Head On by John Scalzi

Tor | 2018 (19 April) | 335p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Head On by John ScalziSome years have passed now since the supervirus that left a small percentage of the population in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate but still aware. These people are known as the Haden, named after the virus’s most famous victim, the First Lady of the United States. With so many people suffering from ‘Lock In’, ways were developed to give them expression. The Agora is a virtual reality society in which Hadens can create their own safe place. An alternative is to transfer their consciousness into a sophisticated robot, a threep (name after C3PO), which can take a place in the physical world.

One of the most famous threeps in the world belongs to FBI agent Chris Shane, who at one time had been a poster boy for Hadens, a source of hope, the son of very wealthy parents who nevertheless prefers to work for a living, investigating crimes against, and committed by, fellow Hadens. Partnering Shane is Leslie Vann, a formidable character with her own Lock In experience. And they have quite a case on their hands. Hilketa is a game taking North America by storm, so much so that the rest of the world is taking an interest. Teams of Hadens take each other on with hammers and swords, their goal is to cut off an opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. Violent, gory even, yet with no risk of death. The audience is transfixed. Until the day when a headless Haden falls, killing its Locked In operator in his bed. This is impossible. It certainly can’t be an accident. Big money is at risk. The stakes are high. More will die.

John Scalzi is such a wonderful writer of science fiction. His books are guaranteed to lift the mood as he finds extraordinary, human stories in such fabulous circumstances and settings. Lock In was a top read from 2014 and I’m so pleased to have Head On as its follow up. You don’t need to have read Lock In first but I really recommend that you do. It’s a fine novel and it sets the Haden stage perfectly for what happens here.

The plot is such a good one. On one level this is a sophisticated, intricately plotted and pacey crime novel. It’s an enjoyable mystery in its own right but in almost every single way it stands out. Firstly, for its fantastic start on the Hilketa playing field with a sports report on the match which cost one of the players his life. This is edge of your seat stuff. But the main difference is because of Chris Shane, a unique individual whose body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, lovingly cared for, while his mind spends its days in a threep working as an FBI agent. It’s all so brilliantly depicted and real. We get all of the fascinating details about how it all works, how Haden can move from threep to threep, how they live and interact with friends and family, how they are discriminated against by the state now that new laws have come in that have removed the state’s obligation to care for them. The fact that our narrator is Shane himself really adds to our understanding of his condition. It’s all deeply involved and compelling. As is the case that Shane and Vann must work to solve.

There are some big and serious themes but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer and he’s filled Shane and Vann with personality, as he has Shane’s threep housemates. They’re such a funny bunch and that’s even before Donut the cat makes his presence felt. You need to read this book for Donut the cat. We don’t spend too much time in the virtual Agora world but the time that we do is so well spent. I loved these sections.

I loved Lock In so much and Head On is every bit as good. Shane and Bank are such an unusual yet brilliant pair of FBI agents, like none others you’ll meet, and the near future in which they operate is perfectly realised. And it’s all so much fun!

Other reviews
Lock In
The Collapsing Empire

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