Book Review: Head On (John Scalzi)

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Click to see my review of book #1 in the series: Book Review: Lock In (John Scalzi)

Capitalism, pro sports and disabilities don’t mix!

TL;DR – Another fast paced science fiction crime/conspiracy novel. Scalzi’s work makes for excellent reading.



Why I read it…

This book came in as “A book published this year” as part of my reading challenge.

I originally picked this book out because I love a good science fiction read. I generally hate books with sports themes, but the invented sport ‘Hilketa’ sounded like it would provide some interesting concepts.

The Story…

Hilketa is a brand new sport, designed to be played by Haden’s (people who suffer from Haden’s Syndrome, which causes a state called lock in – conscious and aware but unable to move the body). Two teams battle it out in their specially designed android bodies. The aim – to remove the head from an opponent and score a goal with it.

The league is hoping to expand globally, and all is going well until a player dies on the field. FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner Vann set out to investigate this unexpected death, only to find themselves following a trail of bodies and a conspiracy that could take down the whole league.

This book follows on roughly a year from the events of ‘Lock In’.

What I liked…

I think my favourite part of this book was that a lot of the social and ethical themes from the first book are explored in greater deal in Head On. One such example from the first book was the idea that the things that made life liveable for Haden’s would be taken over by non-Haden’s in the name of profit. Haden’s make up around 1% of the population, and after Abrams-Kettering (a bill that removed financial support for Haden’s sufferers) the markets for Hadens-related products was set to shrink. In Lock In, preparations were being made to chase the non-Haden market by paving the way for non-Hadens to use threeps (the android bodies Haden’s use to have a presence in the physical world. In ‘Head On’, this theme is explored further, and we see able-bodied protesters, whining that the Hilketa leagues only feature Haden players. Drawing obvious parallels to the sort of nonsense protests we see in the real world about ‘safe’ spaces for marginalised and minority groups. It is elements like this that demonstrate both a good understand of disability and minority issues, and it helps make the world both real and engaging.

We also learn a lot more about the world as seen through the eyes of Haden’s. Scalzi has created a really rich culture for Hadens, and we learn a good deal about the etiquette, social norms and the role of the Agora (an ‘online’ world for Hadens).

Our two main characters, Shane and Vann were the leads in ‘Lock In’, and they continue to be interesting individuals with an entertaining partnership. After a year of working together, Shane and Vann have created an effective working relationship which often involves some delightful good cop / bad cop interrogations that are enjoyable to read and often very amusing to boot. In addition we see the return of the supporting characters in the form of Shane’s housemates, who play a bigger role in this book than in ‘Lock In’.

The plot summary makes it sound like this book is heavily centred around the sport of Hilketa – and it is – but this is not a sci-fi sports novel. I was quite worried when I bought this book that it might be mostly about sport…fantastic science fiction sport, but sport none the less, and that wasn’t of great appeal to me. Fortunately this wasn’t the case. It is first and foremost a crime / conspiracy novel, which happens to involve the sport. We do learn quite a bit about how the sport works but it isn’t the primary focus.

Finally, I love the fact that Scalzi made sure to provide quick explanations of the key terms and themes as they arose. If you had read ‘Lock In’ recently then you might consider them superfluous, but it did mean that if you wanted to, you could read ‘Head On’ without having read ‘Lock In’ first, which I thought was pretty neat.

What I disliked…

I can’t exactly put my finger on anything specific that I didn’t like – I just know I enjoyed the first book more (and I read them back to back). Actually that’s not quite true – for some reason, Scalzi switched from using the word “Harness” to describe the apparatus that held a Hadens physical body, and started using “Creche” instead. I don’t know why, and it’s not exactly a problem, I just found it a bit odd.

I don’t think there was anything wrong with the book – in fact a lot of parts I thought were much better, it just overall felt a little less than its counterpart somehow. I couldn’t decide if I should give the book a 4.5 or 5 button rating – I eventually decided on 5 because it seemed unreasonably to give a book I enjoyed so much a lower rating just because of a vague sense that the first one might have been better.

Final thoughts… 

This book is an excellent sequel to ‘Lock In’ and an excellent story in its own right. Scalzi has created rich and full worlds, chock full of detail and careful thought – such careful world-craft deserves high praise.

The book doesn’t just follow a simple murder or conspiracy track, it also tackles a whole bunch of social and ethical issues which made the whole experience a lot more enjoyable for me.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes solid science fiction, also to any crime fans who don’t mind the futuristic setting.

Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

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