John Scalzi traps readers in a dull narrative with his 2014 science fiction–detective novel ‘Lock In’

February 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 26, 2019

About four and a half years ago, I read and very much enjoyed John Scalzi’s popular 2012 novel Redshirts, a comic exploration of the (often short) lives of junior crew members aboard a starship that bore a suspicious resemblance to a certain vessel from the TV series Star Trek. This month, I read Lock In, which the same author published in 2014.

This Earthbound story, set perhaps three or four decades into our future, posits a world where a disease known as Haden’s syndrome has caused millions of people to experience total paralysis — the titular lock in. However, thanks to new scientific advances, victims needn’t suffer silent and unheard. (This fortunate development is partly a function of one very prominent early victim being Margaret Haden, the beloved spouse of an American president.)

Implanted neural nets enable Haden’s sufferers to remotely operate sophisticated human-shaped machines known as personal transports. While a Haden’s sufferer’s body remains stationary at home or in a facility, where they’re fed intravenously, transports or “threeps” enable her or his mind to engage with the real world. Threep users hear and sense just what a “normal” person would.

The narrator of Lock In is Agent Chris Shane, a brand-new FBI agent and until recently one of the nation’s most prominent Haden’s sufferers. After Shane was locked in as a toddler, his affluent parents afforded him every opportunity to live a regular existence while simultaneously using their son as a sort of ambassador for fellow Haden’s victims.

I was one of the first Haden children to own and use a threep, and my parents made a point of bringing me everywhere in my threep — not just so I could have a childhood filled with enviable personal experiences, although that was a nice side benefit. The point was to encourage the unaffected to see threeps as people, not freaky androids that had just popped up in their midst. Who better to do that than the child of one of the most celebrated men in the entire world? 

So up until I turned eighteen, I was one of the most famous and photographed Hadens in the world. The photo of me handing a flower to the pope in St. Peter’s Basilica is regularly cited as one of the most famous photographs of the last half century — the image of a child-sized threep offering an Easter lily to the Bishop of Rome being an iconic juxtaposition of modern technology and traditional theology, one presenting a peace offering to the other, who is reaching out, smiling, to take it. 

When I was in college I had a professor tell me that single image did more to advance the acceptance of Hadens as people, not victims, than a thousand congressional testimonials or scientific discoveries could have. I told him what I remembered about the pope was that he had bad breath. I went to Georgetown. My professor was a priest. I don’t think he was very happy with me. 

Much of the first two-thirds or more of Lock In deals with world-building of one sort or another. World-building is a major challenge in speculative fiction, where the rules of science or society (or both) often have as much or more of a bearing on the plot as any character. Sadly, much of Lock In’s exposition struck me as vexing. I must confess that this was at least in part due to my finding Haden’s — specifically its total paralysis, rendering the victims essentially incapable of taking care of themselves and thus incredibly vulnerable — to be off-putting subject matter.

For example, this early conversation between Shane and a caregiver made me squirm with discomfort:

“[T]hat bedsore on your hip is back. Have you felt it yet?” 

“I’ve been busy working my threep today, so I’m sensory forward here,” I said. “I haven’t really noticed anything going on with my body.” 

“All right,” Miranda said. “I’ve numbed it in any event. We’re going to have to change your body movement schedule a bit to work around the sore, so don’t be surprised if you come home today and you’re facedown on the bed.” 

“Got it,” I said. 

“Two, remember that at four Dr. Ahl is here to work on your molar. You’re going to want to dial your body sensitivity way down for that. She tells me it’s likely to get messy.” 

“It doesn’t seem fair I get cavities when I don’t even use my teeth,” I joked. 

“Three, your mother came in to tell me to remind you that she expects you home in time for the get-together at seven. She wanted to remind you that it is in your honor, to celebrate your new job, so don’t embarrass her by being late. …… And I want to remind you to tell your mother that it’s not my job to forward messages to you,” Miranda said. “Especially when your mother is perfectly capable of pinging you herself.” 

“I know,” I said. “Sorry.” 

“I like your mom but if she keeps up this Edwardian shit, I may have to chloroform her.” 

I wasn’t just discomfited by the physical helplessness Shane displays in this scene. I was also put off by the dialogue, which struck me as flat at best, doltish at worst.

Unfortunately, most of the repartee in Lock In hovers around this level of mediocrity. Relatedly, the book’s dramatis personae are a dull lot as whole; the most interesting character, alas, is not featured prominently. (I suspect that this individual, a controversial Haden’s separatist activist named Cassandra Bell, wouldn’t seem as intriguing if more about her had been revealed.)

‘Lock In’ by John Scalzi

I haven’t really gotten to the story yet, which is partially a reflection of how long it takes for it to emerge. Lock In revolves around a perplexing suicide — or was it actually murder? — investigated by Shane and his partner, maverick FBI Agent Leslie Vann. But although the case involves a wealthy businessman, a deadly bombing, a major new federal law and excursions to both Southern California and sovereign Navajo territory in Arizona, I was not at all invested in the narrative until the midway point of the novel.

Things picked up from there, and by the end it was clear that Scalzi’s dastardly antagonist had devised quite a challenging scheme for Shane and Vann to detect and potentially foil. However, for long stretches, Lock In is bogged down by tedium-inducing passages, flat characters and dull discussions. I was left feeling that this story had the potential to be much more entertaining, absorbing and thought-provoking than the book that Scalzi has actually written.

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