Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Genre-ally Speaking: Lock In, by John Scalzi

Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 26th, 2014
Read: June 2014
Where It Came From: Paper ARC from BEA*
Genre: Sci-Fi-Mystery-Thriller
Rating: 4 Threeps

It’s been over a month since I read Lock In (tore through it in a matter of days, in fact), so this review probably won’t go into specifics as much as I usually do. And I think that’s a good idea for this book—part of the joy of reading it is trying to puzzle out the threads of the mystery for yourself as the stakes for the characters increase and the tension ratchets up. But first, let’s talk plot!

Chris Shane is a new FBI agent, working a murder case in the D.C. area with his partner Leslie Vann. It sounds like the beginning of your usual crime thriller, but here’s the sci-fi twist: The world Shane and Vann live in is one that has been shaped by a flu-like virus that swept the globe 25 years previously. Most people who catch the disease just experience mild flu-y symptoms, but 1% of the infected—which doesn’t sound like much, but amounts to millions of people in the US alone—end up “locked in.” That means they are in their bodies and fully conscious, but are unable to move, respond, or make use of those bodies beyond just being, well, alive. The world has changed in many ways to deal with the situation and accommodate victims of Haden’s syndrome (they’re called Hadens for short), such as with the development of the Agora, an online space for Hadens, and the creation of robot-like devices their consciousness can inhabit to move around in and interact with the physical world. Another salient point—some non-Hadens have the ability to be an Integrator, or someone able to let a locked in individual inhabit their body for a time and experience the world as the non-locked in do.

So, back to Shane and Vann—they are working on a Haden-related murder case, and it looks like an Integrator is their prime suspect. This complicates the situation in ways I’m sure you can imagine. Was the Integrator himself the perpetrator? What if he was integrated with a Haden at the time? Surely there must be safeguards against that…? Hmmm… As they trace the trails leading out from the murder in many directions, the mystery expands to encompass politics and greed on a much larger scale, while also focusing down on those caught in the crossfire of the hidden players in the game.

I quite enjoyed Lock In. Shane is an engaging narrator, and his first-person voice propels us through the story. In typical Scalzi fashion, it is a very smooth, fast-paced reading experience, with writing that feels effortless and pages that fly by. The world is certainly different from the one we inhabit now, but it’s still similar enough as to be very recognizable—no flying cars and vacation jaunts to outer space here, but rather a vision of a near future that has been altered by something easily conceivable (like, y’know, a huge epidemic we are ill prepared for), but that humans are adapting to. People keep on keeping on, doing normal human things, both good and bad. I also love how the story conveys the far-reaching effects of the murder and the plotting behind it, since it is certainly something with consequences for the entire world, but also narrows in on the effects on a very personal level for the main characters and other people involved.

Some of the things that really stood out to me in Lock In:

  • The pacing. This is probably one of my top awesome things in the book. Scalzi really nailed it, creating a reading experience that is relaxed enough for you to be able to process all the information coming your way, but still be a page-turning thriller that keeps you guessing what lies beyond the next chapter. From reading the jacket copy you know Chris Shane is an FBI agent, but then on page two you find out he is a Haden—boom, first surprise (which may then cause you to consider your pre-conceived notions you didn’t realize you had about characters, as it did for me). Also wonderfully paced was the information about who Chris Shane is—he is the narrator, so it’s difficult for him to hide things from the reader, but since his background is so obvious to himself, he is able to sort of obliquely think around certain details of his life, with the result being that we know he is somehow famous, but we don’t know why. Scalzi teases us with it as we wonder why the heck everyone knows who Chris Shane is, and the suspense and anticipation that build leading to that reveal is pretty damn great.

  • The humor. The trademark Scalzi humor was definitely present in this book, but at the same time it didn’t seem like quite as much of a focus or its own character as it is in some of his other books. And that is in no way a criticism—just an observation. Like in Redshirts, or the funny bits in Old Man’s War--they have a style of writing and kind of witty, punchy humor that I have come to associate with Scalziness, and Lock In feels a little different. Humor is still very much present in it and very recognizably Scalzi, but it comes through the filter of Chris Shane and his situation in this world. For me, it’s a new facet of Scalzi funniness, and I like the versatility it demonstrates.

  • The twisty-turniness. The whole situation with Hadens, Integrators, and threeps (the machines Hadens can use to function in the physical world) quite brilliantly lends itself to all sorts of twists and surprises in the mystery as you try to figure out and predict who precisely is involved, and why, and with what motivations, and where they are, and WHO they are, and what are they doing, and—well, you get it.

  • The smooth-like-buttah reading experience. I already went into this a bit, but the ease and speed with which I tore through Lock In is really a testament to the skill behind the writing. To create an entertaining, suspenseful, and emotion-tugging mystery that’s this much fun and speed-inducing to read is an art.

The only part I had questions about involved some of the details of the climactic scene. Without getting into spoiler territory, there were some scientific-technological aspects that I, with my not super techno-savvy skills, tried to follow through mentally to their ends, and I wasn’t sure I was completely clear on it all by the time the scene wrapped up. But it didn’t have a negative effect on my enjoyment of the book as a whole—it merely gave me ideas of questions I could ask Scalzi if I ever see him at Phoenix Comicon again. :) Overall, I really enjoyed the book—it is both sweeping as a thriller on the grand scale, and also affecting on the micro scale of individual human interactions and emotions. It's a good one for Scalzi fans and sci-fi fans, of course, but I’d also recommend it to general thriller and mystery audiences; I think it’s definitely a book with crossover appeal. (…there may not be any semi-colons in Lock In, but I thought there needed to be at least one in this review!)

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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