I like John Scalzi. I really do. And it's not just his writing I like. I like his blog. I like his friends. I just like the guy in general. And I do believe every thing he writes is worth reading or listening to. I've found all his books I've read to be fun and often exciting. John Scalzi has a sense of humor that really appeals to me.
But that does not mean every thing he writes is gold. I found his latest book, Lock In, to be just silver. It's still pretty, and it's still valuable, but it just isn't up to the gold standard. Before I launch into why, here is the summary of Lock In from Goodreads.
"Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.
One per cent doesn't seem like a lot. But in the United States, that's 1.7 million people “locked in”...including the President's wife and daughter.
Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.
This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse...."
First off, right there I know the entire plot of the book. That last paragraph makes everything that happens in the book preordained. I wanted to believe there would be some twists and turns... a huge surprise - but no. I wanted to believe the book wouldn't be as simple as that last paragraph. But it was predictable the entire way through. It was a straight line story from quickly regulated to worse - which I use here as a double entendre.
"Double entendre?" you ask. Yes, as in a quote of the summary and bad gone worse. As in, you can, and have, done better than this John Scalzi. Shame on you for rushing this book, leaving sub-plots unfinished (Detective Trinh anyone?,) and totally not even thinking about a romance between Agent Shane and either Tony or that nice Navajo police officer. You, sir, are better than paragons of two-dimensional stereotypical [insert character type here.]. From the burned out FBI agent, to the rich kid wanting to make good without daddy, to the overly greedy billionaire lacking all morals whatsoever, this cast of characters remains true to the tried and tired cliché of who they should be. That said, they are still interesting characters because your writing itself is still on par with your superlative style.
Nevertheless, I give more than half the credit for the interesting characters to Amber Benson. When I was trying to decide between her and Wil Wheaton as the narrator for the audio book I listened to, I read a couple of reviews praising Amber for her performance. I will have to agree. She did an excellent job. In the entire performance I only caught one instance where she used one character's voice for another, and that was for less than half a sentence. And the range of voices she gave to the characters, from the smooth alto of Agent Vann, to the otherworldly whisper of Sarah Bell, to the almost baritone of Marcus Shane, are excellent. Well done Amber.
You know, I find myself in the odd position of having to give a pro at the end of a review rather than a con. Usually I so enjoy a book I praise it for paragraphs and then at the end remember I should at least address its major shortcoming. In this case it's just the opposite. I could go on and on about how this isn't John Scalzi's best work, and how I expect more of him as an author. But I also don't want to seem like I'm trying to run him down, because I really do think he is an excellent writer and an all around great person. So I'll end with what I think Lock In is really about.
From the stalemate Congress the United States has endured over the past decade, to the Ebola paranoia that gripped the country during the last election cycle, to the politicization of just about everything already proven by scientific endeavor, Lock In is a statement on how current American society comports itself. Though it takes place 25 years in the future, it is really about the here and now. And the book isn't even about politicians. It's about polarization. It's about class warfare. It's about discrimination brought on by the struggle to simply feed one's family. It's about those who have manipulating those who don't to ensure they never do. It's also about what motivates the richest among us. As Scalzi correctly points out through his characters, it's not about money. When people are as rich as the antagonist in this book, money ceases to have meaning. It's all about ego, and personal favors, and what you can force other people do, and what you can get away with because you have so much money. The ultra rich don't trade money with each other, they trade favors. Their most precious resource is time, not gold, and these successful humans excel at looking into the future and seeing potential; then manipulating the present to obtain their desired outcome - sometimes illegally. Bottom line, they aren't motivated by what motivates the masses, and the masses need to understand this fact.
In the end, Lock In is a pleasant reminder than even those who may think themselves untouchable can be touched. They may think they pull all the strings, but we are all still individuals, and it only takes one person like Jonny Sani to put an end to those who think themselves out of reach. As Jonny's sister Janice says at the end of the story,
"You’re not sorry Johnny is dead. You were going to kill someone today. You’re sorry you got caught. But you did get caught. You got caught because Johnny stopped you from getting away with what you were doing. He made trouble for you, just like he said. My brother was slow but he could figure things out if he took enough time. He figured you out. And now look at you. My brother is ten of you."
As cliché as that is, it's a good point and sums up the book's social message quite nicely. The ultra rich aren't better than the rest of us. They are bound by the same rules we are no matter how they try to change them. And when we as a society choose to correct their aberrant behavior, we can. We just have to come together in common cause to do it, and often it only takes a single individual's actions to get that ball rolling . There is a lot of intuition involved with getting to that last sentence, but I am willing to bet John Scalzi won't disagree with it.