One of the cool things about writing speculative fiction is building a world out of a neat “what if?” idea and playing around in it. John Scalzi did that with Lock In. Set in a world where a chunk of the population has succumb to Haden’s Syndrome – a disease that leaves them “locked in” their body, unable to move but with functional brains – Lock In used a fairly standard buddy cop storyline to play out the ramifications. The story was secondary to learning how the main character, FBI agent (and intentionally ungendered) Chris Shane, and their fellow Hadens interacted with each other and the rest of the world. I couldn’t even tell you what the central mystery was and still really liked it.
Head On is a sequel to Lock In, but it’s dubbed a “standalone followup.” Having read Lock In certainly helps understand the background of the story, but newbies should be able to jump right in, and maybe they should. With my feet firmly on the ground in the world of Head On right from the jump the story came to the fore and, sadly, it wasn’t that interesting.
The milieu for it is, though. Head On revolves around an ultraviolent sport called hilketa (SP?), in which specially crafted versions of the threeps (aka “3P0” – get it?) batter each other with the objective of ripping a particular player’s head off and using it to score a goal. It’s like rugby or gridiron football without any of the problems with head injuries, since there aren’t actual humans on the field playing the game.
Nonetheless, when one hilketa player dies during a preseason game, it swings Shane and his (non-Haden) partner into action to untangle a convoluted web of deceit and murder. Diving into that mystery allows Scalzi to explore some interesting things. The most mundane may be the impact of big money and expansion in sports, but there’s also more world-specific questions like what “performance enhancing” drugs mean for people who play a sport without their body. Most compelling is how all this is impacted by the United States government’s withdrawal of financial support for Hadens (helped, it’s more than implied, by corporations pushing the edges of the law too far). Also, there’s a cat with an interesting bauble on its collar.
But I find these background things, or sideways highlights of the Hadens world, much more interesting than the actual detective story. Shane and their partner are your typical fictional cops – always pushing boundaries, but always getting the bad person, so it’s OK. This time, particularly, that none of the several lawyers in the book are even decent people, much less competent. I was particularly disappointed that Scalzi reuses the stereotype of the public defender as an out of their depth idiot, rather than a dedicated, smart, hard working advocate stuck in a system that criminal underfunds them. To his credit, the actual solution to the mystery of the hilketa player’s death is sadly plausible for 21st Century America.
Oddly, part of what I think kept me from fully engaging with Head On is that it’s so short. The version I listened to (in keeping with the ungendered main character, there are separate audiobook versions read by Will Wheaton and Amber Benson – I listened to Wheaton’s) was barely seven-and-a-half hours long. The book moves at a brisk pace – the trademark Scalzi smart assess are present in all their glory (a good thing!) – and doesn’t really make room for anything that doesn’t drive the plot along. The decision to “lock in” the point of view on Chris, I think, limits things a bit too much. I think if I’d known more about the other people in this world I’d have cared more about the mystery in which they were wrapped up.
If that sounds negative, I don’t really mean it to be. Head On is a quick, interesting, fun read, but I don’t think it does much to improve on its predecessor. My hope is that in a future book Scalzi breaks from the crime story mold and tells some other stories about Hadens. He could bring Shane along for the ride, although it would probably help if they were knocked down a few pegs (in addition to being an FBI agent Shane is the son of a fabulously wealthy ex-NBA superstar – he’s got power and money, in other words). Regardless, I’ll probably check that one out, too.