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Science Fiction Round 71: Lock In


John Scalzi’s Lock In is a pleasant afternoon read about a near-future FBI investigation.

I found myself anticipating many of the twists, but it was a fun read nonetheless.

Also, spoilers follow.

I’m not sure what the point of the cover was. Maybe the red people are supposed to be threeps (remote-controlled bots used by Haden’s sufferers).

A Proper Pandemic Flu

The story is kicked off by a discussion of Haden’s Syndrome.  It’s quite believably presented.  There was a big nasty flu, which was particularly bad because it had a long incubation period (one of the critical factors in getting a good pandemic going).  It didn’t kill all, or even most of its victims.  What it did have was, in a fraction of survivors, a follow-up episode of meningitis.  That could cause nasty brain-damage side effects, including locked-in syndrome, where a person can see and hear and feel but can’t move a muscle.

That whole sequence is disturbingly believable.  The follow-up tech development is a touch less plausible… what with the cleverly designed brain implants that allow the victims of the so-called Haden’s Syndrome to intereact with the real world.  Their main options for this are threefold: through the Agora, a online virtual space; threeps, humanoid-shaped robots with the obvious namesake; and Integrators, other humans who survived the flu but whose brains are now suitable for implant hook-ups.

Yet, it’s written so that it feels plausible, right along with the huge boost in public funding to address the public health problem, the backlash against spending said money many years later when things are better, and the self-driving cars that some people still drive manually sometimes to prove how macho they are.  The different brain implants are supported by different corporations, and support for older models is a significant issue.

A cure for Haden’s is being studied over the course of years.  The debates over whether it should be cured is reminiscent of the real-world disagreements surrounding Deaf culture and their community.

The science is a bit dodgy, but the characters and society are well-developed enough to make it feel believable.

Saw It Coming A Mile Away

Alas.  Many of the plot twists are fairly predictable, from the a Haden’s survivor defending their own body to repeated destruction of threeps in the service of action scenes to the inevitable hijacking of threeps and even Interogators.  (The latter of which is effectively kidnapping.)  The corporate shenanigans aren’t much of a surprise, either.

However, it’s a bit less about the anticipation, and more about the satisfying structure.  While many of the twists and turns were predictable, it was a story well told with a satisfying conclusion.

Subtle Realization

That being said, there was one twist which I didn’t see coming.  The lead charactor, FBI agent Chris Shane, is the son of a famous basketball player turned successful businessman.  He’s also a Haden, so he sends a remote-controlled threep out to work and leaves his intractible body at home.

During the story, when the inevitable criminal attempts to kill Shane’s body, he takes over the threep as home… but in the insuing fight, the would-be killer is killed by Shane’s father, armed with a shotgun.

One of the first topics of come up is that this incident is a death knell for Shane’s father’s hopes of running for Senate.  Or going into politics, ever.

Which initially struck me as strange.  There are plenty of people — especially when the investigation is over and the public can know that the man was more than a burglar — who would be entirely fine with a person exercising their right to bear arms in this way and defend themselves.  Plenty who would rally behind him, in fact.

So, what’s the problem?

Shane’s father is black.  People don’t like the stereotypical image of a big, scary black man with a gun.  Specifically… a lot of white people.

It’s not mentioned explicitly earlier in the story, and it hadn’t even occured to me that Shane or his father might not be white until that incident.  I’m not sure what that says about me.

But given that one piece of additional information, it makes the fallout make sense.  Sadly.

The future in Lock In isn’t a terribly bad one (especially once you get past the pandemic flu) — but projecting that we still won’t have worked out our more hurtful cultural baggage is far too believable.

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