A Discussion of Disability in Lock In

Lock In is going to be a hard book for me to talk about. On the one hand, it is a fairly typical if well done police procedural/murder mystery. On the other hand, and probably the part that really made its impact on me, is the fascinating exploration of disability and evolving technology.

It is no secret to anyone who has visited my website that I am very, very interested in the representation of disability in speculative fiction, not just in our books, but in our culture.

I have read a few books this year which have explored the interesting social, cultural and political fluxes that take place when the atypical is pervasive and has a very real, and powerful foothold in the social stream of consciousness. The fact that these books both take place in the very near future, in worlds much like our own make these situations all the more impactful. For example, the situations that lead to the events in Lock In start just fifteen years in the future, but when we meet the characters in the book, legislation has been passed, society has started to evolve, and cultures are rubberbanding against each other in an effort to accommodate, understand, or even in some cases limit.

Readers are given a powerful point of entry into situations that the differently abled in our society are facing on a daily basis. Furthermore, the fact that our protagonist, one Chris Shane, is a ‘threep’ (from C-3P0), not only are readers forced to think about these social issues, but they are thrust into the center of them through a protagonist who has been on the world stage for being a Handens from the time he was two.

Chris Shane is essentially trying to live his life, and dig his way out from under the impressive and weighty shadow of his infamous father. While he might use technology to function normally, he basically just wants to get on with his life and make his career in the FBI a success. The use of threeps, a type of robotic device Hadens use to walk, talk, work and so forth, virtual reality, and integrators (people who let Haden individuals ride in, and control their bodies for a time) are some of the technologies that have arisen to accommodate those locked in so they can still live despite their body’s physical status.

Technology always brings some sort of a backlash along with it, and Scalzi addresses some of these. For example, one person early in the book is referenced as being afraid that the upcoming peaceful protest is going to increase danger in the streets due to the fact that threeps are stronger than actual people, which is quickly and soundly disproven. There are also derogatory slang names for Hadens and threeps, and plenty of discomfort caused by prejudice and misunderstanding.

Of course all things technological are in a constant state of flux, and advances are made that make individuals ask important moral and political questions. For example, if there was a cure for Hadens, would Shane take it? The problem is that the “cure” topic is far more complex than anyone can really address in a few words, and plenty of people have rightfully charged thoughts on the matter. As Shane points out in the novel, his one experience in an integrator’s body left him uncomfortable, and wasn’t pleasant at all. Individuals who became locked in later in life might yearn for a day when their bodies can function normally again.

In our own society, the word “cure” is marched out quite often in the media. The more I research and learn about disability, the more I can start understanding just how supercharged that word can be. On the one hand, there’s this perspective: “if there were a cure for your child that would fundamentally change who he is, would you welcome it?” On the other hand, as a researcher says later in the article, the word “cure” in media the media is often a misnomer, and a rather damaging one at that. Often times these studies that talk about cures are often actually less about the cure, and more about subverting more of the symptoms of a disorder. (Read the whole article here – highly recommended)

Another perspective regarding this:

Ask any wheelchair user, particularly one who’s been in the game a while, and they’ll tell you that they’re far too busy living their life to sit there worrying about whether or not they’ll ever walk. We just get on and do.

Language is powerful, and I’ve addressed that topic before so I feel no need to tread on that ground again. The point is, language can supercharge situations and bring out strong and justified feelings on both sides of whatever line. The word “cure” in the disabled community and the many reactions to it is just one example of the power of language and its potential to divide and upset/please and bring together. And Scalzi addresses that in various forms throughout the novel.

Science fiction and fantasy can be powerful tools that can take readers beyond themselves and think about issues that might not normally touch them. While talk of a “cure” for this or that is often thrown around in the media, I don’t think I’ve seen it addressed quite as poignantly, or memorably as I have in Lock In, or Binary. Words are undeniably powerful. Literature allows us to take notice of things we’d typically not think about by thrusting us in someone’s reality who does.

“Making people change because you can’t deal with who they are isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. What needs to be done is for people to pull their heads out of their asses. You say ‘cure.’ I hear ‘you’re not human enough.’”
– Lock In, John Scalzi

Issues with disability, as addressed in Lock In, go much further than language and the power of words. With the passing of a new law, the Haden community is in some sort of a panic. What happens when government has to pull back from its funding of various disability programs which help those who suffer from it function? Haden patients have a sort of computer in their brain so they can control their threep bodies, and there is talk of how, once the government stops funding some of these companies and research, the poor people may have to sit through a few minutes of advertisements each morning before they can get on with their day, while others will have to pay a monthly subscription or an exorbitant fee to have someone manage their network privately. Furthermore, the virtual reality that many Haden individuals slip into for some solace will also eventually be subscriber based. Should anyone have to watch a few minutes of advertisements before they are allowed to function?

