Head On by John Scalzi. ★★★★
While Head On is a sequel to Scalzi’s earlier science fiction novel, Lock In , it’s a stand alone mystery story. Still, I would suggest starting with Lock In so you can get to know the world and characters before diving into Head On.
FBI Agent Chris Shane is watching a live game of hilketa, where players operating robotic bodies (“threeps”) attempt to behead each other on the playing field. The game is a showcase for potential investors in the league, so the stakes are high. Then, one of the players dies in the middle of the game, a first for hilketa. Is it simply an accident or is more at work? As Chris and Leslie investigate, coincidences pile up and more dead bodies soon appear.
With Lock In and Head On, Scalzi imagines a near future where one percent of the population has Hayden’s syndrome, which lives them conscious but locked into their non-responsive bodies. Through a series of tech and research initiatives, Hadens now interact with the world through neural interfaces, either digitally online or with robotic bodies to navigate the physical world.
The premise is fascinating, combining interesting science fiction concepts with themes relating to disability rights. Many people tend to look on the Hadens as less than human, overtly or subtly mistreating them for it. This is clear in Chris’s everyday interactions. Chris has been a Haden since birth and tends to find gender insiginicant to life; subsequently, Scalzi writes the books without ever gendering Chris. For the audio book, there are two different versions with male and female narrators, respectively.
Although Head On is largely a stand alone with an independent mystery, the world has changed from book one to book two. Laws have been passed slashing or eliminating government benefits to Hadens, leaving many struggling as a result. While Chris’s wealth provides some insulation, Chris is more than aware (and unhappy with) the suffering of the larger Haden community.
Obviously, fictional sports is the name of the game in Head On. Hilketa is an interesting concept seeming sort of like a cross between a traditional team game like football or hurling and those robotic fights I’m always seeing footage of. Only, in this world, those robots are directly linked into and piloted by people’s consciousnesses. I’m not super into sports. If you know me, you probably know that already. However, I still enjoyed Head On in the same way I’ve enjoyed other sci-fi sports books such as Zeroboxer.
Like anything else by Scalzi, Head On is fast paced and fun, full of snarky dialog. Sometimes I find his writing style a bit tiring or too much on the snark, but that isn’t the case for either Lock In or Head On. They are certainly my favorite books by him, perhaps because the mystery aspect provides a solid structure. I would be more than happy to read more stories in this series.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.