Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi

 

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

 

I loved Lock In (review), John Scalzi’s novel that introduced us to the world of Hadens and threeps as experienced through the eyes of new FBI agent Chris Shane. And when I heard that there would be another story set in the same world… well, excited isn’t even the word for it.

Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the premise. Some 25 years in the past, a new strain of flu ravaged the globe, killing millions, and leaving a percentage of survivors “locked in” — fully aware, yet unable to carry out any voluntary bodily functions. Those in this locked-in state became known as Hadens, in honor of the syndrome’s most famous early patient, the wife of then-President Haden. As Haden’s Syndrome ravaged populations world-wide, enormous funds and resources were devoted to treatment, and the most significant innovations were the development of neural nets — basically, networking implanted in the brains of Hadens — and threeps — personal transport devices into which Hadens transport their consciousness, allowing them to move, interact, have jobs, and live in the world, all while their actual bodies are safely at home supported by life-support systems and caregivers.

Agent Shane is a Haden, who at one point was incredibly famous by virtue of his basketball star father’s enormous influence, popularity, and wealth. Now, Shane just wants a life of his own, out of the spotlight, pursuing a meaningful career and being a contributing member of society.

Okay, those are the basics of this sci-fi world.

As for Head On, I can safely say that this book lives up to the thrill-level of Lock In, presenting a whole new facet of Haden existence one year after the events of that book. In Head On, the narrative kicks off with a death on a sports field. But this isn’t football — this is the brave new world of professional Hilketa leagues, played by Hadens in threeps in a game that feels like a mash-up of rugby and gladiator combat. And just think about the weirdness of it all: While the players are superstar athletes with multi-million dollar endorsements, they’re also physically in their immobilized bodies at the same time they’re experiencing glory on the field. Hilketa players feel pain (league rules require them to keep their pain settings at a minimal level), but the physical damage — like having limbs or even heads ripped off — happens only to the threep itself.

The description of the game is both ridiculous and captivating — kind of like reading about Quidditch for the first time!

When a player dies after sustaining damage on the field, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on then just an unfortunate sports-related death. The FBI is responsible for investigating Haden-related crimes, so it’s Agents Shane and Vann on the job once again. The agents’ chemistry is just as entertaining as in the first book, full of quips and banter, as well as an astonishingly effective good cop, bad copy routine that never gets old.

The mystery of the death and the implied scandal and corruption within the Hilketa league are intriguing. The clues and schemes are pretty mind-boggling, and I’ll admit that by the time the story starts unraveling financial misconduct and corporate fraud, I did get a bit lost in some of the details. No matter. The important connections are built up piece by piece, so that by the end, it all fits together in a way that makes sense and gives us the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Despite the murders and mayhem, there’s plenty of fun along the way, especially when it comes to seeing Shane with his Hadens roommates and all their goofy dynamics. Oh, and did I mention the cat? There’s a cat. And the cat becomes a crucial bit of evidence in a way that’s cute and clever and made me laugh.

A word about gender:

You may have noticed that I refer to Agent Shane as “he”… and that’s just not entirely accurate. Both Lock In and Head On are written in the first person, with Chris Shane as narrator.

And, I’m ashamed to say, it absolutely never occurred to me that the author never actually specifies Chris’s gender. I suppose I assumed that Chris was short for Christopher, back when I first started Lock In, and I pictured Chris as a male throughout my read of the first book. It wasn’t until I encountered this article prior to the publication of Head On that I even realized that I’d jumped to conclusions.

Again, John Scalzi NEVER SAYS whether Chris is male or female. Both are possible. And what’s really cool is that two versions of the audiobook are available, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson. I downloaded the Wil Wheaton version back when I got Lock In, and wasn’t aware that there was any other version.

So now, as I was reading Head On, I couldn’t help hearing Wheaton’s voice in my head and consequently continued picturing of Chris as a male — but at least now, I stopped to think and reconsider certain scenes. Would the dynamic of Shane and Vann’s banter come across differently if it was between two females agents, rather than male and female? Is there an element of sexual politics implicit in the male/female working partnership that would have struck me differently if the gender differential was removed?

I can only imagine that the tone of certain parts of the story would feel very different to me if I’d been picturing a female lead character all along. So I’ve decided to put it to the test. Not right now, but sometime soon, I plan to revisit Head On by listening to the audiobook, and this time around, I’ll choose the Amber Benson version. Should be fascinating! And if I find that it’s a really different experience of the same story, I’ll be sure to report back.

Enough of my rambles…

Back to the review: I can definitely recommend Head On for anyone who enjoys science fiction with a touch of humor. While Head On doesn’t feel quite as revelatory as Lock In, in which the author had to build a whole new reality, it’s still quite an enjoyable, attention-grabbing read. John Scalzi is an amazing writer, and I hope he’ll continue to explore this world in future books.

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The details:

Title: Head On
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 17, 2018
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi

  1. I read Lock In and to me Chris definitely felt male. Then I also read an article, after the fact, that explains there is no gender reference. I am highly interested in hearing yer take on listening to Amber Benson’s read of it. Arrr!
    x The Captain

  2. Wow, fascinating. Lock In has been on my list for a long time, I’ll have to move it up. Scalzi has a great blog, have you checked it out?

  3. Great review. I’m always looking for more books to add to my summer reading list. Do you have any other suggestions?

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