The Book Itself: Awesome cover, even without knowing the premise. Stark, graphic, intriguing. The figures dyed in red are the 1-4% of people affected by the fictitious disease in the book known as “Hadens” (I would assume that’s what they represent). Some of the figures are keeled over in the corner, but most are milling around. I find it to be subtly ominous.
My Review: “Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselvs “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.
One per cent doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the United States, that’s 1.7 million people “locked in”…including the President’s wife and daughter.
Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can restore the ability to control their own bodies to the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge. One is a virtual-reality environment, “The Agora,” in which the locked-in can interact with other humans, both locked-in and not. The other is the discovery that a few rare individuals have brains that are receptive to being controlled by others, meaning that from time to time, those who are locked in can “ride” these people and use their bodies as if they were their own.
This skill is quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…”
This is a police procedural. With robots. And political underpinnings about the prosecution of minority groups/the disabled. It’s got the basic structure of your typical procedural: crime (several big crime scenes involving Hadens and their “threeps,” aka the android bodies they use to move around), search (our protagonist is paired with an able-bodied human partner in the FBI’s Haden Division), clues (suspects that keep popping up, a concerning new technology, a law going into power that will affect all the Hadens-infected forever), harrowing close scrapes, and resolution where they Get Their Guy (or Girl). The sci-fi aspect of some of the characters spices it up a little, but I found the whole crime build up and conclusion rather ho-hum. In fact, it got very confusing. There were too many balls in the air: one of the victims is from the Navajo Reservation community, a law concerning Hadens causes mass riots and protests that complicate EVERYTHING, the protagonist (Shane) is a poster child for the disease, and his father is running for office, so…more political color there. Plus, the protagonist is new in town and has to find a place to live and friends to confide in.
I would buy into the premise and the procedural more if I found the characters more open and relatable. Shane contracted Hadens and experienced “lock in” at two years old. He’s been using android bodies since then to experience the world, so it’s the only life he’s really known: being able to literally dial down pain sensors and his sense of smell, never eating food, recharging every night versus sleeping. And I found his speech a little stunted. A little, well…robotic. Which would be fine. It could even be endearing. If everyone around him didn’t talk the same way, Hadens or not. Shane’s partner, Vann, is a gruff, grunt-y female cop with a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. And she talks exactly like Shane. They aren’t foils to each other. They don’t have an entertaining back and forth, because I often have to remind myself who is saying what. It’s often terse, one-word exchanges. (One conversation literally goes: “Dead.” “How.” “Grenade.” “The f***.”) And every suspect, every ally sounds similarly. They keep me at an emotional distance, and I don’t feel close to any of them. You never learn enough to truly like anyone, either. It took me until the last couple of chapters to learn that Shane and his family are African-American!
And then there’s Shane’s description of the Agora, a virtual reality where Hadens visit with one another in the visage of their real bodies versus threeps. Shane “describes” it thusly:
“Explaining how the Agora works to someone who is not a Haden is like explaining the color green to someone who is colorblind. They get a sense of it, but have no way to appreciate the richness and complexity of it because their brains literally don’t work that way…It’s the ultimate in ‘you have to be there.'”
No one likes to hear that! “You had to be there.” UGH. This is a terrible way to describe something to readers. Mostly because it doesn’t describe anything. It cheats. As a non-Hadens-affected reader, we just couldn’t understand this virtual reality world…so Shane is just not going to try. This makes me hate Shane a little. I’m annoyed, Shane. I want to know how this world, supposedly fifteen years in my future, differs from my present. I want to know how Hadens live and how people live with Hadens-affected friends and relatives. As it is, I’m left at an arms distance.
In a way, I think Scalzi leaves this open for a sequel, or sequels. At least it would make sense to humanize Vann more, explain more about Shane’s life and the consequences of this case (which are hurriedly swept under the rug – never mind the result have big implications for most of the characters). Not sure I’d pick up a sequel, but if you’re into police procedurals, and you like robots, go for it.
My Grade: C