A long time ago, John Grisham came to the bookstore where I was working to sign copies of his second book from a major publisher, The Pelican Brief. His first, The Firm, had been an enormous hit, and there was every indication that the second would sell in mass quantities as well. No movies had yet been made from his books, so he had not yet ascended into the stratosphere of success that comes with having nearly every book made into a major motion picture. Oxford Books, now known in Atlanta as “the late, lamented Oxford Books,” had supported Grisham early on The Firm, and he was both pleased to be back and personable with staff and buyers. Naturally, many of the staff had a literary bent; how could it be otherwise? People had enjoyed The Firm, and now The Pelican Brief. Indeed, they thought the second was better: tighter plotting, less improbable, more depth to the background. Surely, though, now that Grisham had the commercial security of two big hits, and given how he was developing, he would turn from legal thrillers to write something with more heft, more ambition, something more self-consciously literary.
He didn’t, of course. By all indications, he has done exactly what he wanted with his publishing career, and been massively successful with it. He has the skill to write pretty much any damn thing he wants — I prefer his non-legal books such as Bleachers, or Playing for Pizza; I think they are touching, honest, and well-constructed — and accessible legal thrillers are what he wants to write. Fiction writing, and especially commercial fiction writing, is not a video game in which an author levels up from accessible to ambitious, or from clear prose to literary. For one thing, the one is not necessarily better than the other; for another, accessibility does not necessarily preclude ambition. Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, for example, is so accessible it’s catchy (Ask Louis Armstrong! Or Frank Sinatra! Or Ella Fitzgerald! Or Robbie Williams! The lyrics are best in German, of course, though apparently the Czech version is a local classic as well. But I digress. Too catchy.) but it’s also word-for-word perfect, and plenty deep.
John Scalzi writes accessible, exciting science fiction because although he is capable of writing pretty much anything — except maybe a dull book — that’s what he chooses. As he put it back in 2007,
1. Think of an actual person you know, of reasonable intelligence, who likes to read but does not read science fiction.
2. Write with that person in mind.
That’s all you do.
My person is my mother-in-law, as I’ve mentioned here before. She’s your pretty much the average American in all respects and downs Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood books like they’re going out of style. I write my novels so that when she sits down to read them she’s able to follow what’s going on and doesn’t feel like she’s missing scads of context. My mother-in-law is not my primary audience; I’m not writing for her. But by keeping her in mind when I write, I don’t exclude her, and by extension I don’t exclude lots of other readers like her.
Further on the difficulty level of taking that approach:
I think it’s harder to write good science fiction with non-SF readers in mind than it is to write purely to an audience steeped in the genre. As just one example, you can’t necessarily use all the shortcuts that have been trod into the ground by generations of SF writers, because your non-SF readers won’t get all of them — and at the same time you have to make sure your genre-steeped readers aren’t rolling their eyes as you set the scene for the newbies. You have to make them both happy…
Eight years and numerous novels later, that’s still what he’s doing and aiming for. Lock In posits a near-future world in which a pandemic (“Haden’s disease”) has killed many millions of people and left millions more alive and conscious, but with no control of their voluntary nervous system, locked into themselves. The story in this world that Scalzi chooses to tell is set some years after the initial epidemic, after a crash research program had delivered enough advances in the understanding of consciousness and brain-computer interface, among other fields, that people who are locked in can use a neural net to direct an anthropomorphic surrogate. In the book, these are called “threeps.” A small subset of the people who survive Haden’s are left with the ability to host the consciousness of a locked-in person, using technology similar to the threep interface. They are known as Integrators, and they are much in demand.
The novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Chris Shane, is a Haden and a newly minted FBI agent. (The book is set in a future America whose main points of departure from the present all trace back to the Haden’s disease epidemic.) Agent Shane gets dropped in at the deep end, meeting partner Agent Vann just before walking into their first case together, an apparent murder at the Watergate Hotel. A post-pandemic world could be a place for mournful storytelling, but not in Scalzi’s hands. Instead, there’s the droll and sometimes dark humor of a police procedural:
“Agent Vann,” I said, taking the hand.
