If I was rating this book by the world-building alone, it probably would have gotten five stars. The idea of exploring Locked In Syndrome as a world-wide epidemic within a sci-fi framework is sooooo interesting to me. Lots of o’s to exhibit enthusiasm, there. I’m particularly interested in the ways that Scalzi, instead of focusing on the immediate effect of the disease itself, more uses it was a way to create a new social dynamic and class of people.
See, due to the high profile nature of some of its earliest sufferers, Locked In Syndrome (called Haden’s in Scalzi’s world, as its most famous victim was the fictional US President Haden’s First Lady) received a buttload of funding, both for the care of its victims, and new technologies enabling Hadens to essential live their lives in synthetic robotic bodies (called Threeps, after one of the most famous cinematic robots) and in a virtual space called the Agora. Some Hadens live almost entirely in the Agora, refusing to use Threeps, and not viewing themselves as disabled at all.
It’s really a fascinating way to examine the ways that humans stratify and codify ourselves, and Scalzi uses those same issues as a lens to mess around with reader and character expectations*. (The prequel novella–which I enjoyed more, either because it was my first exposure to this world, or because I just like reading about the social consequences more than what’s going on in the main story–is more of an oral history documenting the origins of Haden’s syndrome and the way the world changed afterwards).
*I won’t be mentioning it elsewhere in my review, because I didn’t pick up on it all when I read the book, and only know about it now because of Scalzi’s blog, but SPOILER: Scalzi intentionally wrote Chris (the protagonist) as gender neutral due to his/her status as a Haden wearing a Threep body. I assumed going in to the novel that Chris was a man, so my brain inserted all kinds of clues retroactively that weren’t even there, that confirmed my opinion of his maleness. For instance, I have a very clear memory of a scene where Chris’s father calls him ‘my son,’ only when I went back to look it up, it clearly said, ‘my child.’ If nothing else, this is a strong argument in favor of those who believe our perceptions alter our realities. My brain literally created memories to preserve my belief that he was a dude. This retroactively also explains the decision to have both male and female narrators for the audiobooks (I’ve heard both Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson do a lovely job portraying Chris, and I’m very curious to check out Amber Benson’s version eventually, to see what it would be like reading Chris as a woman).
Anyways, worldbuilding aside, this book is still fun, but not very remarkable in terms of character or plot. It’s essentially a murder mystery slash police procedural with a sci-fi edge, and the characters aren’t very fleshed out. The mystery itself was pretty good, but again, nothing really that new. I didn’t mind because I came for the worldbuilding, but it would be nice if there was a sequel to get a little bit more meat out of the premise and challenge the readers a bit more. It will be really interesting to see this as a TV show, because I think there will be more room for the development I’m craving.