Unlocked: This prequel could have used more subtext

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsUnlocked by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsUnlocked by John Scalzi

The novella Unlocked is John Scalzi’s prequel to his innovative novel of ideas Lock In. I read the beautiful Subterranean Press hard copy, and Kat will add comments about the audio version of the story. With both Lock In and Unlocked, the publishers have made some interesting choices in audio presentation.

The subtitle of Unlocked is “An Oral History of Haden Syndrome.” Further down on the title page, Scalzi describes it as “a novella-length exploration of the world of Lock In.” The structure of the story is a series of quotations, stories and interviews from people affected by Haden Syndrome, in various ways, when the condition first emerged twenty-five years earlier. Haden Syndrome first manifests as a flu-like infection. Many patients get secondary symptoms that lead to a condition where, awake and conscious, they are trapped in their bodies with no voluntary muscle movement, lock-in syndrome. Unlocked follows the personal observations of public health officials, journalists, civil rights activists, politicians and everyday individuals who have encountered the syndrome over the past twenty-five years.

Usually I enjoy the “backstage tour” of a writer’s work, but I found Unlocked disappointing for a couple of reasons.

Unlocked has an introduction by the future “Director of the Centers for Disease Control,” which has funded the oral history project. The US is on the frontier of implementing legislation that cuts all federal funding for services to “Hadens” as they are now known. (This defunding legislation plays an important role in Lock In.) Overall, Unlocked provides a sanitized history of the first twenty-five years, highlighting various controversies about the disease but quickly glancing away from the serious ones. It reads a little too perfectly like the intentionally-bland, corporatized short film you would get to watch before you took a factory tour.

Secondly, while there are many different speakers, there is no one character whose story I can follow. I missed this. This is always a risk in the “oral history” type story, and in this case, for me, the risk didn’t pay off. The voices of various informants blurred together, sounding alike. There are a few exceptions. Thomas Stevenson, the former NSA Director, has a humorously sinister voice, exemplified in this response to a question about whether the NSA blackmailed a politician into voting a certain way:

I can’t say that I have any recollection of the NSA ever meeting with David Abrams at this time. You might ask him. I would be interested in what he has to say on the matter.

Later in the book, the voices of two Hadens who want to have a baby were vivid and plausible. Many others, though, sound the same — bright, articulate, curious, rational and open-minded, looking back on the past quarter century with no grudges or unfinished business, just a pleasant detachment. I wanted a broader emotional range here.

I alluded to my second problem earlier. At the beginning of Unlocked, there are theories that the disease was manufactured in a lab and that it might have been a terrorist weapon. Specifically, a lab in Pakistan is named. It turns out that an international conference on epidemiology was the starting place of the disease. Scalzi glosses over any reaction from the US populace, faced with possible biological warfare. There is no mob violence. Do we believe that? In the past twenty-five years, we have observed the emergence of HIV disease and the attack on the World Trade Towers. We know that mobs have threatened people of Middle Eastern descent, defaced and firebombed houses of worship, disparaged and assaulted gay people and engaged in hate-filled rhetoric. We believe that conspiracy theorists would attack labs and research centers because they do that now. Scalzi skirts these issues, addressing discrimination deeply in only one part of the story, limiting other issues to whether a Haden in a Personal Transport Device or “threep” who is sitting in a coffee shop needs to give up a seat to a non-Haden human. The story would have benefited from sub-text; a glimpse of the documentarian who is deliberately shaping this “product” to avoid any and all comments on the darker nature of humanity and this situation. Another layer would have given this oral history greater credibility with me.

That said, there is a lot to like here. We do see technological, political and commercial responses to this humanitarian crisis. I enjoyed the sections that dealt with the development of the neural net and the Personal Transport Devices or “Threeps.” Unlocked does discuss the societal and cultural changes the syndrome brings, and the various philosophies within the Haden community. I liked that. I mentioned earlier that the story of two Hadens who want to have a biological child was plausible and addressed all the issues that make the Haden concept fascinating; the physical, biological issues and the prejudices of non-Hadens who cannot visualize how this can work. This is when Unlocked is at its best.

Unlocked provides good background. I’m giving it three stars. It didn’t hit the mark for me as well as the novel did, but it tackles a fascinating topic in a different way. Scalzi packs a lot of information into 93 pages.

Subterranean Press once again delivers a distinctive product. The book has a red cover with cover art by Molly Crabapple, and textured back endpapers. They gave this short work loving attention and that did pay off.

Kat, what did you think of Unlocked on audio?

Unlocked by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsKat: I completely agree with your assessment of Unlocked, Marion, but I think the audio works a lot better than the print edition (which I skimmed through). The audio version of Unlocked is tacked on to the end of both Wil Wheaton’s and Amber Benson’s versions of Lock In. This makes Unlocked feel more like an appendix than a separate story and I expect less from an appendix than I do from a hardback novella that I might purchase from Sub Press.

Marion: Oh, I probably would have liked it better if I’d read it that way. That would have worked very well.

Kat: Also, I’ve always said that many of Scalzi’s characters sound the same — smart, confident, rational, slightly aggressive people — which is something you mentioned above. The audio version of Unlocked is narrated by a full cast of some of the best narrators in the business. Not only are they all excellent performers, but their diversity of voice, pace, tone, and energy level makes each of the characters more distinct.

I wouldn’t recommend Unlocked as a stand-alone, or even as a prequel, but when paired with Lock In as an informative appendix, it works well.

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.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. Funny how labels and expectations can have so much impact. Thanks!

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