Book Reviews, Literary


<a href="">The Blind Contessa's New Machine</a> Book Cover
The Blind Contessa’s New Machine Fiction Penguin Paperbacks 207

Unable to convince her family and desirable fiancé that she is going blind, early 19th-century Italian contessa Carolina Fantoni turns to her dreams and an eccentric local inventor when she loses her sight, inspiring the inventor’s development of the first typewriter.

THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE has a title that is borne out of necessity. Strictly speaking, it should be called THE BLIND CONTESSA and leave it at that, for Carolina Fantoni is the focus of the book. Her “new machine” — a prototype of what would become the typewriter — is at once peripheral to the story but central to our historical understanding of it. If it were not for Pellegrino Turri’s gadget, designed to help the Contessa Fantoni write letters, their story would have been long forgotten, and gifted author Carey Wallace likely never would have thought to write about it. But it’s not that important to the novel itself.

What is important here is blindness, beauty, dreams, love, and the beauty of the written word. THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE has the hazy lyricism of a summer’s day spent under a shady tree by a cool pond, with the dappled leaves reflecting off the ripples in the water. It invites close concentration in the construction of its sentences, but also rewards a longer view, taking in the rush of words and images at full speed.

Carolina Fantoni is a young woman of the 19th century, enveloped in a richly imagined Italian villa, who is slowly going blind. It starts at the edges and progresses inward, inexorably, like time or tragedy or fate. Carolina tracks her loss of vision by means of a familiar landscape, which disappears, piece by piece, leaf by leaf, tree by tree. By the time it is gone, she is ensorcelled in an arranged marriage with a local landowner who is by turns patronizing and limiting.

Only Turri understands her, and Turri is older, feckless and married. (That Turri comes up with the typewriter at all is a monument to the randomness of ingenuity, as his other scientific activities seem pointless or silly.) The attraction between them is indelible but elastic, and the back-and-forth of their love story is what drives the plot.

But this is not a plot-driven book, or anything like it. It is not really even character-driven, although readers will find great empathy for the stricken Carolina and her plight. It is instead largely a meditation on the beauties of the natural world, as seen from the perspective of the Italian villa. (Those of us who reside in the decayed urban centers of the Northeast, or similarly blighted areas, may appreciate the contrast more than others.)

It is not saying much to point out that an author writes about beautiful things in a beautiful way. It is in the nature of beautiful things to inspire just such a response. What is difficult, and what Wallace has done here, is to write about such things in the context of blindness — to see the things that we love, that are lovely, in the mind’s eye and nowhere else. Wallace’s lush, languorous prose style is perfectly matched for her story, particularly in the scenes where Carolina and her maid pore over the deeply illustrated pages of imaginary books.

THE BLIND CONTESSA’S NEW MACHINE is a small book, but every word brings clarity and focus to the wonder of the world and the people who live in it. If nothing else, it may lead readers to get up from their modern-day typewriter and spend an afternoon reading at the closest shady pond.

Book Reviews, Literary

The Shadow of the Past: Historical Determinism in Modern Literature

A not-review of The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel, and Plan For the Worst, by Jodi Taylor.

Okay, right from the get-go, I have to apologize for the title, which sounds way more pretentious than I have any right to be. Stipulated. And I probably should get kicked out of whatever book-reviewer’s guild that exists for mashing up these two books, which have no real connection to each other than they came out at about the same time, and I was reading them at about the same time, and they both made me think the same thought about historical determinism.

I am also not using the term “historical determinism” in quite the right way, in the way that a historian would use it. In that manner, historical determinism is defined as a “belief that historical processes have a certain inevitability, based on some fundamental factor.” That, I think, is bushwa. It is the idea that, “well, of course Tom Brady engineered that last-minute drive, that’s what he does.” The lawyerly response to that is, “Objection. Assumes facts not in evidence.” Brady has engineered many fourth-quarter drives, but he’s fallen short other times; it’s not inevitable that he will succeed, and the data backs that up. (I am going to stop talking about Tom Brady now.)

No, I am using “historical determinism” in the way that an author writing historical fiction would, to mean that certain events happen in history that can’t be easily ignored or altered. If you are writing historical fiction about, say, the Battle of the Alamo, that historical fiction is going to have Travis and Bonham and Bowie and Crockett breathing their last. You can’t get around that, not even in fiction. The second you start doing that, you’ve either crossed the border into alternative history, or something else fanciful like time-travel literature. Either way, you’ve left historical fiction behind. (One of the great historical novels about the Texas Revolution, Not Between Brothers, by David Marion Wilkinson, illustrates what I am talking about here; his main character has the opportunity to go and fight in the Alamo, and — somewhat uncharacteristically — turns it down, for the fairly understandable reason that doing so would get him killed, and that would end the book too early.)

cover for Roseanne Cash album “She Remembers Everything”

And, really, when you think about it, this sort of falls into the category of that’s too bad. Some years back, the super-talented Rosanne Cash wrote a bit for The New York Times — I looked, but couldn’t find it online — about a songwriting class she was teaching. A student would write a song, and Cash would suggest to them that they change the story of the song around in a different way. And the student would object, on the grounds of that’s not what really happened. The actual, real-life relationship ended in this certain way, and that’s what the song is about; you can’t just change it. And Cash’s response: of course you can. This is songwriting, not autobiography, you can do whatever you want if it makes the story better. But historical fiction doesn’t work that way, and it shouldn’t. And sometimes, from a storytelling perspective, that’s too bad.

