For this Writer Wednesday, I want to show my love for a writer other than myself. If you read this week’s Weekly Rewind post, you’ll know that I’ve recently started doing the book club thing again, although this one is one that merges my love of books with my love of all things geeky.
My first book with this new club was an absolute joy! It’s been a long time since a book made me want to stay up into the wee hours and read instead of getting the sleep I need to be a functional human being, but this book had me looking like a zombie for part of last week because whenever I’d wake up in the middle of the night (a somewhat regular thing in my old age), I’d reach for this book.
What book is it? Lock In by John Scalzi.
And just FYI: there will be some spoilers ahead. Though I try not to include too many of them, there are a few things that I want to talk about that can’t be discussed without a spoiler or two coming out.
Consider yourself warned!
The basics are this:
It’s the near future, and a very large portion of the population is suddenly locked into their minds due to a disease that begins very much like the normal flu. Our main character is one Agent Chris Shane, a recent FBI recruit (if that’s the right term), whose first day coincides with the beginnings of major protesting nationwide as the government decides to stop funding a great deal of the health care and upkeep for the people who’ve contracted the disease… of which our main character is one.
But how can the MC be an FBI agent if this disease locks people into their minds? Well, in this future U.S., they’ve developed a way to basically beam your consciousness into a mechanical robot style suit, lovingly referred to as “threeps,” a reference to Star Wars’ C-3PO.
Not only is there a protest starting, but our MC and partner (one Agent Vann) are called in to investigate what looks like a murder of someone not in any of the nation’s databases.
We follow as Agent Shane travels across the country (beaming into and destroying a variety of different threeps) in search of answers.
The entire story only takes about a week’s time, but man! what a week!
One of the most notable things for me was the connection to neurodivergence.
The disease alters the brain of any person infected with it, which is why they can beam themselves into robot suits (and people! but more on that later), and why they can exist in a completely non-corporeal space on the internet known as the Agora. As such, the way some of them (especially the ones who contracted the disease before they were adults) communicate reminds me of several people I know on the spectrum.
The character of Cassandra Bell was particularly interesting to me because of the way she spoke. Cassandra Bell contracted the virus in utero, so she basically grew up locked in, with her only interaction with people being through her own liminal space in the Agora…
Yeah, there are some pretty hefty science terms and concepts that are a little difficult to wrap one’s head around. The Agora is basically an open, communal, space on the internet reserved for people who are locked in, or “Hadens,” as they’re called. Each Haden can create his or her own private space in the Agora, and because it exists in a space between spaces (basically), it’s known as their “liminal space.”
Our MC’s liminal space apparently looks like the Batcave…
If you might have noticed, I’m trying really hard not to refer to Agent Shane in either the feminine or the masculine. That was a thing I hadn’t actually noticed, but the author never identifies Agent Shane as either a male or a female. In my head, with a name like “Chris,” it was a male, but I have an Aunt Chris, so it truly is a gender-neutral name.
It’s definitely more neutral than “Michael,” but the new Star Trek’s main character is called Michael, even though she’s a woman. They even make a reference to how unusual it is in the second episode (I think).
But let’s not go down that rabbit hole… even though the show is starting to get rather good (Klingons notwithstanding).
Back to Lock In.
One of my newer Twitter friends offered to share something with me that would blow my mind, assuming I didn’t figure it out on my own (which I didn’t), and I was convinced it was the neurodivergence angle. Nope. It was the lack of gender identity for our main character.
As soon as my friend told me, I immediately knew he was right.
There’s a scene where Chris’s dad is talking and refers to Chris as his “child,” and “flesh and blood,” but never as “son” or “daughter”. I remember that, when I’d read it, I had assumed it was done to emphasize how important the familial connection was, even though Chris’s body was just lying in a “cradle” basically on life support. In my mind, it was simply an acknowledgment that even though in earlier scenes the parents used Chris as “a political prop (the father is trying to run for Senate),” in this scene, the father wanted to acknowledge that Chris was more than that.
In another scene, when Chris invites people into the Batcave, Agent Vann says, ” so that’s what you look like.” But even that isn’t in any way an explanation of gender.
It did blow my mind, but it also illustrates how masterfully this book is written that it never occurred to me to think about such a thing. The main character was real for me even though I had no idea of its gender. It was unnecessary! And that is sort of an important message for our world right now. We have to stop seeing people as just their outer selves, which is something I’ve been saying for a while now.
It was why I wasn’t so sure that the idolization of Caitlyn Jenner was a good thing… however long ago that was. We spend so much time trying to make sure that people fit their roles that when someone tries to break out of their designated role (in this case gender), we make them into a spectacle.
This book does a really good job of not making a spectacle of such things. There’s even a male character who at one point beams himself into a female. Not a female threep, but an actual female person.
There’s where it gets a little sci-fi again. This disease started out with flu-like symptoms. Then in most victims, it morphed into something more like spinal meningitis before it locks them into their bodies. For the people that were able to recover at that stage, their brains were altered, but not to the same extent. In those people (a very small percentage), they now have the ability to carry the consciousness of Hadens in their mind. They are called “Integrators.”
I promise it isn’t as disturbing when you read it in context…
Agent Vann is one of those people, but she couldn’t hack it. It was never comfortable for her, and she began drinking, smoking, and fornicating a lot.
Anyway, the book has so many angles and connections that I could go on forever about it. It stimulated my mind in a way that I haven’t been stimulated by a book in a while (or by much of anything/anyone, really). I managed to make my way through it in 3 days, even with lesson plans and my own writing and trying to play catch up from my own case of the flu…
No sign of meningitis yet, so I don’t think this book is prophetic in any way, but if I start to show signs, you better believe I’ll be freaking out!
If I haven’t totally scared you away with the science stuff, do take the time to read this book. One of the guys in my new book club says it’s supposed to be coming out as a movie soon. When I try to Google it, I find that people have been saying that for a while, but I would definitely go and see it if such a thing comes to pass!
I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, and I stand by that rating. I love Scalzi’s writing style, and I was in awe of the way he was able to capture some current day issues in such an interesting future. Yes, I know I just said there wasn’t really any prophecy in this book, but it definitely touches on prejudice in such a way that anyone from a marginalized minority group can identify. Plus (as someone from my book club pointed out), it shows just how quickly the tide can turn and someone from a safe majority group can become part of the marginalized minority suffering from discrimination.
If you read it (or have already read it), be sure to get a conversation going in the comments. I’d like to hear what insights I missed, or that people feel should have been included here.