In 2014 John Scalzi released Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future in which a virus has swept across the world. For many who get sick, the worst they experience are flu-like symptoms. Others are deeply affected by what becomes to be called Hadens syndrome. They are fully awake and aware but they are unable to move their bodies or respond to stimulus, and are referred to as being “locked in”. About one percent of the population is affected, nearly 500 million people in the United States alone. Hadens victims are implanted with a neural net allowing them access to the net. A virtual space called the Agora is created, a place where they can be completely interactive. Personal transports, commonly called threeps, are created so that Hadens can can be fully present and active in the physical world. This novel introduces us to FBI agent Leslie Vann and her new underling, agent Chris Shane, who happens to be a person with Hadens.
Head On is set some indeterminate time after the conclusion of events in Lock In. It is not a sequel but another stand alone book in the same near future setting. The book opens with the death of Duane Chapman, hilketa player and Haden, during the last game of the pre-season. Hilketa is a sport played with threeps (almost exclusively piloted by individuals with Hadens), where the goal is to rip an opponent’s head off and toss it through a goal. For game play the threeps are specially designed to have limbs come off, and the players are armed with weapons like swords and maces. The blood thirsty, yet bloodless, game has high appeal among Haden and non-Hadens alike and the North American Hilketa League is looking to expand overseas. The game has raised Haden players to superstar status. While not a star player, Duane was well liked, and as the first ever death in hilketa, it comes as a shock to everyone. Agents Vann and Shane are called in when oddities surrounding the death call for the involvement of the FBI.
What starts as a simple inquiry as to whether Duane Chapman’s death was accidental or murder, quickly becomes a lot more complicated as agents Vann and Shane dig deeper into the world of hilketa. With a plot that keeps you guessing participation and involvement of the various characters, Head On is an engaging read. While it does stand alone, I would recommend reading Lock In first to have a better understanding of the world setting, and because it is also a very good novel.