Amongst the shoot-outs, robot fights, and political intrigue of John Scalzi’s new novel Lock In (yes, there are robot fights!) is the looming sense that even though this near-future is intimately comparable to modern day we are nevertheless seeing our initial lurch towards a truly science fiction society. A key worldbuilding aspect of Lock In’s future is the presence of hardware and software that can be installed within a person, thereby allowing them to extend their awareness into robots. Did your robot just get hit by a truck? Good thing you had the pain turned down and the auto-disconnect toggled on.
But this awareness goes both ways, and one of the squirrellier aspects of the capital-F FUTURE that Lock In explores are the beginnings of a world where you can be shoved out of your own mind. Where the last barrier of privacy is breached and you become rewritten.
It starts as a means of escape for those trapped in their own minds but the technology featured in Lock In is still, in essence, a way to unseat the conscious mind from the body. And that means that eventually someone awful will figure out a way to make that process non-consensual.
The world of the novel makes it even more complicated by introducing a strain of the population whose brains are altered by the Haden disease but who do not suffer from the end-stage paralysis. Instead, they become ideal physical candidates for a process called Integration. In essence, they can let those who are “locked in” borrow their bodies.
The process sounds uncomfortable. Look down at your hands. Imagine them moving and typing of their own accord, saying things that you know you’re not thinking. While your mind screams at the loss of control, those hands keep typing away. Your world has shrunk to a pinpoint of light. With no warning or fanfare you are now just an observer in your own life, with no freedom, no choice, no way for you to exert your own desires. You are locked in.
In the novel, we meet several people who take this role on by choice; who face being locked in so that those who were forcibly locked in can experience physical freedom. There is a seed of nobility to their choice, but mostly it seems that they do this because it’s a highly unique skill, and highly unique skills are highly lucrative.
It’s a wry take on the breathless future we’re accustomed to. Why does that person carry two minds within them? Because they’re superhuman? Alien? Part of a wave of evolution producing beings of higher levels of consciousness?
Nah, it’s because they got mortgage payments and two kids who’ll be applying to college in a couple years.
But that’s how someone else taking control of your body while you watch helplessly becomes mundane and acceptable. In the novel, Integrators have a mental kill switch where they can throw the other person’s mind out or assert control in case of danger or illegal activity, but what if someone figures out a way around that? It seems inevitable, akin to the constant back and forth between hackers and computer security. Someone hacks in to your mind. Security is strengthened. Someone figures out a way around that. The escalation continues onward.
Except when your computer is hacked or wiped, you as a person are still you. A computer can store your thoughts and information but it’s still entirely removed from the source that generates those thoughts. In the future created by Scalzi that source is now accessible and that is terrifying. Who wants some nameless 4chan jokester replacing memories of your dear departed relatives with graphic porn? Or worse, figuring out a way to inhabit your mind without you being able to kick them out?
Robot fights are all well and fun, but they’re just a mask for the primal terror that the events of Lock In promise. The threat of the future isn’t a nuclear bomb, or a terrorist attack, it’s an assault on your own free will.