The Mirror and the Light, the long-awaited third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, is essentially a long journey towards a known end. Thomas Cromwell, after a long and colorful career, is executed on Tower Hill on July 28, 1540. If this is a spoiler for you for the book, I am very sorry about that, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the trilogy ends with Cromwell’s execution.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC version of WOLF HALL
Rylance is pitch-perfect as Cromwell; I can’t wait to see the next season.

And, not to repeat myself, but that’s too bad. The secret to the three Cromwell books (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are the other two, all highly recommended, as is the BBC presentation featuring Mark Rylance, despite the horrid lighting) is not just that Mantel is a brilliant prose stylist (she most certainly is) but more that her Cromwell is such an amazing character. This line gets quoted in just about every review, but it’s just that revealing:

“He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.”

I mean, you’d want the guy who was running the country to be able to do all that, right? Donald Trump couldn’t do any of that. (Joe Biden might have been able to fix a jury thirty years ago.)

Cromwell, of course, famously, has gotten a bad rap over the centuries as being Henry VIII’s hired thug. As Mantel not only features him in a positive light, but portrays him as much more of a modernist than ever he was, the tag of “historical revisionism” gets attached to the trilogy — Google “hilary mantel revisionist history” and you get 17,000 some-odd results, like this one:

Now, Mantel wants to rescue Cromwell from his bad reputation and tell his story, which is all very well, but she does distort the truth. What we get is a sort of propaganda, just as the 16th-century pro-Protestant Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was. We should think of Wolf Hall as fiction — even if it is entertaining fiction. — Andrew Browne, The Telegraph

Well, of course it’s fiction! Of course! That’s the beauty of fiction, you can write it however you please — even if it’s historical fiction. But what you can’t do is change the essential facts of history, and this is where The Mirror and the Light takes the form of a trap.

What Mantel has done is to create a character that is super-smart and intelligent, with a modernistic, pragmatic, Protestant outlook that is very familiar to the current-day reader, because it may be very much like our own, and endowed him with boundless wit, a good deal of empathy due to his rough upbringing and personal setbacks, and the gift of sprezzatura — the Italian art of making it all look easy. Mantel’s Cromwell has talked himself out of countless other problems; he has survived the machinations of Henry’s court so far, and has settled the hash of countless enemies.

<a href="">The Mirror & the Light</a> Book Cover
The Mirror & the Light Fiction Henry Holt and Company 784

Eagerly awaited and eight years in the making, The Mirror & the Light completes Cromwell’s journey from self-made man to one of the most feared, influential figures of his time. Portrayed by Mantel with pathos and terrific energy, Cromwell is as complex as he is unforgettable: a politician and a fixer, a husband and a father, a man who both defied and defined his age.

And now he has to die. And not, you know, just your ordinary death — he has to be sent to the Tower to die for treason. And this has to happen. There would be, you would think, a hundred ways for someone who is as smart and powerful as Mantel’s Cromwell to avoid this; he can’t use any of them. Historical determinism says, sorry, you’re going to die, there’s no way around it.

From a literary perspective — and Mantel’s work is high-end literary fiction, make no mistake — this is fine. Mantel can get just as much mileage out of a doomed Cromwell, brooding in the Tower, begging an absent and silent Henry for mercy. But from a storytelling perspective, Cromwell’s end falls rather flat. Cromwell doesn’t die of hubris, or nemesis, or even something as simple as a political miscalculation. (I should amend that a bit by saying that treachery plays a role, but a small one.) The one thing that finally costs Cromwell his head — his arrangement for Henry to marry Anne of Cleves — is partly due to matters outside of his control (primarily the impulsive surprise that Henry arranges for their first meeting) and partly due to a seeming reluctance to reverse course. Someone as smart and resourceful as Cromwell, with the experience in managing Henry’s desires would — you would think — be able to recognize the danger and do something about it. But Cromwell doesn’t do that; he can’t. Historical determinism has him by the throat.

