Haden’s Syndrome is a super flu, a new Spanish Flu in its virulence, that struck much of the world’s population, leaving millions dead and the rest relieved to recover. That was before stage two hit. This second attack gave a proportion of the survivors a form of meningitis that left some dead and others mentally different. A smaller number, 1% of the population, is left in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate and yet aware – the condition is named Lock In while the disease itself is called Haden’s Syndrome after Lock In’s most famous victim, the First Lady.
A generation after the outbreak, society has been transformed by the legacy of Haden’s Syndrome. The Locked In, or Haden, have been given new life, thanks to quickly developed futuristic technology which allows sufferers to move their consciousness into fully mobile and interactive robots called Threeps (named in honour of C3PO – a pleasant touch). Hadens can also transfer themselves into an online digital society called Agora in which each can have his or her own haven. But this enormous dedication of resources as well as legislation supporting the equality of Hadens, has finally run into a brick wall and, as the novel begins, a new law is about to come into effect which would drastically impact the lives of ordinary Haden, of whom there are more and more each year as the disease continues to find new victims.
Not all of those stricken with the Haden meningitis are Locked In. A few, barely a few thousand per country, have had their minds altered in such a way that they have the potential to become Integrators – they can actually carry, for a fee, the consciousness of the Locked In, pushing their own personalities into the shadows of their minds. All well and good as long as the Haden plays by the rules and doesn’t use his or her borrowed body for anything more harmful than a Supersized fast food feast.
Set in the near and recognisable future, Lock In is a complex, clever and thoroughly entertaining novel that is both murder mystery and science fiction. Our hero and mouthpiece, Shane, is am interesting character. He’s both a Haden in a Threep and an FBI agent, brand new on the job (in fact it’s his first week), whose team investigates crimes involving Haden. Shane, with a famous sportsman and now potential politician for a father, has grown up as the the poster boy for Haden, His famous (metal) face supported by a millionaire’s wallet. Despite this background, Shane manages to be both immensely likeable and capable, as indeed is his father. Being perceived as not quite human is something that Shane has to deal with every day, while his human body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, cared for day and night, his thoughts and pains and dreams alive in this superhuman robotic body.
Shane is matched by his partner Agent Vann who is herself quite a character as well as being, we soon learn, an ex-Integrator with a taste for wine, clubs and men. The job, though, is all important and Shane, with Vann, is instantly thrown into the deep end by the discovery of a dead Integrator, his throat sliced. This is just the beginning.
The worldbuilding is great in Lock In. The Threeps intriguingly exist both within and outside society and they can test the patience of flesh and blood people (a forgotten Threep coming to life in the corner of the room without warning, for instance). Descriptions of the homelife of a Threep are alien and unforgettable – the unwealthy Threep might live in an apartment no bigger than a below stairs cupboard. But all the time, it’s hard to forget the Locked In people themselves who lie in their beds, utterly vulnerable. The worldbuilding is more than matched by the intricately clever plot. The metallic Haden, the almost engineered Integrators and the polished social and business circles through which the novel moves fit so well with the almost clinical conspiracy and its investigation that starts to fill the pages and obsess Shane and Vann.
All the time, the commentary comes from Shane. We see this world through Locked In eyes and it’s all the more powerful and effective and human for it.
John Scalzi has written a novella, Unlocked, which predates the events of the novel and brings to life the outbreak and course of the disease through extracts from the reports of some key individuals involved in its identification and treatment as well as its victims. I highly recommend that you read this first. It most definitely helps to illuminate the background to this fine novel.