THE BLOG
08/29/2014 11:34 am ET | Updated Oct 29, 2014

Disability Today and John Scalzi's Great, New Novel 'Lock In'

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Lock In, a near-future murder-mystery by John Scalzi, may be the first major work of speculative fiction that is, fundamentally, about wheelchairs. If that doesn't excite you, what will?

Technically, only one wheelchair appears in the novel, very briefly, and is never seen again.

Really, the novel is about two cops trying to solve a murder, but they are doing it in a world dealing with chronic illness and the complexities of high-tech solutions to forced immobility. The story is great, but the depth of the book comes from the way Scalzi interweaves contemporary questions about disability and society into his near-future thriller.

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What is the relationship between the body and the self? If our body becomes a machine, how does that change our identity? Do we stay human?

The World Cup this year began with a widely-publicized "breakthrough" achievement -- a paraplegic in an exoskeleton would "kick" the opening ball, sending signals to the leg from his brain. The scientist behind the device, Miguel Nicolelis, said, "It's going to be like putting a man on the moon."

In fact, when revealed, the exoskeleton was cumbersome, rather than liberating. The "kick" was more of a tap, indistinguishable from a little gust of wind rolling the ball a few inches. Profound questions about the practicality of the scientific principles behind the device remain unanswered. Still, it seems clear that the future of assistive technology for people with physical disabilities will include some form of mind-machine integration.

If this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, well, perhaps that's because sci-fi authors have been pondering these issues for generations, often reflecting on their concerns about contemporary interactions between humans and technology even while setting their stories in a near or distant future. The classic robot and android stories of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick ponder whether a machine can have a self. Cyberspace and virtual reality, as it appears in the work of William Gibson and others, disembodies the mind entirely, letting the self roam free, devoid of matter.

Lock In, the latest novel from John Scalzi, one of the best-known authors currently writing in the genre, engages these questions through the framework of disability and assistive technology. The book, a murder-mystery thriller set in the near future, and its companion prequel novella, Unlocked (available for free online), combines the mechanical body and disembodied mind in a world responding to new forms of chronic illness.

In some ways, Lock In feels like a normal crime story. It starts with a rookie FBI agent, Chris Shane, on day one of a new job arriving at the scene of a murder and meeting a troubled, hard-drinking, veteran partner. Over the course of the novel, Shane tries to untangle a plot involving corporate titans and powerful political forces. There are gunfights, street brawls, car crashes, tense interview scenes, heartfelt backstories, innocents who seem guilty (and vice versa), plot twists and plenty of surprising revelations. Shane's body, however, spends the book immobile in Chris' parents' house while the protagonist's mind controls machine-bodies in Washington, D.C. and around the country.

This is typical of Scalzi's writing. He likes to set the tropes and structures of classic genres within innovative settings or premises, thus ending up with books that feel simultaneously familiar and original. His acclaimed Old Man's War series, for example, placed 75-year-old Earthlings into new bodies in the space military, at war in a hostile galaxy. Thus, instead of being kids in space (think Starship Troopers, one of Scalzi's favorite books), the characters are old men and women, burdened and blessed with a lifetime of lessons and losses, now fighting among the stars.

For Lock In, the premise involves the advent of a terrible new virus that rampages throughout the world, killing millions. Some of the survivors catch nothing more than a bad case of flu and recover fully. A critical one percent (which we are told means about 5 million people in the U.S) experiences "lock in." Their brains function fully; their bodies cannot move. Responding to this new form of chronic illness, which becomes known as "Haden's syndrome," changes the world.

By the time the novel begins, technology has arrived not to save the day or present a cure, but to provide assistive technological aid. Clever engineers and greedy corporations have developed the means to link the minds of Hadens to artificial bodies, allowing them to move about in the world once more. Adding even more complexity, some of the people who survive the virus can "integrate" with those who are locked in, carrying their consciousness around in the flesh. Mind-controlled robots, human minds using the bodies of other people, immobile flesh, and even virtual reality all come together to fuel an innovative murder mystery.

On a certain level, this is a story about "wheelchairs," or rather assistive mobility devices. That's unusual. While many science fiction stories depict advanced technological responses to plagues or injuries, such stories usually involve seemingly miraculous cures. To my knowledge, this is the first science fiction novel based largely around the complexities of providing reasonable accommodations for disability.

As the story unfolds, Scalzi transports important contemporary debates about the nature of disability into his imagined future. All this fancy technology is expensive. In the wake of the plague, in America, the federal government paid for it all, but that's about to stop. How will the needs of Hadens get met in a post-support world? Activists in the community stage a march on Washington. Though the march is supposed to be a peaceful demonstration, "Clanks," and "Dodgers" (these are both slurs) clash in the streets of the capital.

In the meantime, it turns out one company has come close to producing a drug that might release Hadens from their locked-in state. This raises another issue. Do we construct disability as a disease needing to be cured or as a difference requiring robust accommodation? Can both principles co-exist? In the world of the novel, Hadens have terrific technological innovations and a rich culture in a virtual reality. Their fleshly bodies can be maintained while their robots travel the world, free from the risks of injury, diseases, and other frailties. Why should they be cured?

Such debates are continually playing out in our society, shaping the ways in which we talk about disability, medicine, and technology. Cochlear implants, devices that can allow some deaf people to hear, have been hailed as miracles, but also sparked widespread protests from those who see Deaf as a culture. Implants for children, they argue, will destroy Deaf culture dependent on a richly nuanced use of sign language. In the world of intellectual disability, activists have written against the use of "cure" in the context of Down syndrome and Autism. Ameliorate and accommodate, they say, but neither is a disease requiring fixing.

Beyond the questions about costs and practicality, even the exoskeleton at the World Cup received this type of criticism. Red Nicholson, a writer on disability, responded to the exoskeleton hype by asking, "Why the obsession with walking?" He's happy with his wheelchair. What he needs is for society to emphasize accessibility, rather than hyping a norm to which he doesn't aspire.

As Sara Hendren, a leading theorist about technology, disability, and design is fond of saying, "all technology is assistive technology." Wheelchairs, shoes, crutches, and cars all help propel us through the world. Glasses, hearing aids and gloves all adjust our sensory experience. What we label as disabled or medical changes our societal response to both the tech and the people who need to use it.

Lock In is not a book about wheelchairs. It's a book about murder, greed, a rookie agent trying to find himself and escape the shadow of his famous father, virtual reality, gunfights, fist fights, robot fights, hacking, and plot twists worthy of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Scalzi is not producing didactic fiction; he's telling a great story.

One of the advantages of fiction, however, is that it can leap ahead of the complicated, messy, process of technological innovation and speculate about the cultural consequences of change. That's very much the case with Lock In. Scalzi can simply declare a technology commercially viable, a legislative process complete, or turn a demonstration violent. Through this imaginative process, he also can explore the shape of languages and ideas that will be a part of the debates on technology, disability, and the self in the decades to come.