Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Lock In by John Scalzi

Overall: A murder mystery set in a world where humanity is coming to grips with a disease locking conscious people inside their bodies.
At the risk of stating the obvious, or at least that which has been mentioned here before on numerous occasions, I will repeat that:
1. I consider John Scalzi to be my favourite author of fiction, and
2. As a big fan I do his bidding by purchasing his books on the day of their release, and
3. A major part of that is to do with Scalzi’s ebooks being released without DRM, which merits further support, and
4. Since Scalzi releases about one book per year, yes, I have been looking forward to this – his latest – Lock In.
Intros aside, it is fair to say that the biggest thing about Lock In is the world it is set in. In order to help readers with the introduction part, Scalzi wrote a short story called Unlocked that acts as an exposition to the real thing (i.e., the book Lock In). You can read/download that short story for free here, but a word of warning: other than setting the scene, do not consider that short story to represent what Lock In is like. The two may share some DNA, but they’re certainly different species.
Technical introductions aside, it is now time for me to give you my brief intro into Lock In’s world. In the near future, humanity is afflicted with a highly contagious flu like disease. That disease has a high probability of leaving its patients locked in: that is, they are fully conscious, but they lack the ability for any motor movement. In other words, they are prisoners inside their own bodies. The world, led by the USA (Lock In is a very USA centric affair; I suspect Scalzi did the arithmetics to figure out where his core readership lies), invested billions if not trillions of dollars looking for a cure. It couldn’t find any, but it did come up with workarounds. Through advances in neural nets and robotics, locked patients can represent themselves in the physical world and conduct their affairs almost normal human like by mentally controlling robots that act as their avatar in the real world.
Which brings me to Lock In itself. Lock In is simply a first person murder investigation detective story set in this unique world created by Scalzi and told by a newly crowned FBI detective who also happens to be a celebrity. Oh, she also happens to be a she, a black she, and a locked in black she at that. What I am trying to say here is that Scalzi’s own liberal views on the world are quite evident throughout his book, not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s about time we started having quality reading sporting females and minorities in leading roles!
The element distinguishing Lock In from any other detective story we’ve read so far is, of course, that it is set in this unique universe established by Scalzi. The setup, disease and robots included, is at the core of the story; there wouldn’t be a detective story here if it wasn’t for the complexities introduced by the setup. It is these complexities that render Lock In to be the quality science fiction material that it is: through this convoluted setup Scalzi gets to discuss plenty of matters that are at the core of our real contemporary world. He discusses social matters around disabilities; he discusses minority rights; computer hacking with its post Snowden era implications; human integration with computers as a door opener for discussions on how technology is going to change the way we are; and plenty more. Most interestingly, Scalzi drops in a gem of a philosophical discussion, comparing a computer programmer putting code inside a human’s head to a writer putting their “code” in the mind of her readers.
Yes, these discussions are cool and interesting. However, at the more basic level, Lock In is not your greatest detective story ever. For a start, I have found it rather predictable, at least once I learnt to accept its unique setup. More importantly, I was left feeling as if Scalzi had created this interesting universe to quite a detailed level only to use it in order to tell us of a minor affair taking place at its fringes. I can easily think of vastly more interesting stories to come up with given the setup, yet Scalzi chose to focus on what is, at the end, a murder mystery. I will put it another way: Lock In feels more like the pilot of a long running TV series than a standalone book. There is so much unexploited material to exploit in Scalzi’s made up universe that it’s not funny to see it left so unexploited.
Mentioning the word “funny” brings me to my final argument with Lock In. There is certainly plenty of humour packed into Lock In through Scalzi’s typical type of dry humour. But is Lock In good enough? Sure, it is a good book. I, however, could not avoid feeling Lock In misses out on the opportunities for great humour that Scalzi had been able to repeatedly deliver his readers during past performances. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what I really wanted from Scalzi is another Agent to the Stars. Instead, Scalzi chose to deliver me his unique take on the zombie apocalypse.
Overall: Lock in is not the Scalzi I was looking for. Not that it’s not good, though; it’s certainly worth 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

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