Hadens syndrome wasn’t picky with who it took and who it didn’t. Scalzi addresses the fact that just about every walk of life has suffered from the disease, and everyone will be impacted in one way or another. Much like cancer, this is one of those diseases that the whole family seems deal with. While the protagonist, Shane, is very wealthy and can afford to keep on keeping on with minimal change due to these political upsets, many people can’t. Their lives will be drastically altered and that’s something to think about. One big problem Scalzi addresses is when someone stops taking care of your network, holes appear that allow in hackers, and who wants a hacker in their brain?

Disabilities don’t discriminate in Scalzi’s world, and they don’t in ours either. That’s something to think about, and I’m grateful that Scalzi addressed that.

Technology is always advancing. We have cochlear implants to help the deaf hear, surgeries that can improve eyesight dramatically, and exoskeletons that can help people walk again. Our media talks about cures, and our disabled talk about rights. Words are powerful, and the assistive tools that many disabled use are becoming less cumbersome, more adaptive, and easier to use. We have come leaps and bounds from the years when anyone different was electrocuted in the asylum and sent home drooling. While Scalzi’s situations are all hypothetical, it doesn’t take me much effort to be able to find relatable, very similar situations in our own world.

There are definitive parallel lines between the disabled and their often overlooked opinions regarding their own bodies and lives, and some of the issues that Scalzi raises in his book Lock In. Scalzi doesn’t really give his readers answers, and I think that’s a good thing. He just puts the situations out there, sometimes in the limelight, and sometimes buried a little behind the plot, and lets readers make up their own mind. How would you feel about a cure? Supercharged politics? The rights of threeps? The list goes on and on.

Speculative fiction is a brilliant genre that plays with “what if.” Often these progressive, thought provoking dialogues on issues like disability can cause real world change. It is important to keep books like this in our libraries, on our shelves, in our social stream of awareness. Lock In gave people an insight into a few of the thoughts, struggles, insights, and plights of the disabled in a way very few books have. As for the importance to keep things like this in the genre, I think Corinne Duyvis says it best in this week’s Special needs in Strange Worlds:

SFF features countless heart-wrenching scenes featuring protagonists who decide to “mercy kill” a loved one who underwent a terrible ordeal. It’s meant as a poignant, tragic show of compassion and mercy. The characters will give reasons like: “They can’t even talk.” “They’re drooling.” “They’re not the same person they used to be.” “They wouldn’t have wanted this.” “They can’t even look after themselves.” “It’s unnatural keeping them alive like this.”

What does that imply about the millions of disabled people who fit those descriptions?

Similar problems arise with other parallels. Characters may be disrespected, treated as burdens, or wallow in their own misery in ways that echo problematic portrayals of disabled people. For all the interesting questions tackled in SFF, I wish I saw more questions of informed consent. Or questions of treatment, of assistive tools, of accommodations, of community. Characters rarely adapt to their situation and move on with their life to the best of their ability.

While I don’t think disability metaphors are sufficient disability representation, I do think that they’ll come up naturally in many texts, and that they’re relevant to the discussion of disability in SFF. For authors, it’s important to be true to their plot, their world, and their characters … but it’s also important to consider how their narrative may resonate with and impact disabled readers.

Last week I got an email from someone who reads my column which said:

There is a pervasive belief that the disabled struggle because disability is negative. No one seems to realize that a lot of the reason why we struggle is a reflection of society’s failure to accommodate our needs. I see this a lot in SFF books through disabled characters being pushed aside and marginalized, overlooked and forgotten about.

That quote has stuck with me throughout reading Lock In, because, in some ways, this seems to be that one book that dares to intimately address some of the common issues so few of us actually think about, that mean so much to those we tend to overlook. Lock In takes a world impacted by a disability that there is absolutely no chance of overlooking, and makes readers see what an impact it would have on the politics, the dialogue, the technology, and the individual spirit. Humanity would change, undoubtably. Kind of interesting to see just what those changes might entail when there’s no chance of overlooking or avoiding.

These situations are happening all around us, all the time. Scalzi was bold enough to write about it. Politics, technology, social norms, cultural clashes aren’t just part of Lock In. They are all around us.

Is this the book that everyone will agree with? No, of course not. Will it please everyone? No, but art is fluid like that. However, it dares to go where so few books go, and I sincerely hope it is the tip of the iceberg. It will make readers think, and see things differently, and that is a huge success. More importantly, books like this give me hope. When a powerful voice like Scalzi writes a book that illuminates many of the concerns the disabled today face, I have to applaud. Thank you, John Scalzi, for bringing this incredibly important issue to light for so many. I sincerely hope that this is just the start. Someday, perhaps, books like this won’t be so unusual.

