Embodiment and Identity Politics: Disrupting Binaries – a Review of John Scalzi’s ‘Lock In’

John Scalzi's Lock In

I was chatting to Kristi, the friend who lent me Lock In by John Scalzi, and I mentioned how the theme of identity politics was brilliantly executed in terms of disability and race. I said that I didn’t realise the protagonist and his dad were black until towards the end of the book. Kristi highlighted the fact I used the pronoun ‘he’:

“You’re never actually told what gender the protagonist is.”

“Wait…What?”

“Yeah, Chris can be either a man or a woman.”

“Oh god, you’re right. I assumed the protagonist was a man.”

This was fascinating. What made me assume the protagonist was a man? Because the author was male? I assumed the protagonist was male from the very beginning without once being given any information that told me this was the case. On top of this, I assumed the protagonist was white. Why did I make the assumption that the protagonist was a white male without being told? With Queer Theory forming the backbone of all of my writing I’d like to think that I’m not so easily duped by hegemonic forces but it’s clear that unless told otherwise my default is ‘white male’. This is both fascinating and worrying.

John Scalzi, you are very sneaky. I like it.

Lock In is set at some point in the future after a virus has swept the world causing millions to be ‘locked in’ to their bodies. With investment in research and advances in technology Hadens are able to exist in a virtual world called The Agora and they can have a physical presence by using humanoid machines called Threeps or people known as Integrators. An Integrator is someone who was affected by the virus but weren’t locked in; the virus changed their brain in a way that makes them more receptive to the technology that allows Hadens to use their bodies. Integrators hire themselves out to Hadens but they are still present and able to control their bodies so that a Haden can’t make them do something they don’t want to. However, we come into the story as FBI agent Chris Shane starts her/his first day and it looks as if a Haden may have been controlling an Integrator, Johnny Sani, when he died.

The narrative is told in first person by Chris as she/he (this use of ‘she/he’ highlights the trouble we have when the English language has no gender neutral pronoun, which in turn highlights how language constructs our society) works with their partner, Vann, to find out what happened to Johnny Sani.

Lock In has an almost pulp feel to the narrative as Scalzi draws the reader into a murky world of political intrigue and corrupt corporations. On the surface it may seem to be a mystery/police procedural with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, but Lock In is much more than that as Scalzi brilliantly explores issues of identity politics not simply in the story itself but – as I’ve highlighted in the above conversation with my friend regarding race and gender – in the way it is written. I always get excited when the way a narrative is written compliments the story and theme(s); that’s when you know you have something special in your hands.

Also, when I think about it, I still don’t know if Chris’ mum is black or white or something else, so it was yet another assumption on my part to assume Chris was black after realising her/his dad was. This is what is so brilliant about Lock In – we can’t fall back on the usual signifiers because they’re not there. Which makes sense, as a Threep is a machine and a machine doesn’t have a gender or race, and in the Agora your avatar can look however you want. Using an Integrator also disrupts easy gender and race readings, as the gender and race of the Integrator doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the gender and race of the Haden using them.

A major theme of Lock In is disability. Just as we have the demonization of disabled people perpetuated by the government and media in the UK, Hadens experience hate crimes and resentment. People start to criticise the government for directing so much funding to those who are ‘locked in’, and the Abrams-Kettering Bill is passed which cuts government subsidies for Hadens. Without this funding, Haden quality of life could be severely affected, and opportunities limited, which of course has current parallels in the UK where we have the bedroom tax and the reprehensible benefit cuts perpetrated by the Tory government.

Scalzi also touches on whether a ‘disability’ is something that should be cured. Buchold is researching a cure but not all Hadens want to be ‘cured’, particularly those who have been ‘locked in’ for most or all of their lives. In many ways, a Haden using a Threep has an advantage over others, so in a sense, the Threep doesn’t even signify disability, but throughout the book Chris experiences people attempting to put her/him in their place – the prejudiced comments from the Police Captain, the cop who gives Chris a Threep that is damaged and unable to walk and tells Chris to use a wheelchair. Language plays a part too, as a Haden is considered to be ‘locked in’, ‘trapped’ in their bodies, when in many ways they have a lot more freedom than those who don’t have Hadens:

“Do I look constrained to you?” says Hubbard (who is using an Integrator) in response to a suggestion that a cure would offer the “ability to break free of the physical constraints Hadens live with daily.”

Hadens have many benefits: not being subject to gender and race signifiers; having the rich experience of the Agora virtual world; being able to ‘turn down’ feelings, like pain; travelling anywhere quickly by simply hiring a Threep that is at the other side of the country; being able to change ‘body’ if a Threep is damaged (e.g. as a child, Chris was in an accident that would have been fatal if she/he hadn’t been a Haden using a Threep and there’s several instances of Chris’ Threeps being damaged to the point where Chris would have surely ended up in hospital or dead).

However, Scalzi makes it clear that these benefits are subject to class and wealth. Chris is from a privileged background and is able to buy or hire the best Threep models. There are instances in Lock In where Chris’ Threep is damaged and she/he is able to use their privilege and wealth to get quick high-end replacements, highlighting how money can affect a person’s experience of disability.

Dealing with disability, race, gender, and the privilege of wealth, Lock In could have been heavy and earnest, but it’s a page turner with snappy dialogue and plenty of intrigue. Which brings me to another binary: literary fiction Vs genre fiction, or high art Vs low art. Despite the popularity and growing respect for genre fiction and mediums like comics, there is still a long way to go for genre fiction to gain the same respect as literary fiction (and the recent altercation between Ishiguro and Le Guin shows how arguments over genre classification can get very heated). Scalzi’s Lock In demonstrates that you can write a novel of ideas but also entertain. Of course, science fiction has always been one of the best means to explore big ideas and is the perfect vehicle for problematizing social constraints and what we consider to be ‘normal’.

There’s only a couple of points where Lock In doesn’t quite work for me. The first is that you guess who the perpetrator is early on. Though, I don’t necessarily think this is a problem, as the main intrigue is how not who. The issue I have with Lock In is where the perpetrator explains what they did in an info dump monologue in the denouement; I don’t feel this was necessary and it’s a particular narrative bug bear of mine. However, this is only a small niggle and doesn’t spoil the book for me. Lock In is an entertaining, sneaky, and clever page-turner. I’m very much looking forward to more from Scalzi and was heartened to hear about his ten year deal with Tor Books which includes a Lock In follow up. In the meantime, I’ll be straight to the library to devour his back catalogue.

(If you’d like to read more about Lock In and gender you can go here and here. Also, Scalzi is incredibly entertaining over on Twitter)

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