John Scalzi
Unlocked Cover

RYO Review: Unlocked by John Scalzi


John Scalzi's 2014 novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome was released as a companion to his upcoming novel Lock In. However, each book can be read as a stand-alone. Unlocked is not so much a prologue to Lock In as it is a self-contained narrative that takes place during the initial events that changed the world to the one we'll read about in the novel. And it's one of stark realism, both in its narration and its conflicts.

What's refreshing about Scalzi's stories, this one included, is that the characters are at least roughly half female. And they aren't just window dressing, but have real agendas and motives and do things. In Unlocked, women are doctors, journalists, politicians, business entrepreneurs, government staffers, and political activists.

And together, these characters tell the story of a virus that seems almost to manifest conscious evil: initially, it looks like a particularly virulent flu that kills a substantial portion of those afflicted — enough of a percentage that we are left to imagine the effect of the strain on the burial system in developing nations that lack an organized infrastructure. And while most survivors recover fully, the ones that do not die or suffer massive brain damage incur locked-in syndrome, in which their bodies are paralyzed but their autonomic nervous systems persist, and their brains are perfectly aware.

No one's life is untouched by the virus. And so the U.S. government manages to reach a consensus to throw a vast sum of money at the problem (roughly one quarter the current unappropriated budget, or: one half the current amount of military appropriations, or: a goldmine). As a result, new technologies emerge. The locked-in sufferers achieve a certain amount of freedom from their useless bodies. Civil rights battles loom.

To tell much more would foray into spoiler-land, so I'll conclude with what I think is unusually cool about this book. Most straight white dude authors (and indeed, most authors in general) fail spectacularly when trying to create "otherness" in a science fiction world. (Most of what I've read tends to be a clumsy — and often thinly veiled and unintentionally insulting — stand-in for race.) Scalzi (whether intentionally or not) does it and succeeds, at least insofar as I'm concerned.

For the locked-in experience something completely unlike what the rest of mankind has ever experienced. They are a brand new class of people. The most technical description of locked-in syndrome is a disability (and it is one that already exists in our world, as a rare side effect of strokes). But this is a disability that doesn't just create challenges and incur prejudice, but in which the stopgap measure gives the locked-in a choice to separate themselves into a brand new world entirely.

This is a story told very cleverly in the own words of these characters, of their failures and of their triumphs in a human health crisis of unfathomable proportions.