Book cover: Head OnDespite the title, the sport of hilketa—in which robots piloted by humans try to remove each other’s heads—is not the most interesting part of John Scalzi’s Head On (Tor, April 2018).

Like its predecessor, Lock In (Tor, August 2014), Head On is set in a world where millions of people have a condition called Haden’s syndrome, where they are awake and aware but locked into their bodies. Hadens log into robot avatars called “threeps” (because, yes, they resemble C-3PO) to interact with the non-Haden world. But rather than make the disease and the solution the central focus of this series, Scalzi treats them as background, tucking them away in a prequel novella, “Unlocked.” What he does instead is, to me, much more interesting: he focuses on the knock-on effects of the solution to the epidemic.

“Unlocked”—that novella—describes a multi-trillion-dollar moonshot to find a solution to the plague that left millions of people locked into their bodies. Lots of money inevitably leads to lots of waste, graft and corruption, and that in itself would be fertile ground for a couple of police thrillers—except Scalzi doesn’t make that the focus either. He goes further down the line, when the party is on the verge of being over: thanks to a new law, the money is going away, and whole sectors of the economy and society that have relied on government money aimed at supporting Haden’s patients (“Hadens”) are facing an uncertain future.

That’s the kind of enviroment, with lots of people under pressure, that can generate all sorts of interesting crime, and that’s the focus of these two novels. Transitioning to a post-funding environment opens up several cans of worms in terms of disability issues, as companies make a play to make assistive technologies available to non-Hadens—a much larger market—while Hadens face being priced out of them.

The sport of hilketa is the instigating element of Head On, but it’s rather more than just a macguffin. Hilketa is wildly popular but also reliant on government funds for Hadens’ benefits: the sport is played exclusively by Hadens remotely running specialized threeps. The whole thing is basically a tax dodge, and those funds are about to disappear. There’s a campaign arguing that the Haden-only status of hilketa is discriminatory, and a move to open it to non-Haden players (which means making the assistive tech available to the general public, see above).

So when a hilketa player dies on the field, there’s rather more going on than meets the eye. Chris Shane, the Haden FBI agent from Lock In, is at the game when it happens, is drawn into the investigation with partner Leslie Vann, and, as you might expect, gets to the bottom of all things.

Scalzi handles disability issues well, I think: Hadens’ assistive tech as a allegory for the “special” privileges of the disabled; the subtle dehumanizations of disabled people at nearly every stage; the subversive notion that the disabled are sexual beings; the class issues that mean some disabled people get better care than others. If I have one quibble it’s that the Agora—Hadens’ online space—is under-imagined and under-utilized: its implications could have been thought through a bit more.

In the end this book has a lot more depth than you might expect from something marketed as a (semicolon-less) thriller, especially one written by Scalzi, whose entertaining books are known more for their snarky dialogue and smartass characters than anything else. But, as in the case of Madeline Ashby’s Company Town (reviewed here), that expectation would be incorrect.

I received an electronic review copy of Head On via NetGalley. I bought the hardcover edition of Lock In when it came out.

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