Historical determinism shows up in time travel, too, although not under that name. If a time-travel story is being honest with itself, it has to recognize that trifling with elements of the past can lead to disruptions in the future; the fading photograph in Back to the Future is a crude illustration of the basic principle. In the time-travel novels of Connie Willis, no matter how carefully you set your trajectory through the past, a mysterious unknown force called “slippage” keeps you from going to times and places where an unwary or malevolent traveler has the ability to muck up the future for good and all. So even if you wanted to reverse one of history’s great crimes by telling Everson Walls to watch out for the leaping catch at the back of the end zone, you can’t. Even if you tried going to Candlestick Park on that fateful day, your time machine would drop you off ten minutes late in Winslow, Arizona.

And that’s too bad.

So the second book I am talking about in this little essay is by one of my personal heroes, a Brit named Jodie Taylor, who started out in self-publishing and made good. She is best known for a very long, involved and rambling series that takes the basic Connie Willis formula and cross-breeds it with Terry Pratchett. The St. Mary’s books (set in a future but very familiar England) involve the antics of what Taylor is pleased to constantly refer to as “tea-sodden disaster magnets,” who — despite what we are constantly told is careful planning — have a track record of stumbling into dangerous historical situations and then running away from them for dear life.

Taylor’s approach to the dictates of capital-H History is similar to Willis’s, but is both more and less mystical. If you go back in time and foul up history in Taylor’s world, one of two things will happen. First, you won’t be able to, in that capital-H History will make sure that you don’t. Somehow. And if that isn’t enough to settle your hash, Taylor invents an even farther-future institution known as the Time Police, who will be more than happy to ruin your entire day for you.

How this works is open not only to interpretation but to the demands of the plot. It is okay (to use an example from this installment) to go back and tour the Tower of London to get a glimpse of the Princes in the Tower, before their mysterious disappearance. That you can do, as long as you take precautions. You can even surreptitiously film them, for historical reference. But if you actively try to change history, then History will retaliate, unless the Time Police get you first. (This is slightly more coherent than other variants on the same principle — like “Quantum Leap,” which allowed for small-scale changes authorized by, well, basically, God, or “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which allows one of its lead characters to basically rewrite history in favor of his friends.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, the entire structure of Plan For the Worst is tied closely to the idea of historical determinism. In Taylor’s case, this results in the characters making bad and wrong decisions because that is what they believe that they are supposed to do at the time. And the only reason that this doesn’t blow up spectacularly in the faces of the characters is that, yup, what they do was exactly what they had done in the past of characters on other timelines. (If this is confusing, then I am sorry about that.)

What I want to do with this little not-review is to not so much critique either book (The Mirror and the Light is perfectly well-done; Plan For the Worst is consistent with the rest of the series, which means that it balances out the silly elements with solid history and tightly-written action scenes) but to point out historical determinism as something for writers to watch out for, and to plan for. If you know something is coming your way as a historical inevitability, best to plan your way around it without having to disturb the fabric of history more than is strictly necessary.

Book Reviews, Literary

Bill James, Dave Kingman, and “The Man from the Train.”

This is a not-review of THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James. (I do not for one minute want to discount the role of Rachel McCarthy James in writing this book, but the book is delivered in Bill James’s inimitable voice, and so I’m going to primarily focus on him, okay?) This is a not-review, because I’m focusing not so much on the book itself, which is (necessarily) repetitive, badly disorganized, and focuses on truly awful carnage. I want to focus on the big idea in the book, which is behavioral analysis. It’s a simple enough term; behavioral analysis focuses on what people do, and not the reasons behind what they do, or their justifications or excuses for why people do what they do.

All I am saying is that the font size for Bill’s name is a lot bigger for a reason.

James uses the super-extreme example of a person he identifies as “The Man from the Train,” who James suspects of killing hundreds of people across America in the early years of the twentieth century by breaking into their houses and bashing their skulls in with the blunt end of an ax. Okay, so that’s a behavior. We’re doing behavioral analysis, so we’re looking at what this guy does, not what sick, perverted fantasies drive him to do this.

But you know, as much as you might enjoy reading about The Man from the Train, the whole thing gets so gruesome so quickly that talking about it is kind of tiresome, and if you’ve read the book, you’re likely sick of it, and if you haven’t, you’ve got a lot of stories about kids getting their faces smashed in ahead of you, so instead let’s talk about Dave Kingman.

This guy. Not some other Dave Kingman, Just so we’re clear.

Why Dave Kingman? Well, The Man from the Train was a strong guy who roamed around the country hitting people with an ax; Dave Kingman was a strong guy who traveled around the country destroying baseballs with baseball bats. It’s a thin connection, but I’m going with it. Anyway, it’s a lot more fun talking about Dave Kingman.

