John Scalzi’s Lock In Takes the ‘Artificial’ out of AI

lock inMartin Pistorius was locked in his frozen body for twelve years, unable to communicate with the family caring for him day and night. After a severe illness in his youth, he lost the ability to move, and doctors assumed he was in some sort of vegetative state. They assumed he’d die.

But he didn’t die, he kept going. And somewhere in there, he began thinking clearly about his experiences. Keeping track of the time by the light in the room, begrudging the Barney episodes which would be left on to entertain him. Eventually, he expressed to those around him through eye movements that he was conscious of what was happening. He regained movement gradually, and is today miraculously functional, considering all he’s been through. He wrote a memoir of his experience, called Ghost Boy. I listened to Pistorius’ story on the Invisibilia podcast, which I highly recommend.

Pistorius isn’t alone in his terrifying experience of being locked-in to a body which won’t work anymore. Locked-in syndrome can be caused by strokes, snakebites, or traumatic brain injuries.

In John Scalzi’s novel Lock In, the near-future brings a virus which leaves millions across the U.S. locked-in. Everyone has a child, mother, brother or sister stranded in a body that won’t work, while their mind is still fully active. Desperate for solutions, the government allocates massive resources to reaching these individuals. Think Kennedy’s space program.

The solution is world-changing, and hard to imagine. Locked-in individuals control human-like robots, referred to as threeps (after C-3P0!), with their minds. Threeps allow the afflicted to move around in the real world, communicating with healthy people and working normal jobs while their paralyzed bodies stay laying in a bed. Is your mind blown yet?

FBI agent Chris Shane was locked-in as a child, after falling ill with the virus that affected so much of the world. Now, Chris is an FBI agent new to the world of investigating crimes with threep involvement, along with veteran partner Vann who isn’t shaken by robots remotely controlled by humans.

This is a murder mystery, but it is more than that. It is an exploration of what it means to be human in the age of technological advancement. I don’t want to say this is as notable as some of the more classic work surrounding the ethical questions of technological development, but it does a good job of going where a lot of popular science fiction doesn’t.

Also notable, Lock In successfully steps outside the gender norms we usually expect from fiction. The audiobook comes in two forms–one narrated by a female narrator, one read by a male author. Gender bias fills in the gap with reviewers, as they fill in Chris Shane’s gender as a “he” or “she,” rather than leaving it unnoted. John Scalzi said to Tor, “I personally don’t know Chris’s gender.” Scalzi talks about this on his blog as well. I listened to the audio version, listening to both narrators voices and choosing the female narrator over the male, just on voice preference. Somewhere near the middle of the story, thinking of Chris as a sarcastic female in my mind for the entire book thus far, I realized why Scalzi provided both voice options.

Further Reading:

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[…] to go in blind, however, read on! William Gibson‘s The Peripheral is to John Scalzi’s Lock In what a brie cheese is to some sliced cheddar. Cheddar is simply delicious and easy to consume on […]

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