I just read: Lock In

lock-inFirst of all, let me say that I’m not a big fan of police procedurals… or mysteries in general. Like most genre fiction, they require a swift plot, and a swiftly plotted mystery requires coincidences and synchronicities that push the limits of my credulity.

If a detective decides to check in on a key witness, then she will arrive just in time to find the door to that person’s apartment has been jimmied open. She’ll be the first to stumble upon a dead body, or to catch the assassin red-handed.

If the detective starts hanging out with someone with a weird area of expertise—say, a doctorate in Native American lore—then it’s a given that the case will hinge on some clue involving Navajo mythology.

If, early in the book, the detective attends a dinner party that introduces a handful of characters, then one of those characters will end up being the culprit. Or if there’s no dinner party, and the detective has a random, non-plot-related encounter with a—say, a Bodega owner or a neighbor of the victim—then that person will end up being the culprit.

So. At this point, you’re probably asking why I chose to read John Scalzi’s Lock In, which is quite clearly a sci-fi police procedural. First of all, John Scalzi is one of the embarrassingly large number of best-selling sci-fi authors whom I have never read. One of my goals in 2015 is to mark some of those essential authors off my to-read list. Secondly, my book Idyll touches on some similar ideas (people in weird comas, living in virtual reality networks or through avatars), so I wanted to see how an acclaimed writer dealt with those subjects. Thirdly… it had a cool cover?

Here’s my shot at explaining the premise: A flu-like epidemic sweeps across the planet, and leaves about 1% of its victims completely paralyzed. They have to spend the rest of their lives ‘locked in’ their bodies. Private industries and government programs emerge to help these people deal with ‘lock in.’ The Hadens (that’s what the paralyzed people are called) basically have two choices of how to live their lives: they can interact with the rest of the waking world through remote-control androids—or they can project their consciousness into a communal, virtual reality environment and confine their interactions to other Hadens.

So those are the two dichotomies that drive most of the plot and themes of the novel:
• Private vs. public sector
• An external, very mechanical life vs. a more cerebral ethereal life.

These parts of the book, when the Hadens focus on the philosophical ‘pros and cons’ of their life choices—and the turns that society is taking—are very interesting. For instance: If a person spends every waking moment in a V.R. environment, where they can be anything they want to be, are they even ‘human’ anymore? Also, if a for-profit company is running that V.R. habitat, is it ethically acceptable to insert ‘pop-up’ ads into people’s lives? Is that better than charging them by the minute to have a life?

Then there’s a whole other complicated part about physically functional humans who can let Hadens control their bodies for a limited time. That’s where things start to get a little wonky.

The plot centers around one of these ‘integrators,’ a murder suspect who may or may not have been controlled by a Haden while he was at the scene of the crime. It’s a very complicated set-up, but once the premise has been established, the mystery spins out by rote. All of the tropes that I listed above (friends with a weirdly useful specialties, coincidental run-ins, dinner party with suspects) you’ll find them here.

Wrapping up, I was surprised at the cleanness and simplicity of the plot, considering the complicated premise. Mostly, I take that as a good thing. If you’re a big fan of action-oriented mystery novels, I’d say give it a try. And even though I left feeling disappointed, I could totally see this as a kick-ass, free-on-HBO movie. (Something like Will Smith’s ‘I, Robot’ or Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report.’) In fact, I just checked and I’m not surprised that someone has already bought the rights to a Lock In TV series.

I feel like I have to read another one of Scalzi’s books before I can have a true sense of his writing style, because this novel seems anomalous to the majority of his works, which seem to be space-operas. I do have to say he used the words ‘said’ A LOT. I posted a treatise about the dubious writing tip that ‘you cannot overuse the word ‘said.’’ I didn’t believe it then, and I believe it even less now.

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