The important thing in behavioral analysis is understanding what a trait is and what a behavior is. Dave Kingman was a guy who played baseball a lot differently from most people, and he was a guy who had a lot of traits, and those traits get used to explain his behavior a lot. Example:

And in New York the much-publicized Dave Kingman character came out — here was the moody Kingman who swung hard at everything, who almost never walked, who pulled everything, who hit 500-foot home runs and 325-foot pop-ups, who ran the bases like a child coming in for dinner, who played defense not just poorly but with utter disdain. — Joe Posnanski, Sports Illustrated, 2008

So some of that is traits: “moody” is a trait, “disdain” is a trait. Wanting to hit every ball that you see 500 feet is a trait; it ties in with impatience and maybe being a little bit of a glory hound. But a lot of these are behaviors; swinging at everything is a behavior, no matter why Kingman did it, playing defense poorly is a behavior.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about. Charlie Brown misses the catch because of his traits, right? But all the official scorer cares about is his behavior — that he dropped the ball. (Baseball, you understand, is the sport that counts your errors, and punishes you for them in the box score.)

One reason why baseball is such a great game is that it melds traits and behaviors. We are attracted to baseball partly because it’s a narrative sport that incorporates the traits of the players — the struggling pitcher who makes good on the game’s biggest stage, the slugger who comes through in the bottom of the ninth, the slick-fielding rookie who turns heads making an impossible double play. But it’s also the most behavioral and analytical of the sports, where everything anyone does is documented and available for analysis. It appeals to the half of our brain that loves stories and the half of our brain that loves numbers.

So when we go to the great and noble Baseball Reference and look up Dave Kingman, you get

.236 BA, .302 OPB, .478 SLG, 442 HR, 1210 RBI, 1816 Ks.

Okay, you can look at those numbers (assuming you know what the numbers mean) and say, “Yeah, that looks like Dave Kingman.” A lot of power — 442 career home runs — but a lot more strikeouts, and a lousy batting average and on-base percentage. That tells you a lot about Kingman’s behaviors — he swung a lot, and missed a lot, but when he connected, the ball went over the fence.

James makes the point that we knew a lot about ballplayers like Kingman at the time, but we know even more about them now, because we have access to the sort of advanced statistical tools that James and others invented. We know more about Kingman than his contemporaries did — we know information about Kingman that he never knew about himself, information that’s only available through modern insights like Value Over Replacement Player statistics, or through the application of modern information technology analytical tools.

So the question in THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is, well, we have technology and analytics at our disposal now. Can we go back and look at the data that they had then, re-evaluate it, and come up with a recognizable pattern? And once we have that pattern, can we reverse-engineer it to find our serial killer?

To give you an idea about what’s involved, let’s try a thought experiment. I am going to give you the statistics of three players from the 1979 Chicago Cubs; you tell me which of them is Dave Kingman:

Player A: .288 BA, 48 HR, 115 RBI, 131 K
Player B: .272 BA, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 85 K
Player C: .284 BA, 14 HR, 66 RBI, 28 K

Which one is it? It isn’t a trick question; Player A is Kingman. (Player B is Jerry Martin, Player C is Bill Buckner.)

Right? I mean, this is obviously Kingman, you can tell from the high levels of home runs and strikeouts. This was Kingman’s career year; his batting average was fifty points over his career average, and somehow he drew 45 walks, third on the team behind Ivan de Jesus and Steve Ontiveros . (This may be a function of intentional walks, though.) So far, so good, we can find a set of behaviors in a specific year that lines up well with Kingman’s known behaviors.

So what we’ve shown so far is that we can pick Kingman, basically, out of a lineup. Let’s try again. 1976 Mets:

Player A: .238 BA, 37 HR, 86 RBI, 135 K
Player B: .292 BA, 10 HR, 49 RBI, 38 K
Player C: .306 BA, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 35 K

Again, super-easy. Player A is Kingman, Player B is Ed Kranepool, Player C is Joe Torre. This is maybe a little easier because, well, there weren’t any other players with power on the 1976 Mets; Kingman tallied over a third of the team’s home runs by himself.

Well then. 1973 Giants:

Player A: .283 BA, 39 HR, 96 RBI, 148 K
Player B: .203 BA, 24 HR, 55 RBI, 122 SO
Player C: .319 BA, 11 HR, 76 RBI, 73 SO

Did you say Player A? Those certainly look like Kingman-level statistics, but in fact they are not; that’s what Bobby Bonds did for the Giants that year. Kingman is Player B, and Garry Maddox is Player C. Kingman still has a low batting average and a few home runs, and a ton of strikeouts, but Bonds showed a lot more power that year. This doesn’t invalidate the process, mind you; it just shows that we need to be careful.

Another important note; context here is super-important. If you take Kingman out of the baseball context, and just posit him as someone who travels the country like Jack Reacher, well, his travel pattern looks pretty odd. He starts out in San Francisco, on the National League circuit, and then a few years later shows up in New York, and then there’s the one year where he ends up playing for four different teams, one of them being the Yankees for some reason. And then he goes to Chicago, and then back to the Mets, and then Oakland. If you look at what’s basically fifteen years of travel plans without knowing that Kingman was a baseball player, you’d have thought that he was a traveling salesman. (The Man from the Train has his own pattern of peregrination, one that James explains as being consistent with his supposed job as a logger, or miner.)

