In the not-too-distant future, a flu-like disease sweeps the United States. Many recover with no adverse effects; a small percentage are “locked in,” completely conscious with undamaged brains, but entirely unable to move or respond to outside stimuli. This is the world that Scalzi imagines in Lock In.
It’s a brave new world out there. Two decades after the first catastrophic epidemic, sufferers of Haden’s Disease (referred to colloquially as “Hadens”), are now able to interact with the world through a variety of tools developed by the nation’s top scientists and engineers. There are Personal Transports, nicknamed “threeps,” which are essentially robots controlled by a neural network implanted in the afflicted person’s brain. There are Integrators, who also suffered but recovered from Haden’s, who have developed the ability to let the locked-in use their body as their own, also through the use of a neural network. Finally, there’s the Agora, a virtual community for Hadens away from the physical world in which Hadens can create their own “liminal space,” a personalized getaway where they can exist privately in a world that is becoming increasingly public.
Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane, a Haden, and his veteran partner, Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of what appears to be a grisly murder on Shane’s first day as an agent. They find a man lying on the floor of a hotel room, his throat slashed; they soon discover that Metro Police has already brought a suspect into custody: an Integrator who they discovered in the room with the dead man. If the Integrator was working with a client at the time, getting to the bottom of the murder will be that much harder. But as it turns out, the truth behind the murder is much more complex than the death of a single man, and might even carry implications for Hadens across the country.
In less than 350 pages, Scalzi creates a complete, detailed world with interesting characters and an engrossing murder mystery while also raising important questions about the rights of disabled persons: is it up to able-bodied people to “cure” the disabled? More importantly, do the disabled want or feel they need to be “cured”? Should technology originally created solely for Hadens to use be expanded for use by the elderly, the infirm, the paralyzed?
Scalzi asks a lot of great questions…but then answers almost none of them. It’s unclear whose side he takes: the Haden activist Cassandra Bell, locked in from birth, who believes Hadens should reject the physical world and retreat permanently into the Agora? Or the scientists who are working to relieve the locked-in of their imprisonment in their own body by restoring bodily function? I like to think that the fact that he leaves these questions unresolved shows that he sees the merits to both sides of the argument. But I think it might also have something to do with the murder mystery taking up most of the spotlight.
Which, honestly, is not a bad thing in my opinion. I like murder mysteries quite a lot; I like political dissertations quite a lot less. But those questions do hold quite a bit of importance to the plot, and I would have enjoyed a little more focus on them as important on their own instead of as a device used purely to move the story along.
That being said, I did enjoy Lock In. There was no shortage of action—in fact, it was almost entirely action from start to finish, which is what made it so easy to finish in only two days—and the mystery was very well paced with (thankfully) no deus ex moments to knock me out of the story. If you’re looking for a fun, quick read, Lock In is a good choice.by