Lock In by John Scalzi

It’s hard to even describe what this book is about, since Scalzi creates a narrative of complex information and forgettable characters. In the world of Lock In, a disease called Haden’s Syndrome causes people to become vegetables, but affected people are able to upload their consciousness into androids. One such person, FBI Agent Chris Shane, tries to solve a case where people called Integrators (who can upload a Haden’s consciousness into their bodies) are murdered. And while all this is going on, there’s some political drama involving cutting federal financial aid for Haden’s patients, and the resulting protests.

Scalzi embarks on a significant challenge with this novel, and it’s clear that he put a lot of thought and effort into writing it. The world and technology are well fleshed-out and thoroughly explained (too thoroughly, I’d argue). The cover art is nice, and the audio book is narrated by Wil Wheaton.

Unfortunately, the narrative (at least as I read it) comes with some major, distracting problems. First is the unwieldy use of exposition. He starts off the story by attempting to drop the reader in the middle of the action with minimal action to orient the reader (apart from a codex-prologue). The problems with this technique were exacerbated by problems with the protagonist, Agent Chris Shane. Although Haden’s Syndrome is thoroughly explained in the prologue, when the reader is presented with their first Haden (Shane), they’re given what seems to be a robot, rather than a human powering an android body. Shane’s lack of personality muddies the scene and left me feeling rather confused.

For better or for worse, this trend of minimal exposition doesn’t continue, as the reader is later treated to numerous giant monologues of exposition, including various technical jargon about coding neural networks. If, like me, you don’t have much of a coding background, these passages can be difficult to follow. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if these passages weren’t so long and so numerous.

Apart from technical jargon, this technique of expository monologue repeats itself in other areas. The most problematic instance occurs when Trinh, a minor character, goes off on a rant to Shane about his partner, Vann. This is a poor and seemingly desperate attempt at character development because, in this case, the author reveals less about the character by saying more. Trinh explaining to Shane that Vann is a loose cannon with self-destructive tendencies is a far less effective means of characterization than what we’ve already been shown (Vann’s excessive smoking and drinking, her salty attitude, and her aggressive but bendable stance on law enforcement).

The characters, as a whole, are not that compelling. Vann is pushed as the “most interesting,” but everything about her feels forced in a way I can’t quite explain. Worse, perhaps, is the protagonist. I could never get a read on Shane: who he was, what he wanted, why he decided to work for the FBI, or even how he felt about what was going on in the world. And the story is told from his perspective. To top it off, the dialogue was also redundant and a bit stilted, which made it even more difficult to connect to the characters.

Surprisingly, the most interesting and engaging part of the novel, for me, was the dinner scene at Shane’s parents’ house, in which a group of rich businessmen sit around a table and discuss politics. I normally don’t find political discussions to be that interesting, but Scalzi staged the scene in a such a clever way that it made me care about what was going on. The conversation reveals a lot of important detail about the world and the characters, and because the people involved in the discussion had large companies with clear interests in the political climate, it was clear what each party wanted and why the stakes were so high. Scalzi even manages to incorporate a few genuine moments of tension, all from a simple conversation. This scene is a prime example of how exposition through dialogue can be done well.

According to the book’s Wikipedia page, there is a sequel coming out, which makes sense since the scope of the world was pretty inflated for the plot and the pacing. Apparently rights for a TV series have also been sold. If the show does get off the ground, I hope they take some creative liberties with the delivery of exposition, otherwise viewers will be in for a few Robert Baratheon rabbit holes of boring monologue.


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