The job that James has in working backwards on finding instances where The Man from the Train smashed people over the head with an ax is (as he explains) quite a bit easier. There are a lot of people playing big-league baseball at any one point in time; there are not a lot of people who go around murdering families in their beds — so there’s less statistical noise to look at. We’re looking at Kingman exhibiting only a few behaviors (striking out a lot, hitting home runs, not walking, not stealing bases). James has identified thirty some-odd key behaviors related to The Man from the Train, ranging from the time of day of the attacks to covering up mirrors in the house with cloth for some reason. (I will warn you that you will know far, far too much about the signature behaviors of the Man from the Train by the end of the book.)

James is using the book, I think, to make three key points:

  1. Illustrating the power of modern analytical tools — in this case, online databases of old newspapers. This allows Bill and Rachel (mostly Rachel, one suspects) to go through and find data on crimes from over a hundred years ago and link them to their behavioral profile of The Man from The Train — informational tools that weren’t available to local law enforcement (what there was of it) at the time. However, when you’re dealing with press coverage from a hundred years ago… you’re dealing with press coverage from a hundred years ago. Most of it is incomplete, a lot of it is biased, and a good bit of it is just as racist as it could possibly be.
  2. Illustrating the power of behavioral analysis. James has, essentially, made a career out of this, pointing out that a lot of the things that “everybody knows” about baseball isn’t based on behavioral evidence. To the extent that THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is focused just on the killer’s behaviors, it’s an excellent read. But (as I just said) the record he is looking at is necessarily incomplete, and James, for the sake of narrative coherence, is always throwing in suppositions about the killer’s state of mind; why he did this-and-that instead of thus-and-so, whether he liked cold weather or not, stuff that is just pure conjecture. I think that this, up to a point, is kind of necessary and unavoidable — we can’t help but impose narratives on chaos, it’s what we do. (James even says at one point, hey, you can have conjecture, or you can have nothing.) But it’s a contradictory approach, and it can make for a frustrating read.
  3. In kind of a backhanded way, THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN is about the limits of behavioral analysis. The only way that this book works is because the Man from the Train has a) behaviors that get documented in the newspapers, which in turn got archived; b) behaviors that are on the extreme edge of human experience; c) rather a lot of very distinctive, idiosyncratic behaviors that are easily identifiable and d) a lot of specific data points to look at. But even then — even with a highly organized serial killer with very specific behaviors — there’s a certain level of inconsistency about the whole thing.

It is this third thing that bugs me the most about THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, and I think it will bother most readers. James spends half the entire book setting up this laundry list of behaviors exhibited by his killer, and then has to spend the other half of the book explaining away inconsistencies. At first, this was kind of maddening. The Man from the Train kills people who lives near railroads — except for this one family who lived in Alabama, far from the railroad. The Man from the Train kills families with prepubescent girls — except for the times that he doesn’t. The Man from the Train kills people in small towns, except for the one time he killed those people in San Antonio, so we have to explain that away, too.

(Come to think of it, this is largely the plot of GRANT, the Ron Chernow biography, where Chernow spends half the book trying to figure out whether a certain time in General Grant’s life coincides with his usual behavioral pattern of alcoholic binges. That got repetitive, too.)

The key to understanding this is that the Man from the Train had just so many of these behaviors — James counts thirty or so — and, well, even if you have thirty personally idiosyncratic behaviors, you don’t do them all every day, do you? There’s always some inconsistency. And people change — the Man from the Train changes his pattern over time, moving out of the Southeast and killing people in the Midwest and Northwest.

Like I said, this is an un-review, and I am not going to do the thing you do in book reviews where I tell you to read the book or not. You make the call. I did not enjoy THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN, but it was a book that I had to wrestle with a good deal, and it’s always a good idea to read books like that from time to time. (I liked POPULAR CRIME a good deal more, despite James’s insistence that President Kennedy was shot by accident by a Secret Service agent, which would be a trillion-to-one coincidence — a shot that the agent probably couldn’t make if he tried.) If you find James’s signature barstool know-it-all ratchetmouth style unappealing, go read something else.

Book Reviews, Literary

LOCK IN, by John Scalzi — the “Horrifying Scenario” Analysis

This is not a book review. I wanted to do a book review for Lock In, by John Scalzi, which is a book that I both think very highly of, on one hand, and which I also think has a couple of serious flaws. The problem is that I try to write book reviews without giving away plot spoilers, and I can’t talk about the single biggest flaw in Lock In without giving away the big spoiler in the book. So this isn’t a book review; it can’t be.

