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.