One can only hope.

7 Responses

  • MeThunk

    Yeah they/we are all around us/you. Scalzi so far has been picking and choosing(just as he does his comments allowed in his comments section) what he deems makes him a better …ahem..Man. So It was only a matter of time before Self Confessed Bleeding Hearts realized there was more to being a minority then being black(and female even though female is not a minority) and that one might want to send a little attention if not love there way(every now and then)

    I find it very condescending, Just as I find Writers who ask for comments and then censor opinions to be disgraceful.

    But that’s just me.

  • bogo_lode

    As a deaf person with a cochlear implant, I really appreciated reading this. You’ve addressed a lot of what’s difficult to articulate when discussing disability and the positioning of options as “cures”.

  • There are interesting disability-related aspects to Lock In, though in my opinion this topic has been treated, arguably better, on another excellent SF book: Distress, by Greg Egan (which also deals with sex/gender identity and asexuality).

    I’m blind, and speaking for myself while I sympathise with the “social model” of disability and the fear that focusing on the cure or the impairment or presenting disability as a negative can be problematic, I’m also quite opposed to the notion that disability is somehow neutral. Having a disability–certainly in my experience–incurs costs: it makes life harder, it decreases one’s choice set. Some of these things can be corrected or compensated through technology, help from society or family, or the like; but some is inherent to the situation. Of course cures are often not, and I wouldn’t attempt it at any cost (a lot of people blind from birth for example have a lot of problems integrating visual information if they recover sight). But I find just as problematic the idea that these things are just neutral and that there’s nothing to be preferred between being disabled and not.

    • I personally think the topic of disability is far too complex to fit into any one school of thought. I can see where just about anyone comes from, and I think all opinions are very valid. We all feel and react to things differently. Who am I to decide who is right and who is wrong?

      My brother is severely disabled, and his disabilities suck. There’s no way around that. He can’t walk anymore, he can’t read anymore, and he’s always felt “different” due to his brain development issue. He doesn’t fit in with anyone because his problems are so obscure. He told me a few days ago that his situation really depresses him. It’s very, very challenging, and I don’t think that’s neutral at all. It’s hard, and it sucks, and I completely recognize that. I do think it is possible to hate the disability and love the person. Then again, my own limitations have crept on me with age, and they are degenerative, and I know that it will get a lot worse than it is now, and it will never get better. Dealing with that, on a very personal level, has given me a different insight into the disability topic…. And as for your comment about disability incurring cost, yes, it does. Emotional and physical cost, as well as the bank account version.

      My concern is less regarding schools of thought and more about realizing that everyone should be equal, and representation should reflect that. I feel like this is an area where SFF kind of falls flat. There is so much discussion about women, minorities and etc in our literature, but very little discussion about disability. I started my weekly column on SF Signal – Special Needs in Strange Worlds to try to get some limelight on the topic – try to get a discussion – ANY discussion going, and I move that over here when I can, to illuminate the books and topics related to disability that I come across as I read.

      As for that Greg Egan book, I’m going to look it up and read it. I always welcome book suggestions!

  • A lot of the talk about the cure in Lock In reminded me very much of conversations I’ve seen in the Deaf community time and time again: “why do you want to change me?” That’s a simplistic way of putting it, admittedly, and there’s far more to the argument than just that, but very often it comes down to the assumption that with a cure for any given disability, those who receive it will instantly have their lives improved because reasons. Never mind that they may have pretty much grown up with their disability in the way that many people grow up WITHOUT a disability, so it is quite literally a fundamental part of their identity. No, what matters most is having them integrated with what the abled community considers normal.

    And on one hand, as a quick basic knee-jerk reaction, sure, that logic seems sound. Why not help more people adapt to the world around them? Isn’t that going to make it easier for everyone? On the other hand, why are we so focused on changing people when very often, a few smaller modifications to surroundings would be easier, more cost-effective, and also take care of the obstacles for those to whom the ‘cure’ may not apply?

    Lock In’s one of those great novels that properly presents the whole situation as a multi-faceted concept with many different viewpoints to be considered, not something that just has this quick fix that everyone with a disability is salivating over. I loved it. And I think that more people should read it for the conversations in disability and accomodation that it should inspire.

  • Michele

    Just FYI, you refer to Chris as “he” but nowhere in the book is Chris confirmed as male or female – and it doesn’t matter since Chris is only perceived as a threep. Just another layer to the whole story – what role does gender play when you don’t have a functional body?

    • Fantastic point! I went through the book over the weekend and realized that Chris is never referred to as a “he” or “she.” It’s very, VERY subtle on Scalzi’s part and incredibly easy to miss, but also a very powerful statement. I’m glad you mentioned it!

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