What I decided to write instead of a book review is to talk about the world of Lock In and the (largely unstated) horrifying consequences that would ensue from such a world. This approach assumes that you’ve either read Lock In or are at least willing to listen to a brief synopsis of the plot. WARNING: This discussion contains major spoilers for Lock In. Please do NOT read this if you have any intention of reading the book at a future point.

Horrifying Scenario #1: The Experience Machine

In Lock In, a significant minority of Americans–Scalzi likens it to the population of Kentucky–experience “lock in” as a result of a mutated flu virus that attacks people’s brains. Individuals affected with the “Haden” virus cannot move or blink or even scratch where it itches, which does not sound good. The scope of the Haden infection is so vast that the government spends a trillion dollars on research-and-development to consider what can be done to mitigate the suffering of the locked-in.

What the research comes up with is a four-fold system. First, a surgeon cracks open your head and installs a new neural network (complete with tentacles) that interfaces with your brain. (Scalzi tells us that this can be installed in the brains of the very young, although you’d think that would mess with normal brain development.) The network then transmits your consciousness to your choice of outlets. You can access “The Agora,” which is described as a “three-dimensional social network,” which doesn’t mean anything except pointing out how two-dimensional current social networks are. You can transfer your consciousness to a big clanky robot, colloquially known as a “threep.” Or, you can interface with an “Integrator,” someone who was infected with the Haden virus but not locked-in, who has a similar neural network and is not doing anything on Saturday and is happy to let you use their bodies for a couple of hours for cash.

Each of these aspects of the system has its own horrifying scenarios, but the most philosophical of them deal with the concept of “The Agora.” Scalzi does almost nothing to explain “The Agora,” classifying it all as it’s-a-Haden-thing-you-wouldn’t-understand. Very well then. This leaves the reader free to imagine what it’s like, and what it’s like is probably something close to the Experience Machine. Wikipedia:

[Harvard professor Robert] Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person’s brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?

The classic response to this is “no,” or at least “not permanently.” But this is from people who are capable of both being able to respond and to scratch that place behind their knee. Would somebody who was totally locked in want to spend at least some part of their day in an Experience Machine? The answer, unsurprisingly, is HELL and YES.

That positive response is reinforced by two other factors. First, “The Agora” is superior to the Experience Machine in that the Experience Machine is a solo endeavor and “The Agora” seems to be more social, so there’s that. Second, at the end of the book, the protagonist announces a plan to set up a competing version of “The Agora” free from government control, which could make it even more awesome (i.e., free of censorship).

So why is this horrifying?

Scalzi makes the point that the Haden economy is dependent on dwindling government largess, and has to be offset by tax dollars brought in by Haden workers. Fair enough. Medical care for Hadens has to be a really big number (as we’ll see) and it’s got to be offset somehow. If said Haden who is receiving said medical care is on “The Agora” playing an immersive version of Madden 2025 for twenty-four hours a day, that sort of eats into one’s productivity. (Ask me how I know.)

So here’s the question: Given the choice, as a Haden, would you plug into “The Agora” 24/7, or get a job (that is to say, the kind of job you can get as a robot)? In Lock In, the answer seems to be largely up in the air. The protagonist (more on him/her later) lands a job as an FBI agent, and there’s a general strike of all Haden workers that serves as a backdrop. (We’re not told much about what sort of jobs Hadens get in the economy–a lot of them seem to be truck drivers, although we see a doctor and a software developer.) The general strike is a response to the funding cuts for Haden patients, and is part of a political movement for Haden independence (which seems at cross-purposes with the need for more funding but there you go and political movements in fiction don’t have to make perfect sense any more than they do in real life).

If “The Agora” is largely how Scalzi represents it, it may not be much of a question. But if “The Agora” is anything like, say, the OASIS in Ready Player One, where you can hop in your DeLorean and spend the day shooting wamp rats with your proton pack and your nights drinking pina coladas, eating lobster and making love like sea otters, that might be a different story altogether.

Look, you don’t even have to have a Ready Player One virtual reality universe for this to be a problem. Japan already has an issue with its hikikomori population of young people who don’t work, live off government assistance, and fool around with anime and manga comics all the livelong day–and who don’t have sex or reproduce, cutting into Japan’s fragile birthrate. Could the American economy support caring for multiple millions of helpless people who are spending their time eating virtual bonbons on Planet Hershey?

And that’s just the Haden population. What about everyone else? Scalzi tells us that the non-Hadens can access “The Agora,” but only in restricted settings. If anyone can tune in, turn on, drop out, and spend their days doing (oh, let’s say) Starsky and Hutch virtual cosplay? What does that do to the economy?

Starsky and Hutch cosplay would be a lot of fun. I am just sayin’.

In Ready Player One, the protagonist is driven past a small camp of homeless people standing around a trash fire, waving around their haptic gloves and staring into their visors, oblivious to the ruined society all around them. In the Lock In world, you wouldn’t even need the visors and gloves — the entire virtual world is hard-wired directly to your brain.

