It’s funny, although John Scalzi’s Lock In is primarily a crime procedural thriller it features a very detailed future, with a complexity of worldbuilding that is normally reserved for high fantasy and hard sci-fi. You find out more than just how the tech works. You see how it has impacted our culture legally, socially, and financially. And most importantly you see how it would alter the mundane details of our day to day lives. This sense of the future is an extremely important aspect of Lock In. After all, you need to know what the future is like for there to be any stakes to the story. What dramatic use is there to saving something the reader doesn’t understand?
In essence, Lock In needs to make you care about the maintenance and existence of robots and the humans who require them. Scalzi bridges this gap by subtly evoking another technological leap that has shaped our lives in the present day: the internet.
In some regards we live in the future envisioned by those imagining it from their seats in the mid-20th century. It’s not as flashy as they might have hoped (Nobody in their right mind is putting money on the Cubs next year.) but there are significant advances that we take for granted that could not have been imagined. A formative part of our present-day-future hasn’t involved dome cities or commercial space travel, but instead the disassociation of information with geographical or physical location. The internet exists as its own space, accessible from a variety of locales and methods.
The next step, perhaps, is the disassociation of ourselves from our physical locations. Although information has become free-form, it still must be summoned to our location. We are “locked in” to our bodies in that regard. Lock In doesn’t present a world where we are unlocked, but it does chronicle a fascinating stumble on our way to that future.
This concept of perception free from a physical form is classic science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke, Peter F. Hamilton, and even Lovecraft have featured this concept in literature as resulting in beings of higher consciousness. The Wachowskis brought a modern spin to it in The Matrix, crafting a reality where we all live on a giant VR internet, spending our entire lives asleep in the real world. And one could argue that this total separation of geography and perception could be a post-effect of Vernor Vinge’s “singularity.” As our future unfolds relentlessly onwards, science fiction gains more and more real life examples and tools with which to envision this eventual step outward.
For those unfamiliar with Lock In, the first five chapters are available to read for free here, along with a short story that explains the prominent “Haden” disease and how it leads to a strain of humanity becoming “locked in.”
To summarize, in our near-future a new flu-like disease develops and becomes an epidemic. One of the related effects of the virus is the altering of brain structure to such a point that a survivor loses the physical use of their body while remaining fully aware and conscious. The then-President Haden’s
daughter wife falls prey to this virus and those who are “locked in” become known as Hadens.
Issues of social class, finance, and law play a big part in this backstory. The virus had such a visible and well-financed victim that an entire industry essentially sprung up that was devoted to unlocking people. In the absence of a cure, tech was developed that allowed Hadens to remotely transfer their awareness to robots, commonly called “threeps.”
As Lock In opens, the governmental support structure funding this is on the cusp of lapsing and the tech has been around for two or three decades, allowing an entire new generation of Hadens to come of age and begin moving and shaking the world. Our perspective on this is rookie FBI agent Chris, a Haden who essentially grew up through a threep and who sits squarely in the middle of the various political, financial, and celebrity perspectives on this new…type…of people.
Lock In is remarkable in how it bridges the near-future with the present by making the Haden technology and its supplementary offshoots one generation old by the time we learn about it. As a Haden, Chris is bedridden and yet we’ll see Chris function normally through adventures in multiple states of being, whether that means mentally walking through visualizations of information or entering a variety of bodies. Sometimes all in the span of a single, exhausting, day.
This activity is not done in service of the future, rather, it’s because neural nets, threeps/robots, self-driving cars, holographic scanning of environments…these are simply tried-and-true tools available to Hadens and the FBI and this is the most practical way to solve the mystery at hand in the novel.
In the same manner, I just searched for and made an appointment for a specialized doctor without moving from my seat or saying a word to anyone, something I could not have done 20 years ago, before internet use became widespread and commoditized. I didn’t just use my insurance provider’s database, crowd review sites, and automated appointment systems in the service of the future we live within. I did it because these are the most practical tools available to me.
The internet needed that 20 years to insinuate itself into day to day life and for offshoot and supplemental technologies to become rote. This is, smartly, how Lock In handles the concept of growing up, maturing, while completely outside of your body. It’s thrilling and unformed at first, much like the internet was in the 1990s. Then it became expected, and now we have a generation of people maturing who have never not known the internet. In Lock In, Hadens go through the same progression. Economy and culture grows out of their new tech, then becomes expected.
Of course, once this new tech becomes expected, then it faces the risk of becoming endangered. In our world, net neutrality has become a central topic, as the U.S. government eases protections on the internet and economic forces strive to commodify and make it less widespread and more exclusive. The commodification manifests in small ways. An uninterrupted stream from Netflix used to be an expectation, now it’s becoming a privilege.
The technology and lifestyle of Hadens in Lock In faces that same specter. The novel goes out of its way to point out how expensive it is to be locked in. Your body needs constant life support. Your apartment must be specialized for your equipment and your robot. And there’s a looming danger that access to the tech and information spaces you rely upon could become commoditized. It’s a threat that Hadens must feel particularly vulnerable towards. They have already been denied the choice of using their bodies. Now they face the possibility of being denied further say in their lives in the face of economic forces.
It is an irony within the novel that those who find themselves “locked in” gain the ability to truly free their minds from the prison of their bodies. A disease unexpectedly forces society to develop this technology, but once that momentum is established, it never goes away. Just as in our own world, once we divorced information from physical space, we never went back.
Lock In essentially takes the world of today and chronicles a believable future as it pushes up through the cracks of our idiosyncrasies. If I were to tell my itty-bitty self back in the 1980s that he would have a job that existed almost entirely on the internet, he would have no idea what I was talking about. In Lock In what starts as a disease becomes the beginning of a society whose consciousness exists entirely separate from its body.
But we both still have to pay taxes and can’t get our landlords to call an electrician. Some shit never changes.