4 / 5
"My first day on the job coincided with the first day of the Haden Walkout, and I'm not going to lie, that was some awkward timing."
A novel of our near future, from one of the most popular authors in modern SF
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 themselves “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....
I think I love authors who, like Tolkien, build entire worlds with fully-fleshed back histories in order to tell their stories. You can tell that Scalzi knew his imaginary world inside and out as he wrote his mystery novel, and that fact was brought home by the bonus content included in the book: an entire oral history of Haden's Disease. I was blown away by the detail in this section, which wasn't even part of the original novel: if you've read World War Z, you will have a good idea of the depth and breadth of this amazing & thoroughly developed back-story. And all of that being fleshed out just made the novel so much easier to immerse yourself in. I loved the small little touches that just seemed taken for granted that they made sense, such as "inside voices" and "Threeps". The latter took me a minute to get the joke on ("one of the most beloved robots in science fiction"), but I loved it even more once I did.
And Wil Wheaton. Ah, Wil. I have adored you since your Stand By Me days, and was thrilled to read along as you outed yourself as a fellow geek in your first book. Whenever I have to remind my (no good with faces) husband who Wil is, I mention his stellar appearances on The Guild and Leverage. He's done such awesome work. And this was certainly on par. I love Wil's voice, and I think he's actually weirdly grown into the Richard Dreyfus of his Stand By Me voice-over (great choice, Reiner). In any case, the reason I rave so much about this particular point is that I was fascinated to learn why the audiobook reader was given a CHOICE in the narration - the other option besides Mr. Wheaton was Amber Benson (another great geeky choice!). Why two narrators, one of each gender? Why, because the gender of "Chris Shane," the protagonist, is never actually revealed! I am not sure I would have noticed that if it hadn't been brought to my attention; I would have just assumed "male" while listening to Wil Wheaton read. However, I do love that little detail about the book. It is fascinating how Chris' gender never actually became a thing. Love it.
Otherwise, I was immediately enthralled by the book's premise. The mystery plotline was actually of secondary importance to me, behind the amazing future world that Scalzi had drawn up. This concept of a disease which leaves stricken people "locked" in their own heads, unable to sense or interact with the world around them? Incredible (but certainly not impossible) to contemplate. And then the development of these "personal transports" which the Threeps use to interact with the "meat world" - you could tell that every little touch was thoroughly thought through by the author. Right down to the variety of quality in personal transport design - which is absolutely how our world would work! I loved the back-stories of Chris and his partner Van, and the rich characters whom the author introduced throughout the novel. I am not big into crime novels (although I do love me my SVU), but whatever your natural genre inclinations, do yourself a favor and read this one. It is definitely worth your time.
P.S. We saw this author speak at the BEA last year on a sci-fi panel, and I've been eager to read this book ever since!
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