Obviously everyone wouldn’t plug in–but you’d have to think that enough people would, enough to depress the economy and wreck the birthrate.

Horrifying Scenario #2: The Medical Model

A brief aside here.

I am not really qualified to talk about the disability issues in Lock In because I don’t have a disability. Having said that, I’ve got over twenty years of experience as a disability advocate. I run the state assistive technology program in New Jersey. I’ve written four law review articles on the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act, and two or three scholarly articles on website accessibility. So maybe I’m a little qualified to talk about it a little bit.

Lock In has a scene where its protagonist, Chris Shane, Special Agent of the FBI, transmits his/her consciousness to the Los Angeles FBI office, where he/she is given a defective threep, which he/she is expected to operate by means of a manual wheelchair. It’s not clear as to whether this is meant as a practical joke of some kind or just an outside-the-box way to re-purpose broken equipment. Chris doesn’t comment on this other than dropping the mic and renting a threep from Avis, but the implication is that Chris is rejecting the disability label.

Which is fine. Generally speaking, society doesn’t have an issue when people with disabilities want to be treated like they’re not disabled. You hear that people have “overcome” their disability, or you hear parents bragging that they treated their child with a disability just like any other kid. We’re fine with that sort of thing as a society. Able-bodied people want to think that having a disability is not a big deal, and can be overcome with character and work ethic. (It doesn’t work in reverse: society hates it when able-bodied people park in accessible parking spaces.)

The problem is that, to pull something like this off, it is really helpful to have lots of resources available to you. You might have seen a movie a few years back, The Bone Collector, where a bed-ridden Denzel Washington fights crime–with the aid of about sixty different computer screens and enough processing power to run Cheyenne Mountain. That’s how disability works in Hollywood. And as someone who spends a great deal of his work life trying to get Medicaid to pay for even simple durable medical equipment, I can tell you, Hollywood ain’t real.

I mean, seriously, look at all this stuff. I have to fight like hell to get Medicaid to pay for any of this crap for my clients, much less all of it.

What Scalzi does here is cheat by giving Chris a set of billionaire parents, who can afford to give him/her a dedicated medical cradle and twenty-four hour care and the latest hot-off-the-assembly-line threep. Which is fine; there are people in society who are rich and obviously their children are going to rate better medical care. Chris may not think of himself/herself as having a disability, but that hardly makes him/her what you would call typical.

So what kind of treatment does the typical Haden get?

You guessed it.

Scalzi hints at this when he talks about rental properties for Hadens, which are basically closets where their threeps can recharge. (I imagined these as being like Bender’s apartment in Futurama.) But those properties are for the threeps. Where are the bodies?

I don’t know for certain, but I bet they’re in nursing homes, or something worse than nursing homes. I mean, think about it from the perspective of a Medicaid administrator. (You may want to take a shower after you do this.) You have a greatly increased number of patients who need around-the-clock care and monitoring. What’s the cheapest way to do that? Answer: fill up old and disused facilities with Haden patients. The patients are all locked in, so you don’t need to have programming for them, or feed them anything but sludge, or provide clothes or counseling or even sunlight. It would be like The Matrix, but instead of using the patients as batteries you’d use them to collect federal Medicaid dollars. Tell me your average state Medicaid administrator wouldn’t do this in a second. (I would say “in a heartbeat” but, well.)

Take the red pill, and your federal Medicaid waiver plan is approved. Take the blue pill, and you’ll see just how far the rabbit hole goes.

There are two competing orthodoxies in disability policy. One is the “civil rights model,” which says that people with disabilities are people and have the right to be free and independent and not to experience discrimination, and sometimes discrimination comes in the form of a stairway or a doorknob or a toilet paper dispenser that’s three inches too high. Then there’s the “medical model,” which says that you have a disability if you meet a certain medical criteria, and if you do, we’re going to do our best to cure you, and if we can’t, well, that’s too bad, here’s some federal benefits and maybe a job at a sheltered workshop or something. What you have in Locked In, largely, is a situation where the civil rights model is ascendant, but only for people who have both a threep and the resources to arrange home care. It doesn’t say what happens to everyone else under the medical model. I don’t think that was good to start off with, and with the severe budget cuts Scalzi describes, it might get worse.

(Oh, and if you don’t think that the mass institutionalization of a large disability subset is ipso facto horrifying, you have my permission to visit a large state psychiatric hospital sometime. Please. I’ll hold the door open for you and everything.)

Oh, come on. Don’t be a fraidy-cat.

Does Scalzi do a fine job of having a heroic protagonist with a serious disability? Yes, unreservedly. But the only major Haden characters in the book are Chris, a diabolical billionaire and his lackey attorney, a software engineer, a doctor, and a political leader. Maybe that’s not the top 1% of Hadens, but it’s telling that there’s not a representative character who’s in the 99%. I think Lock In handles the disability issues in the book with sensitivity, but it’s clearly not telling the whole story.

