A Few Thoughts on John Scalzi’s Lock In (Tor, 2014)

This is my very first Scalzi novel and I selected it because of the hype around Redshirts (which wasn’t available on Overdrive L). Lock In is a science fiction thriller following the basic formula of two sarcastic-remarks-exchanging cop duo solving a crime/conspiracy that gets more convoluted every chapter. What’s remarkable is that the story is set in a near-future after a devastating disease named Haden’s syndrome, a meningitis-like illness that results in some people being in “lock in,” that is to say physically entirely paralyzed but conscious. To help the 4 million US citizens touched by Haden’s, the government develops androids (nicknamed “threeps”) to download a Haden’s victim’s consciousness and effectively acts as surrogate body. Hadens (as they are called) can also use Integrators, people who contracted Haden’s but were not in lock-in, as temporary surrogates. The two main characters, FBI Agent Shane and Agent Vann, are respectively a Haden and a former Integrator who investigate Haden-related crimes.

I don’t want to enter into the details of the novel’s central plot; it’s well done and engaging, but besides the novelty of the sci-fi context it doesn’t really transcend anything you’d except from a regular thriller. What’s interesting to me is the suggestion in the book that Hadens who violate the law can be put in Haden-specific detention centers. When one character uses a threep to commit a crime, their (paralyzed) body can be requisitioned and put in such a center, and although Scalzi does not describe it, I’m intrigued by the concept. Hadens who can afford it have nurses and other attendants who take care of their physical bodies—feed them, rotate them so they won’t have bedsores, etc.—and there’s a whole discussion about whether threeps can just be stored in closet-like apartments when they need to recharge or whether, like humans, they need their own space. Shane, who is very wealthy, decides to live as his threep in a shared apartment with other Hadens. Another rich character only dwells in the Agora, the virtual space reserved for Hadens. So it seems logical to me that legally punishing a Haden could be simply done by forbidding them the access to the Agora, threeps, and Integrator, effectively leaving them stuck in their own bodies—which sounds feasible since in the text, some Hadens who misbehave while integrating can be barred from integrating for life. So Scalzi’s casual invention of the Haden detention-center simply seems to illustrate some of our beliefs about the function of prisons. Confining a Haden to their own body would already accomplish the function of the prison, since it would prevent the individual from committing more crimes, and it would also rob them of the privileges of free life. So the move of the body to a detention center is essentially a symbolical act; it is the visual symbol of the other, less-openly discussed function of prison, to sever all human connection with the one made prisoner.

The modern prison constructed in England in the 19th century and which spread under a different, more radical form in the US hereafter was centered on reforming the individual from his criminal tendencies. Some early penitentiaries of this new model thought to imprison the subject in a single cell and allow as minimal human contact with the prisoner as possible. The idea behind that was that unable to form connections with other criminals and forced to think about his own conditions, the subject would eventually be reformed. Though of course this project did not work, not solely because prisons became overpopulated almost immediately, you can still see some of the same ideologies today. For example, the idea that prisoners cannot call their families without being supervised, or the construction  of prisons far from cities to prevent too frequent visitors. Although of course Scalzi probably didn’t think about the consequences of this very minor mention of Haden detention centers in his novel, you can see that the same ideas about the function of prison applies: it is not simply that a person must be prevented from committing more crimes—it’s that they should be severed from the realm of human society altogether.

 

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