In his new science fiction thriller, Lock In (Tor Books, 2014), novelist John Scalzi portrays a near future in which a virus has rendered some people completely paralyzed, or “locked-in” their bodies. A wealth of new technology has sprung up to meet the needs of these people, known as Hadens, after the virus that took their mobility. Most notable are the threeps—robotic bodies that Hadens can mentally control, giving them some strength and talents that able-bodied humans do not have such as the ability to transfer their consciousness instantly from one robotic body to another one in a different location.
Scalzi’s story—one of Scientific American’s “Recommended” titles for November—is a rollicking murder mystery, with meditations on disability politics and gender issues woven in. Many readers may not even notice, for instance, that the gender of Haden protagonist Chris is never revealed (pronouns for Chris are avoided throughout). Scientific American spoke to Scalzi about imagining this possible future and the parallels he sees to the real world.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
Characters in the book argue about many disability issues, such as whether or not Hadens deserve special accommodations and funding from the government. Did you aim to avoid taking a side on those questions?
I wasn’t interesting in doing a polemic. We live in a very politically polarized era right now. I do think people of good will can have different opinions but still be coming not from a place of malice.
I had the lot opportunity as part of world-building to show these different points of view and to show there are a lot of different ways of looking at things. There are some people who think that funding for Hadens has outlived its usefulness and can be allocated for other things. There are other people who see it as a willful act of bigotry. Rather than say one of these is right and the other is wrong, to me it’s more interesting to do the thing that happens in real life and say there are certainly ways to look at this as right or wrong or good or evil, but most people are looking at it with sound reasons for believing what they do.
Do you see Hadens as a metaphor for any disability cultures in the real world?
There are some parallels but you have to be very careful with that. I know a little bit about deaf culture because a friend of mine has been in the deaf culture for awhile. Over the course of 25 years she and I have talked about many of the issues and concerns for deaf people and deaf culture. I used that as a starting basis for how Hadens see their identity, and having what other people would see as a detriment be a cornerstone of a cultural and social identity. But Haden culture is not deaf culture. It has very specific things about it that real-world cultures don’t have.
I’m also aware of the simple fact of the matter that when I’m a man with no disabilities greater than wearing glasses, you have a potential minefield when you model a disability culture. This was my attempt. It was worth it to make the attempt. But by all means criticize it, because the next time I do it I don’t want to make the same mistakes.
Why did you choose to leave the gender of the protagonist unspecified?
Chris spends all of the book in a threep. There’s no immediate reason for Chris to be gendered one way or the other. Threeps do not necessarily have to show any gender preference.
I thought it would be interesting to have people think of what their own defaults are, in a way that was not obnoxious or hitting people on the head. By not specifying it and also not making it a big deal within the plot of the story I leave a lot of room for people’s implicit biases to see where they default, and to give them an opportunity to examine what they are. It’s been very interesting to me to see how people respond. A lot of people see Chris as a dude. That could have to do with the fact that I’m male and also with the fact that as a society we generally default to male.
Without a human body, do you think gender is less meaningful?
I don’t know that gender is less important but it allows for some fluidity that you might not otherwise have. It’s not somebody who’s magically removed in a genderless utopia. But it does allow for a completely different expression of gender without necessarily the penalties we might normally see.
Some of the technologies Hadens use in the book give them powers that able-bodied people don’t have. Do you see any of our real-world technologies playing a similar role?
One of the things that has happened recently is people are beginning to see that prostheses do not necessarily equate to disability. Before his problems with the law [South African runner] Oscar Pistorius was sprinting on those really cool legs of his and people were legitimately asking if the prostheses he had were giving him a competitive advantage over [runners with] full and complete human legs. That was one of the first times people started talking about how the unmodified human body might not be the most competitive form of the human body.
I don’t think we’re at the point where most people are willing to get rid of body parts and replace them but then again people who shoot lasers in their eyes come out with better than perfect vision. There are all sorts of examples where technology is improving the human body but we don’t necessarily think about them as this great revolution.
One of the conceits of the book is that there’s this moon shot and people are all of a sudden confronted with these new technologies. In the real world we have a continual drip of the technology advancing. By the time I’m 75 and I have a new hip and my eyes are laser cleaned of cataracts, I wont think I’m a bionic man. I think that’s just how technology works. The posthuman future of humanity will not announce itself, it will just creep up on us.