Scalzi’s books are always such good palette cleansers. Head On was fast and fun (and a little bit infuriating).
This is the second book in the Lock In series, which started with 2014’s Lock In. You don’t need to have read the first book if this one tickles your fancy, but you should, because it’s great. The premise here is that in the near future, a disease called Haden’s Syndrome (after the first lady of the US, it’s most famous victim) makes it so that a portion of the population are locked in to their bodies, perfectly aware, but unable to move on their own or care for themselves. But because of the first lady, massive amounts of funding and research happened early on, and led to social progormas, legislation, and inventions to benefit the new population. The most significant of these are the Agora, a virtual space where Hadens (as they’ve come to be called) can be ambulatory and interact with one another, and Threeps (short for Threepio), robot bodies that Hadens can use to move about in the physical world.
Half the fun in these books is watching the way Scalzi plays with the social and economic order in a world where something like this has happened. Of course, I say fun, but it’s not ALL fun. These are also murder mystery/thrillers, after all, and our protagonist is a Haden named Chris who was famous in childhood for being a Haden and having a famous NBA player father, but who is now an FBI agent. The dynamic between Chris in a Threep body and Chris’s partner, Leslie, is continually fascinating. Not least because Leslie is a really fun character, very bitter and full of piss and vinegar. Scalzi has thought out the worldbuilding here very well.
But in this one specifically, the mystery is also a delightful combo of dark humor and surprising pathos. Hilketa is the fastest growing sport in the world, and it can only be played by people in a Threep, because the entire point of the game is to rip your opponent’s head off and use it to score points. Not something a person in a non-robot body would be able to handle, but very amusing to think about, and just as in the world in the book, entertaining to watch. However, also just as in the book, we as the reader are immediately made to feel guilty for our barbaric impulses, as the case of a murdered Hilketa player who died in the middle of gameplay after having his Threep’s head ripped off three times in one game, brings to light the dark underbelly of the sport, and the corporate greed that is steadily making things worse for all Hadens.
I expected for this book to make me laugh, because Scalzi’s stuff always does that for me, but I didn’t expect it to make me angry.
I hope Scalzi keeps putting these books out every once in a while. Not least because I want him to write a book that deals with the worsening conditions for Hadens legally, and in a substantial way instead of a background one. Chris, as an extremely privileged person, has not really been affected by it all because all that NBA money means multiple Threeps can be bought, not one but two personal carers can be hired, and Chris never has to worry about healthcare or job security, so I think that might be an interesting POV to write from.