Lock In is a near-future sci-fi mystery novel from John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work for years, and he has a penchant for tightly plotted, compelling mysteries – as with this year’s excellent “The Dispatcher”.
The world of Lock In should be reasonably familiar. People are still bipeds. The political systems we’re familiar with are still holding sway. The US still has a President. People still drive from place to place. There’s still coffee, bars, and mega-corporations. Sure, the cars are now self-driving, and the coffee places have a well-targeted marketing mechanism, but the people are. In the end, still people.
But the world has also changed. A global epidemic has left a small significant proportion of the global population ‘locked in’; paralysed but cognisant, unable to communicate with the outside world. That’s where the sci-fi comes in. Scalzi gives us neural interfaces, virtual worlds, and bodies which the locked in can hop into. It’s a world where, at least in the US, there’s an awareness of a certain kind of disability, an amelioration, and a well portrayed cultural adaption to that fact. The locked in, by virtue of their numbers, have become a minority demographic – one that acts under assistance and prejudice in equal measure. There’s echoes of the civil rights struggle here, and stronger reverberations for the prejudice that the disabled face daily. This is a society which is handling seismic shift in how its population is structured – and stumbling, well meaning, toward an uncertain end goal. Quite what the status quo will be is not yet defined – and that liquidity, that lack of social definition, makes for an intriguing and compelling world.
The characters – well, our central duo are familiar in the tropes of the mystery genre – a rookie detective and his more experienced, emotionally wounded partner.
The former, Chris, is also locked-in. They’re relatively well off, earnest, and intellectually curious. There’s enough self-awareness of privilege there not to make Chris a chore to read, and their intelligence and focus means that the reader can follow along with their analysis easily enough. There’s some focus on getting through things by the book, a degree of caution at the start of the text, wrapped around a lack of confidence. What’s driving Chris, the need to be distinct from their family whilst also being a part of it, is sketches out in the emotional reactions within the text – the relationships are convincing, complicated, and occasionally startling – as with any family.
Chris’s partner is another matter. Older, a veteran of the FBI, she’s both familiar with how things work, and perhaps more than a little cynical about the fact that they work at all. She’s dry, wry, and obviously ferociously clever. That she’s also a survivor – well, that’s inherent in her attitude, from the first moment. Quite what experiences have transformed her – well, those we learn alongside Chris. But I can say that this is not a book which backs away from emotional heft for its characters. They have their issues, and those issues make sense within their own context – but they’re also raw and human.
There’s a slew of supporting cast of course, from Chris’s room-mates, to their family, from victims to suspects. What ties them together is that each gets enough depth to be convincing. We don’t see much of the room-mates say, or of the CEO of a large technology corporation – but when we do, their motives, their meanings, and their humanity are no less clear. The main cast have greater room to manoeuvre, but it’s nice to see the support given enough depth to be convincing.
The plot – well, no spoilers. It’s a techno-thriller, with additional sci-fi elements. It opens with a murder investigation, and suggests links to larger issues. The plotting is tight and convincing. If I wasn’t always a step ahead of our investigators, I was certainly looking at the evidence alongside of them. The central investigation is tense and well-paced – with sufficient evidence produced for the reader that they can work with the characters. There’s some marvellously explosive action as well, though it tends to come with undisguised consequences. Both the more explosive moments and the investigation work within the larger social tapestry of the world - with a consistent internal logic and a cracking conclusion.
If you’re in the market for an inventive, imaginative sci-fi mystery, then this is probably the book for you.