an integrator. She smokes, drinks, and screws her way through life, and we quickly learn something is up. But of course, she’s also a good cop.

During the story, Chris goes out to rent a place in Washington DC. A commune/co-habitation arrangement with a group of Hadens turns out to work best. Tony Wilton also lives in the shared house. He turns out to be very savvy Haden IT engineer. He knows his way around IT, but especially Haden neural nets. This turns out to be a real asset for Chris. Tony becomes pivotal to the investigation.

Chris has three more roommates, Tayla — a doctor — and the twins, all of them Hadens. They play lesser roles in the story, but add flavor.

The verdict

I like detective stories. I’ve seen a lot of such shows, ranging from Inspector Morse to CSI. I’ve also read my share of police procedurals, and even wrote one (you a publisher? It’s still up for grabs). That alone made me interested.

John Scalzi has a very compact and readable writing style. I’ve written before he manages to thread the line between just enough and not enough description. I think this story lends itself more to this style than it did to for example the Interdependency series. The world is easier to understand without exposition. Not that those novels are not good. They are. But I like Lock-in better — heck, I finished Lock-in and its sequel in a week.

One of the good things about this story, is that it combines a police procedural with science fiction. The story uses Haden Syndrome as a way to show us how technology changes crime. Both what tricks locked in people can play with remote robots, and what integrators can do plays into the story. It makes it fresh, and highlights some of the problems in our own society.

All in all, I can recommend Lock-in if you like detective stories and science fiction. If you hate either, this story probably isn’t for you.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands