Front cover of John Scalzi's novel, Lock In. The cover is white with small figurines of people in white and red standing randomly around the cover. The author's name and the book title are centered on the cover.
health history pragmatic historian reading

Can’t Get Scalzi’s Lock In Series Out of My Mind

My book reading pace has not slowed this year. So far, I’ve read fourteen-and-a-half books, and we’re not even half-way through the year. It’s like I’m playing catch-up on the low-reading years or something.

It helps that I’m reading mostly fiction, which I tend to read faster than nonfiction. I’ve also continued on my John Scalzi book binge, which I wrote about last month.

Since then, I have read the first two books in Scalzi’s “Lock In” series, which features two FBI agents who survived the pandemic that led to Haden’s syndrome, a condition that left people paralyzed but fully conscious of what was going on around them.

The novels take place about 25 years after the onset of the pandemic. When the U.S. President’s wife, Margie Haden, for whom the syndrome is named, becomes paralyzed by the disease, the President mobilizes all resources to find a way to cure the paralysis. Instead of curing it, a few technological solutions help release people locked in their bodies.

Using neurological implants, those with Haden’s can live within a virtual world called the Agora. They can also use Integrators, people who survived the pandemic but whose brains were altered in a way that those with Haden’s can insert their consciousness inside an Integrator’s body, using it to move around in the world. Or, Hadens can inhabit a “threep,” which is basically a robotic body.

Chris Shane, one of the FBI agents, is a Haden who uses threeps while his body is cared for in his parents’ home. He and his partner, the no-nonsense Leslie Vann, are part of Haden affairs unit, so they handle Haden-related crimes.

There are three books in the series, “Lock In,” “Unlocked,” and “Head On.”

Front cover of John Scalzi's novel, Lock In. The cover is white with small figurines of people in white and red standing randomly around the cover. The author's name and the book title are centered on the cover.
Front cover of John Scalzi’s novel, Lock In. The cover is white with small figurines of people in white and red standing randomly around the cover. The author’s name and the book title are centered on the cover.

 

Cover of John Scalzi's book "Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome." The background is light gray, with a giant keyhole shape behind the author's name and title. Beneath the keyhole are tiny silhouettes of people.
Cover of John Scalzi’s book “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome.” The background is light gray, with a giant keyhole shape behind the author’s name and title. Beneath the keyhole are tiny silhouettes of people.

 

Book cover, "Head On: A Novel of the Near Future" by John Scalzi. The cover has a black background. John Scalzi appear in large gray letters, with Head On in red letters beneath the author's name. Above the name is a white circle, meant to be a stylized head. Beneath the name and title is a stylized white body. Photo by Mary Warner, March 21, 2024.
Book cover, “Head On: A Novel of the Near Future” by John Scalzi. The cover has a black background. John Scalzi appear in large gray letters, with Head On in red letters beneath the author’s name. Above the name is a white circle, meant to be a stylized head. Beneath the name and title is a stylized white body. Photo by Mary Warner, March 21, 2024.

I inadvertently read them out of order, starting with “Head On,” but the books are written so that they don’t need to be read in order.

These are primarily crime novels, but they are unique in that they are set within a backdrop of the effects of a pandemic, with the main characters having been seriously affected by that pandemic. Scalzi does an excellent job of weaving in issues that those with disabilities face every day, from the looks Hadens get while in their threeps to the lack of access to functional equipment to the treatment those with resources get versus those who are low income. (Chris Shane’s family is wealthy, which allows Scalzi to explore these access issues.)

In addition, Scalzi tackles policy related to pandemic funding. When the President’s wife gets Haden’s, the federal government pours money into the effort to find a vaccine and help those who become paralyzed. The President in Scalzi’s novel is a Republican, who loves his wife so much that he’s willing to set aside the conservative aversion to spending government money on social causes. Twenty-five years later, politicians are no longer inclined to spend tax money on Haden’s and the Abrams-Kettering bill passes that puts a stop to that investment. Yes, Scalzi even provides a name for the bill, and you can just imagine the two politicians it’s named for.

Here’s what blows me away about this series. The first two books were published in 2014, six years before Covid hit. The third was published in 2018. Both “Lock In” and “Head On” have the subtitle, “A Novel of the Near Future.” And I can’t help but think how prophetic these novels were. No, Covid did not lock people in their minds, but it did kill millions of people, just like the disease that caused Haden’s.

Reading portions of “Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome” enhances the feeling that the books predicted some of what happened with Covid.

Like this passage from “Unlocked”:

“What bothers me after twenty-five years is that we still don’t have an effective vaccine. We still don’t have a cure. What we have are established protocols for locking down the spread of the virus when it surfaces, and a whole array of therapeutic machines to mitigate the effects of lock in. We can’t stop the disease. We just make it less awful when it happens.”

While we have vaccines for Covid, they don’t stop the disease from circulating and mutating. The vaccines help to keep us from getting a serious case of Covid that leads to death or long Covid, which is great, but we’re now stuck with managing outbreaks of the disease and getting annual vaccines for the long term.

There’s so much more in these novels that parallels what we’ve gone through with Covid and past pandemics, like polio, that I can’t stop mulling them over. As a historian, I’m also fond of Scalzi’s use of the oral history format to tell part of the story of Haden’s. It’s an effective device for fiction.

If you’re looking for fast-moving crime novels with a deeper message than just solving the crime, check out the Lock In series from John Scalzi.

Thoughtful comments welcome.