John Scalzi is known for his witty science fiction thrillers. Old Man & # 39; s War and its sequels are his version of military science fiction, while last year's Collapsing Empire was a new foray into space opera. His latest novel Head On is a techno thriller that involves robotic sports leagues and murder, and is a book that is particularly relevant in our own technological world.
Some spoilers later for Head On.
Head On is the sequel to Scalzi's thriller, Lock In, and a companion novel, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden & # 39; s Syndrome. In each one, it presents readers with a world that has experienced a medical catastrophe: a flu pandemic infected and killed millions of people around the world and left some survivors with Haden Syndrome, a condition that left them "locked up" "in their bodies. They were alive, but they could not move or interact with their surroundings. The US government UU He started an important initiative to help rehabilitate these survivors, known as Hadens, developing neural networks that allowed them to interact with robotic bodies called Threeps (nicknamed C-3PO of Star Wars), virtual worlds and people called integrators, whom Hadens can take control and remotely pilot.
In Lock In, Scalzi introduced readers to Chris Shane, a Haden FBI agent who partnered with Leslie Vann. The couple investigates the murder of an integrator, which led to a larger conspiracy. In Head On, the couple is once again tasked with investigating the death of a Haden athlete named Duane Chapman. Chapman is a player in an emerging sport known as Hilketa, in which players fly specially designed robotic bodies and try to cut off the head of a randomly selected opponent. His death is a blow to the new sport, which tries to jump to the world stage. While Shane and Vann investigate the death of the athlete, they find a variety of suspects and ultimately lead them to a full-blown conspiracy involving shadow organizations and the future of the same Hilketa league.
Image: Tor Books
Scalzi never reveals Shane's genre, reasoning that it would be difficult to distinguish him in robotic bodies, and also saying that Hadens could effectively control how they look in the outside world. Since then, Audible has released a couple of audiobook editions, each with a different narrator, Amber Benson and Wil Wheaton.
The novel is a fascinating and fast mystery, similar to the robot novels of Isaac Asimov. Scalzi takes readers through the logical steps of investigation regarding the death of Chapman, putting together a larger conspiracy based on organized crime, money laundering and more. While the book is a fun diversion, it is also an intriguing addition to the world that Scalzi established in Lock In, and serves as a good parable of how the world treats, and takes advantage of, marginalized communities.
Scalzi & # 39; s Unlocked introduced and defined the background story of this world and the political backgrounds that have shaped the world by meeting the characters of Lock In. After the initiative to launch the moon that helped develop the technology that allows (and ultimately subsidizes) Haden's medical care, a bill called Abrams-Kettering Bill resorts to that care, ultimately driving the action both in Lock In as Head On. As a result, Head On is very much a book about involuntary consequences. The introduction of Threeps and virtual spaces for Hadens brings with it the emergence of a unique community of individuals with a shared and semi-protected experience of being locked in their bodies. The backlash in their medical care leads many to try to find a way to survive, including violent sports in which regular humans can not participate literally.
But ordinary people are starting to catch up. The technology that allows Hadens to survive and interact with the world is beginning to become widespread. Non-Hadens wants to enter the virtual worlds and robotic bodies that the Hadens require, and there are protesters in the Hilketa games who complain that they are being discriminated against. As the world begins to change, some of these people are beginning to find ways to take advantage of the situation. Hilketa teams charge non-Hadens a premium price to obtain "premium" features such as Hadens medical readings during games, while another business person wishes to develop a Haden ZipCar service for people (primarily non-Hadens) to use the Three robotic when they are not in use.
In short, Head On is a fun and windy thriller, which shows a world that carries with it some extremely clever comments about some of the real problems we face on our own. This is an instance in which the world seems to be a little more than the sum of its individual parts, and with luck, we have not yet finished with that.