John Scalzi has become a writer who never really needs to step out of his comfort zone, because he's figured out a way simply to take his comfort zone with him no matter which genre of fiction he's chosen to write, installing himself in it with seemingly little effort. In Lock In, Scalzi steps away from the grand space opera tradition in which he's made his name to undertake a near future political crime thriller. The plot, involving murder, politics, and conspiracy carried out at a Blofeld level of skullduggery, would be utterly conventional stuff were it not rooted in a sublime SF premise and backstory that Scalzi has thought through and executed to his usual high standards of detail and his understanding of social, political and economic realities.
Sometime in the near-nowish, the world has been devastated by a flu-like plague that has come to be called Haden's Syndrome, after its most high-profile victim, the First Lady of the United States. Some who did not die from the first wave — and over a billion did, globally — eventually suffered "lock in," a condition (which really exists) in which an alert and conscious mind is trapped in a completely paralyzed and non-functioning body. In the hands of any lesser writer, the plague may simply have served as the device to launch a grim story of survival or triumph of the spirit, or some similar tosh. But Scalzi, as always with his finger on the pulse of human events, has understood and conveyed the full sociopolitical ramifications of such an outbreak.
The rush to discover, if not a cure, a way to reintegrate Hadens (as sufferers of the disease are called) into society and give them their lives back has led to the development of inconceivably advanced neural net technology. This allows locked in Hadens to trasmit their consciousnesses into either robot avatars (called Threeps), or, in rare cases, into other human beings called Integrators, Haden survivors themselves who, having managed to avoid being locked in, have neural nets of their own implanted allowing Haden clients to ride shotgun in their brains. But some Hadens, who were struck down and locked in by the disease from childhood (or even in utero), have never had the experience of living in the physical world, and don't see much need for it. In the Agora, a virtual environment, they can live and interact in any manner they choose. They don't see themselves as afflicted by anything. They are just a new kind of human, living life in a new way.
All of this is backstory, and it's the best part of the book.
The plot itself gets underway with the investigation of a suspicious death in Washington's Watergate Hotel. (After all, why set a story like this in the nations' capital if you aren't going to pay homage to its most famous crime scene?) The investigators are rookie FBI agent Chris Shane, a Threep-riding Haden who's the son of one of the most famous sports heroes in the country, and who, as a child, became one of the most visible public faces of the disease thanks to a photo op with the pope. In order to get out of the public eye and live down his reputation as a child of privilege, he's become an FBI agent, which is something you'd only see someone like him do in a novel. His partner is jaded ex-Integrator Leslie Vann, whose shoot-from-the-hip professional insouciance compensates for deep personal scars. Together, the two of them begin to piece together a potentially devastating large-scale criminal plot from this one suspicious death, one that could cause nationwide social turmoil and wide-ranging economic and political fallout.
The crime story is wildly enjoyable, though again, mostly for its SFnal elements, which elevate the whole. In truth, Lock In could be described as a novel in which the imaginative riches of one genre, SF, serve to boost the conventions of the other, the political crime thriller. What emerges is the kind of book a young Crichton might have delivered in his Andromeda Strain heyday. Experienced readers of thrillers will probably not find the ultimate identity of the story's shadowy villain to be much of a shocking or surprising reveal. Likewise, like so many crime stories, it's dialogue heavy, with said villain having that the-jig-is-up moment at the climax where he explains all of his plans and motives in a dialogue dump. At least he doesn't whinge about nearly getting away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids.
What stands out are the little moments of Scalzi wit, which shine not only in his dialogue — Scalzi's dialogue is, to be honest, becoming as stylistically distinctive to him as David Mamet's is to Mamet — but in the way he has fun with the future he's created. Shane's use of Threeps means he can travel across the country instantly to follow leads in different cities. Sometimes local police departments haven't kept their Threeps in good shape, so Shane has to grab a rental.
But what impresses the most is the way Scalzi has here dialed down his usual penchant for big emotional crescendos of the kind that books like Zoe's Tale and especially Redshirts thrived upon. Yet Lock In is no less emotionally affecting when it needs to be. Sure, Vann is the de rigeur hard-done-by cop, but Scalzi is extremely sensitive in relating the unfortunate story of the dead young man whose body was found in the Watergate, and whose death triggers all subsequent events. In some of his most delicate storytelling to date, Scalzi conveys the quiet dignity of the simple common man whom the privileged and powerful feel they can use and discard like trash, with heartless impunity. At such deeply touching human moments as these, in John Scalzi's hands, even the most earthbound genre narrative can turn into something that soars.