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)
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.