Yesterday was my last free day before the New Year, so I indulged myself with a book binge, having been to the library on Saturday. John Scalzi’s novel is already tipped as being a modern sci-fi classic, its central concept all too plausible for an alarmingly near future. Set in a world some fifteen years in the future, it shows us the aftermath of Haden’s Syndrome, a global flu-like epidemic, which leaves many of its sufferers ‘locked in’ to their bodies. Thanks to a rapid advance in science, these ‘Hadens’ are able to access and interact with the world through specially-implanted neural pathways which allow them to control mechanised bodies, or ‘threeps’ (named for C-3PO). One such Haden is Chris Shane, the only child of a wealthy would-be senator, who contracted the disease as an infant and has spent his life as the poster-boy for an increasingly powerful lobby group. But now he wants to escape his privilege and give something back, working as an FBI agent. It’s just sod’s law that his first day on the job coincides with a murder case that looks set to upend everything he knows. Part sci-fi, part FBI gumshoe procedural, this is a ridiculously gripping book stuffed with incredible ideas.
At just over 300 pages, this isn’t a long novel by sci-fi or fantasy standards, but it certainly punches above its weight in terms of its concept. There’s a lot to get your head round at first. When I found the book at the library, I dipped in somewhere in the middle and found myself flailing in a mass of unfamiliar terms. But, if you start from the beginning, it all makes sense. Scalzi’s world is based on the fact that Hadens have three ways to interact with the world. The most common form is to use a threep, as our hero Chris does for most of the novel: threeps being, like cars or computers, available in lots of different ranges and price brackets so that they serve as status symbols in their own right. If a Haden needs a more personal touch, he or she can temporarily contract with an Integrator: someone who suffered Haden’s Syndrome but who avoided being locked in, and has simply had their brain structure changed in such a way as to allow an extra consciousness to be ported along with their own (aided by neural implants). This means the Haden gets the convenience of having a body; the Integrator gets paid well and gets final veto over any extreme or hurtful acts. And then there’s the Agora, a virtual space where Hadens can interact without the need for real-world presence, and where an increasingly vocal community challenges the need for real-world interaction at all (I thought of this as rather like a Second Life community).
Thus the world-building. But the book is equally rich in character. Yes, Haden’s plays a major role in the novel and yes, Chris’s understanding of the disease proves to be very important. The same goes for his new FBI partner, Agent Leslie Vann, who is able-bodied but suffered Haden’s in her youth and was an Integrator in a former career. Yet it’s also a good, old-fashioned murder mystery, with a good dose of political finagling and social tension to power it along. It’s about how we react to those who are different to us, and the opportunities as well as challenges that arise when a significant chunk of the population is obliged to find a new paradigm of living. And what’s refreshing is that, to Chris anyway, it makes very little different who’s Haden and who isn’t. Through his eyes, we get to understand how little personal appearance matters when you’re used to thinking about the driving intelligence behind a body, rather than the body itself. And that in itself is all kinds of fascinating.
So, imagine that you find two men in a room. One is dead, covered in blood and his throat slit. The other is sitting on the bed, dazed and uncooperative. The scene looks self-explanatory. The surviving man is a well-known Integrator. The dead man has come with a neural headset, suggesting he was able-bodied but wanted to experience the sensation of porting into someone else’s body (as a ‘tourist’). But things rapidly turn out to be way more complicated than Chris and Vann originally anticipated. Why is the surviving man unsure whether or not he murdered the other? Why does the dead man have no presence on the government systems? And does this strange non-murder have anything to do with a worrying surge of terrorist attacks carried out in the midst of rising political unrest between Haden and non-Haden groups? Well, of course it does. But how? And who on earth is behind such an elaborate scheme? Chris is about to find that his first week on the job is going to get very interesting.
Profoundly original, this is a book that certainly lives up to its reputation. I know Scalzi has written some other fiction set in the same world, so I’m curious to explore more of his work and find out more about Haden’s, its sufferers and their unique challenges and opportunities. A thought-provoking tale where ethics are as central as science.