Marion: John Scalzi’s 2018 novel Head On brings back FBI team Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, this time investigating a murder that should be impossible. Hilketa is a violent game where the objective is to tear off the head of a specific opposing player and throw it through the goal posts, while defensive players whale on each other with swords and chainsaws. While it sounds bloodthirsty, no one is hurt; the players are high-tech androids called “threeps” (after the beloved C-3PO) controlled by those individuals who have “lock-in syndrome” and function via robot or entirely within the internet.
These people are called Hadens after Haden Syndrome, the state of paralysis that followed exposure to a virulent influenza virus. In theory, no one can die from a Hilketa-related injury, but in an exhibition game, a player whose head is torn off immediately dies. Chris and Vann will find themselves investigating sports endorsements, league expansion, bigotry, high-end sex-robots, infidelity and jealousy to find out how this supposedly impossible crime happened.
As with the first Haden book, Lock In, the “how” of the murder is as important as the who and the why, and Scalzi delivers a clever mystery. While Chris has not changed much, we see Vann opening up a bit, and important secondary characters like Chris’s parents are expanded. As potential investors in the Hilketa league, Chris’s parents are affected by the murder, and they also have useful information that helps the investigation. A Haden housemate of Chris also assists the investigation, and a cat plays a crucial role.
Head On is fast-paced, funny in some moments and gently heart-breaking in others. Chris and Vann stay focused, mostly, on their case, but through their eyes (mainly Chris, who is a first-person narrator) we see changes happening to the Hadens as the effects of a law limiting government support for them come into play. Vann and Chris make mistakes occasionally, but they are never stupid cops. In fact, once or twice they were a little too obviously the smartest people in the room. Still, the story carried me right along and my interest never flagged.
I not only loved the mechanics of the murder, but near the end of the book, Chris delivers an arrest warrant in a totally original fashion, and I loved it.
Terry, you had mentioned the prologue to me before I read it. What did you think of that technique?
Terry: Scalzi almost lost me entirely in the first ten pages of the book! The prologue is written as if it were an extended sports story in a good newspaper (not surprising, given that Scalzi began his career writing for a newspaper). I wasn’t really up for learning the rules of a game that resembles football, only more violent. But then, I’m not a sports fan at all; those who are might find this section fascinating. For me, well, Scalzi has earned my attention with his past books, so I kept reading. I think you’re more of a sports fan than I am, Marion, so I’m wondering how all the sports talk in the book worked for you.
I was prepared for the prologue because you had told me about it! He did a similar thing with Lock In, so I wasn’t shocked. We watch a lot of sports talk shows at home, so the language seemed right to me.
As always, Scalzi’s gift for banter shone through in this book, but I also felt that some of his descriptions were more, well, descriptive than they’ve been in other books. Particularly, I loved the virtual home one Haden has in the Agora (and I notice you mentioned that below).
Scalzi, as always, has a nearly transparent style that keeps the pages flipping. And he never loses control of a complicated mystery plot, despite piling on complication after complication. I occasionally felt he was getting a bit too politically correct, even for me (and I’m an SJW from way back), but I quickly came to the realization that it’s all part of his provocation — he wants his readers to find their limits, to think about what they’ve previously simply accepted, all while telling a compelling story.
What did you think about the cat? I thought the cat played for wonderful comic relief, with a discussion with a group of Hadens that sounded like any college housemate issue; but the cat plays a significant role in the story.
I am very partial to cats, so this one made me smile. As a lawyer, though, I found it disconcerting that they simply grabbed the cat and proceeded to investigate the clues it presented without a warrant. There was no chain of evidence preserved! And they didn’t return it to its owner when its return was requested, which not only struck me as legally wrong but also morally — well, let’s say “questionable.” I don’t see any mention in Scalzi’s acknowledgements about consulting with a lawyer, which strikes me as odd for him, as he’s usually quite careful about details. But only a limited audience will get thrown out of the story for this particular complaint, so perhaps I’m just demonstrating my particular obsession with legal process.
Yeah, I saw a chain of evidence issue there, too. What I liked about the cat was the reason its Haden owner kept it where she did: because her physical body is allergic, and she can only interact with the cat in her threep. I thought that was another example of how Scalzi makes us think about things differently.
Chris is already developing a reputation as being someone who breaks loaner-threeps. What do you think about that as a trope in the series?
I think it’s hilarious. As further books come in the series (and yes, I’m really hoping there will be further books in this series), I’ll be looking for threeps biting the dust from the very opening, and keeping count of how many Chris manages to get destroyed. Any favorite moments in the book?
A scene I loved was when the Shane family is talking, and Chris’s mother cuts Chris’s hair. It’s such a tiny moment but I found it, to use an overused word, poignant. It not only reminded us that Chris is a human, biological being, but it gave us some insight into the mother character, too. A light touch extremely well done.
That same moment stuck with me as well. It’s also tricky because Scalzi still doesn’t want to give his character a gender, so describing Chris’s body at all is a fraught act. Nicely done. I also liked the description of a character’s home in the Agora, a virtual site where the Hadens have personal spaces designed to their desire, together with the discussion of the technology of building a personal space. It’s also a great example of how nothing goes unused in Head On. There are a great many clues inconspicuously dropped almost everywhere. And I confess I got a kick out of Chris pulling a Catherynne Valente book off a shelf — a nice tip of the hat by a writer to another writer.
Marion, what did you think of the whole question of the able-bodied wanting to use threep technology? I found it a fascinating example of how claims of reverse discrimination pop up in the weirdest places. I wonder whether Scalzi will explore this issue further in other entries in the series.
I think that is going to be an ongoing issue, since it grows out of the change in the law that previously offered Hadens government support. Here, with the desire for able-bodied people to get the benefit of Haden tech for luxury purposes, not necessity, is a form of appropriation and I think we’ll see more, not less of those issues in upcoming books.
All in all, I think we both really enjoyed this. I love the way Scalzi is peeling back the layers of the onion and deepening the reality of the Haden world for us.
Yes, I did love it, as you can tell from my five star rating and yours of four and a half stars. I’d be pretty surprised if this book did not show up on award nominations lists next year. Scalzi has really done a wonderful job with the science fiction mystery, which is awfully hard to pull off at all, much less twice. One note, though: it would be difficult to appreciate everything in this book without first reading Lock In. Understanding threeps, for instance, including where the name came from, would be tough. But hey, if you haven’t read Lock In yet, that just means that there are two great books to add to your “To Be Read” lists.
~Marion and Terry
Lots of fun. I had the same issues with the cat that Terry did (and I’m not a lawyer). And, like so many of Scalzi’s novels, I’ve got the complaint that too many characters sound the same. It’s the banter. I think they’re all some version of John Scalzi himself.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed this mystery and highly recommend the audio version narrated by Wil Wheaton. If you prefer a female narrator, you can read the version narrated by Amber Benson.
Lock In — (2014- ) Publisher: 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…. John Scalzi’s Lock In is a novel of our near future, from one of the most popular authors in modern science fiction.