Horrifying Scenario #3: The Sexual Aspect

Scalzi goes to great lengths to keep the question of whether Chris Shane is male or female open, going so far as to say that “I personally don’t know Chris’s gender.” I am not going to speculate here on why he made that particular choice. I think it’s simultaneously kind of brilliant and kind of screwy, which is mostly meant as a compliment. I am OK with it in that I think that it’s an idea that progresses naturally from the premises of the novel, as Chris presents to the world as a non-gendered threep. I have very mixed feelings from the disability perspective, as there’s already a social stigma about talking about disability and sexuality together. I dislike that you have a heroic protagonist with a disability who is also genderless–I think that’s problematic.

What’s even more problematic is that Scalzi never, not even once, talks about Haden sexuality.

One of the characters in Lock In is a former Integrator, and according to her, what Haden patients typically do, when they are integrated with an Integrator for the first time, is go to Five Guys and get a bacon double cheeseburger.

Come to papa.

Now, look. I have nothing against the bacon double cheeseburger from Five Guys. I’d like one myself right about now. I’m from Texas, so I’d rather have a Whataburger, but to each his own. I just don’t think that would be everyone’s first choice. (Even from a gustatory perspective, I’d rather have Texas sheet cake and homemade vanilla ice cream.)

How many people, do you think, would hire an Integrator in order to have sex with their significant others? Or, you know, themselves?

I know what you’re thinking, because I am thinking it too, and I am thinking SQUICK SQUICK SQUICK SQUICK SQUICK. It’s okay. Take a deep breath.

Because I haven’t even gotten to the whole part about robot sex.


OKAY. Calm down.

Look. There are a lot of different sexual scenarios that could, conceivably, come to mind in this particular universe. I think that there is some wisdom, from an authorial perspective, to not exploring them, to leaving them unsaid. (I will point out that Scalzi has had no problem with exploring the group-sex implications of his fictional universe in the Old Man’s War books.) But by making Chris essentially genderless, Scalzi effectively walls off the reader from any discussion of Haden sexuality. (Or, to put it another way, he leaves it to the devices of the masses of fan-fiction writers. Squick.)

Horrifying Scenario #4: The Plague Years

Scalzi just happens to mention, at one point, that people are still getting lock-in, all the time, although not at the levels that were happening at the height of the epidemic. Meanwhile, you never see anyone, you know, wearing a surgical mask, or slathering themselves with Purell, or refusing to go outside, or generally behaving how people would behave if they thought they could catch the Haden flu and be locked in their bodies for the rest of their lives.

I am just throwing this out there.

I know why you have to have normal people running around doing normal things, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story, but still. You’d think that people would be, you know, a little afraid of catching the flu in this universe. It’s already a paranoid thriller, you’d think that would amp it up a bit.

Horrifying Scenario #5: The Brain Hack

There’s a scene in Lock In where Chris sits in his/her Bat Cave (no, really), as he/she considers all the different suspects in his multiple murder case, and narrows them down to either an influential community organizer or a powerful billionaire titan of industry bent on cornering the market for Haden services.

Who do you think the killer is?

Go on, guess.

You’ll never guess.

Wow! You guessed right. It was the evil billionaire! How did you ever figure that out?

(Okay, I’m done now.)

This is the horrifying scenario that Lock In spends the most of its time exploring. Can evil billionaires hack your brain and turn you into a zombie assassin? The answer is yes. The problem is that (at the time of the novel) it’s incredibly expensive, and very much an emerging technology, and it’s just as easy to use an Integrator to shoot whoever you want shot. So there’s that.

What else can the technology do? Maybe you don’t want to turn your army of hacked Integrators and threeps into zombie assassins. Maybe you want them all to move to Delaware and vote for you for the open Senate seat. Maybe you want to hack their brains to play the Meow Mix jingle constantly in their brains until they commit suicide. Maybe you want to go seriously old-school Othello and convince someone that their wife is cheating on them until the point where he decides to murder her.

Anyway, point is, lots of things you can do if you can hack into someone’s brain. Including making them write very long blog posts that aren’t book reviews, instead of writing a new novel. Hey, wait.

The Less-Horrifying Conclusion

Lock In is a lot of fun to read and has at least one memorable character in Chris’s partner, who is Lynchian but the wrong kind (Jane and not David). It reads much better as a near-term science-fiction drama (a genre where it excels) than it does as a police procedural (where it largely falls flat). You should read it, and if you’ve read this far, you already have. It has cool zombie assassins and ninja robots. And it makes you think deeply about what the implications of new technology, both medical and robotical, might be for our own future, to the point of writing a long blog post about it that very few people will read. These are all good things, and it is to Scalzi’s credit that he produced a novel that generates such good things.