And then I waited to see what the next thing out of her mouth would be. It’s always an interesting test to see what people do when they meet me, both because of who I am and because I’m Haden. One or the other usually gets commented on.
Vann didn’t say anything else. She withdrew her hand and continued sucking on her stick of nicotine.
Well, all right then. It was up to me to get the conversation started.
So I glanced over to the car that we were standing next to. Its roof had been crushed by a love seat.
“This ours?” I asked, nodding to the car, and the love seat.
“Tangentially,” she said. “You recording?”
The story takes off from there. How did the love seat wind up on the car’s roof? What happened before that? Why is the FBI involved? As some things unravel, others become more tangled, and because this is a good mystery, things are not always what they seem. In particular, Agents Shane and Vann soon find hints that people are doing things with the neural nets and with Integrators that, in theory, shouldn’t be possible. And the agents are several moves behind in a deadly game.
Scalzi is always a pleasure to read — I particularly like reading his snappy dialog; it’s good for the story, even if I sometimes think real people don’t talk that way — and true to form, I zipped through Lock In in about a day and a half.
He’s also doing a number of things that are more difficult than they look, and at least as difficult for an author to pull off as something that is more ostentatiously ambitious. First, near-future science fiction is tricky; there are lots of ways for it to go wrong, not least of which is getting overtaken by events. Second, it’s funny, and funny amidst murder and mortality walks a narrow balance beam. Third, he’s writing a police procedural in a science fiction setting; he has to keep on the right side of the conventions of both genres for the story to work. Fourth, he’s keeping accessibility front and center. (Fifth, no semicolons.)
There are notions in the Lock In setup that other authors would have toyed with for the entirety of the story. Where is a Haden’s consciousness when he or she is driving a threep? Do the neural nets and Integrators imply the existence of a form of telepathy? With the advances necessary for Haden-threep interaction, how far is it to fully uploading consciousness? And then there are ancillary questions. For example, Agent Shane meets some potential housemates, all of whom are Hadens driving threeps. One threep is introduced as a set of twins. “I’ll tell you later,” is about the entirety of the explanation. The question is extraneous to the story Scalzi is telling, but the idea is out there in the world he posits. There are depths to the fictional world, if a reader wants to noodle around with them, but Scalzi keeps his focus on his fast-paced mystery.
One of the questions from the set-up that he does spend a little more authorial effort on is gender and presentation. Threep bodies are not necessarily gendered (they are human-like to make the other humans more comfortable with them), and Hadens obviously have more control over their gender presentation than people who are not locked in. They also work with Integrators of either gender, having a direct experience of a different body that is not available to non-Haden humans. As an offshoot of that, Scalzi is deliberately vague about his narrator’s gender. More than vague, actually; nowhere in the novel is there a direct reference to whether Chris Shane is male or female (or indeed anything else). The audio version of the novel is available in two versions, one with a male narrator and one with a female narrator.
We didn’t hide it, or run from it — I was asked about it a couple of times during the book tour — but by and large we let people come to it without calling attention to Chris’ gender (or lack of stated one thereof). So it was very interesting to see how people reacted to it if they noticed at all, which they often did not. …
For me, this was something I could do in the specific world I constructed, and did, and was curious to see how people would respond (or even if they would respond). It’s been interesting so far.
Chris read as male to me, and also to a female friend who read the book more or less at the same time as I did. She particularly pointed to the way that Agent Shane confronts Agent Vann at a couple of points in the story as an unlikely style of interaction between two American women. In the blog entry quoted above, Scalzi notes that anecdotally about 30 percent of readers saw Agent Shane as female, so mileage obviously varies a bit.
With Lock In, Scalzi has done some things that are new to him. More importantly, though, he has kept his virtues of fast pacing, snappy dialogue, tight plotting, and vivid action.