By John Scalzi
I may include spoilers. Fore-warned and -armed and all that.
There are only a handful of authors whose books I will buy almost sight unseen. Scalzi is one of them. He’s one of the few authors whose books I will buy in hardcover, as well (also, the discount for the hardcover on Amazon was really good, made it almost like a trade paperback). I like Scalzi’s voice, his plots, his focus. If you like Scalzi for those reasons then I can recommend Head On.
Head On is the second novel set in a world where a minority (though not insignificant percentage) of the population has Haden’s disease, a disorder that paralyzes the bodies of patients, but leaves their minds untouched. They use implants in their brains to control robots like their own bodies. They can also climb into the heads (and bodies) of some Hadens who didn’t get locked in. The first book was called Lock In. The protagonist, Chris, an FBI agent and son of a famous athlete, is also a famous Haden patient. The story revolves around Haden issues, but is also a pretty straightforward detective novel.
Lock In had a couple of interesting quirks that carry over into Head On. There are issues of discrimination, health, medicine. But these are only minor. If anything, this is my least favorite part of Head On. Not that Scalzi’s addressing these issues, but that he kind of isn’t. He touches on them, but doesn’t seem to explore them. In the first novel, I felt that typical prejudices were supplanted by Haden’s discrimination. That was kind of interesting. In Head On, I think that is also true. The best star Haden athlete character is a woman in a highly physical sport, because she’s not using her body; she’s using a robot “threep” controlled by a net of sensors in her brain. OK, cool.
But that’s about all I could see in Head On that touched any issues related to the science part of the science fiction. Sure, it’s an interesting premise, but not much more than just interesting. A Haden athlete in a game called Hilketa dies. The game Hilketa, BTW, is all robots controlled by Hadens. They have to yank the head off an opponent robot and use it like a football. They also use swords and axes to attack the robots in order to take the head. One athlete dies when he loses his head. The rest of the story is about finding out who did what. It could have been a regular detective story. There was a lot of fun and funny banter, which you kind of want in a detective story.
Scalzi is low on description, high on story and dialog. He also tends to enjoy his banter. This combination sometimes leads to conversations where I was not sure which character had said what. That is to say, they all kind of sounded the same. His partner, Vann, had slightly more dimension than the others. She’s a tough, hard-assed, bad cop, compared to Chris’s witty-yet-sarcastic good cop.
Overall, if you enjoy Scalzi, you will like Head On, which is kind of an ironic name if you think about how the victim dies. The game of Hilketa was fun, but it also felt a little indulgent, I thought. The story has plenty of action. The bad guys are sufficiently bad without being cartoony.
I will continue to buy Scalzi books in hard cover, I’m sure.