Before I start this review, a brief note to say that the reason I am tagging the author is not some kind of ego thing, but because John Scalzi has said that he’s specifically interested in hearing some of the kinds of criticisms that I’ll be bringing up here. I’d normally just put the relevant bits in a comment on his blog, but he’s turned off comments this month…
As with all my reviews, there will be SPOILERS here. In particular, this book is at least in part a murder mystery, and I will be giving away the identity of the killer (though not mentioning the name) further down, so stop reading here if that kind of thing might spoil your enjoyment.
Lock-In is a rather simpler book than Scalzi’s most recent novel, Redshirts. Where that played various postmodern games with narrative and levels of reality, this is a straightforward near-future crime thriller, in some ways very reminiscent of Charles Stross’ Halting State and Rule 34, but told in a much plainer style. In fact, other than a couple of “fucks”, it could practically be a Heinlein juvenile or a Terrance Dicks Doctor Who book or one of John Christopher’s Tripods books — it’s written in the kind of prose style that people describe as “transparent”, told mostly in dialogue, and told in a linear fashion from the viewpoint of a single narrator who seems a thoroughly nice, decent person. It’s a light adventure story that would probably appeal to anyone who enjoyed Asimov’s robot mystery novels (though Scalzi’s prose style is much better than Asimov’s) more than to fans of dense, impenetrable, complex narratives.
That sounds like a harsh criticism, but it’s really not meant to be. This is a book that’s pure story, and from an entertainment point of view it absolutely delivers. In fact it’s precisely the kind of story that the “sad puppy” people like Larry Correia were insistent moderates like Scalzi are incapable of writing, and I would be very surprised not to see it turned into a film or TV series soon
I was also glad to see that Scalzi takes a decent attitude to representation in the novel. I can’t remember if it passes the Bechdel test (several characters’ genders are only mentioned so fleetingly that I can’t remember what gender they were, and it didn’t really matter for story purposes), but the nature of the story means that a large number of the characters are disabled or Native American, and there’s also a general level of pleasing unemphasised diversity — only two long-term relationships are acknowledged in the novel, one same-sex and one mixed-sex, while the narrator is mixed-race (a fact we discover in an aside on page 330 — his race, or the races of his parents, aren’t mentioned before or after).
But one area where I thought more could be done, and where I hope more will be done in the sequels Scalzi has suggested may happen, is in the disability politics that form part of the background for the novel.
Scalzi’s book is set in a time when a substantial number of people have succumbed to an illness that renders them completely paralysed but still fully compos mentis, “locked in” to their heads unable to communicate, but where brain-computer interfaces have been developed to allow them to control robot bodies — or even, for a price, rent another person’s body for a few hours and use that. They’re also able to go and spend time in purely virtual worlds, where they can interact with each other — some of them go so far as to spend all their time in them, and never to “visit” the real world at all.
Now, while HuffPost have described the book as being “about wheelchairs”, I’d argue that the locked-in people are as much a metaphor for autistic people as for physically disabled people, and in particular the way that non-verbal autistic people (I’m a verbal autistic person, and so don’t have quite the same communication difficulties as the people I’m talking about, though I have plenty of my own) have found themselves able, since the advent of communication-assistance technology and particularly the internet, to communicate with other people.
Now, I have very particular views on the subject of “curing” autism, and have had a lot of very emotional conversations on the subject in the last week or so, because there seems to have been substantial progress made towards such a “cure”.
My own feelings on this are roughly those you could imagine a gay person in 1950 to have about a “cure” for homosexuality, except if anything stronger — autism is a far more integral part of who I am than my own sexuality is, and I could imagine a “me” who is gay or bi but still me, whereas a neurotypical version of me would be so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I do not doubt that there are a small number of people who would benefit from a “cure”, for whom their autism causes such distress that they would rather be someone else rather than continue to be their autistic selves, I also have no doubt that in the current political and social climate there would be far, far more people on whom the “cure” was imposed against their will, either by parents wanting to have a more “normal” child or by healthcare systems that focus on profit more than on the patients’ needs. What I would like to see, myself, is a world where total social acceptance of people with autism spectrum “disorders” came first, and then (and only then) a “cure” was developed for those who it would genuinely benefit, but sadly far more money and effort is being put into the latter than the former, and I am horribly worried that this will lead to the effective eradication of people like myself.
Now this debate does, in fact, come up in the book, and both sides’ arguments are presented fairly well — there’s even a character who is roughly speaking an Amelia Baggs analogue (note that I’m not going to touch the ongoing arguments about whether Ms Baggs’ self-representation is accurate even with someone else’s bargepole). We get the following at one point:
“Bring us back from what, exactly? From a community of five million people in the U.S. and forty million worldwide? From an emerging culture that interacts with but is independent of the physical world, with its own concerns, interests, and economy?”
“No, making people change because you can’t deal with who they are isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. What needs to be done is for people to pull their heads out of their asses. You say ‘cure.’ I hear ‘you’re not human enough.’ ”
The problem is that these arguments are put in the mouth of the villain, who it later turns out is trying to suppress research into a cure in order that he can continue to profit from the other people with the condition, and whose profiteering leads him to commit a variety of hugely evil crimes, including controlling other people’s brains (which may be triggery for some people who find such things all too reminiscent of abusive relationships), bombings, and multiple murders and forced suicides.
While it’s made clear that there are other people in this world who agree with this view and who aren’t evil psychopaths, the villain of the piece is the only one who advocates this view at any length, and the person with whom he is arguing is presented as an entirely sympathetic figure — an employer who wants the best both for his employees and the world, and who attends a memorial services for the janitors who worked at the company he owned when it’s blown up. Putting the pro-cure argument in the mouth of a good, caring man while the anti-cure argument is being made by something close to a creature of pure evil does seem to be stacking the decks rather.
This is very much a background detail in the book, but I suspect from the way it’s brought in that it will be a theme in any future books in this world, and if so I hope a rather more balanced portrayal will be shown…