Head On by John Scalzi

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10)

At some point in the future – when early 21st century media culture is assessed in all its heedless glory – a full audit of the blogger/novelist phenomenon will come to pass, and John Scalzi will likely be held as one of its most successful and admired specimens. By blogger/novelist I don’t mean “novelist who blogs”, or blogger who turns their blog into a book, but of a specific mutant hybrid of both mediums. Scalzi has transposed all the elements of a thriving blog into his fiction writing career: a prolific output that needs to be both urgent and memorable, that feels like a product of the present-day culture’s collective consciousness as much as a piece of his own brain spilling out onto page and screen. A unique biochemical cocktail is required for a brain like this to squirm its way into the marketplace of ideas, a kind of ego-driven charisma that relies far more on generosity than selfishness, but also acknowledges that a healthy dallop of self-centeredness is an essential part of the formula. There’s a moment in his new novel, the near-future crime thriller Head On, when FBI agent Chris Shane takes a “classic” Catherynne Valente novel from a suspect’s bookshelf during an interrogation, and both interviewer and interviewee awkwardly profess their love for it before moving on to the business at hand. Shout-outs to friends and colleagues are a staple of Scalzi the blogger and Scalzi the novelist, a show of warm-hearted regard that accedes not only to an author’s place in the production of a text, but to this author’s in particular. It’s not just a shout-out to Valente as a fellow traveler, but to Scalzi’s own devoted fan base, who know that moments like these express why he loves doing what he does.
Head On is the standalone sequel to Lock In, Scalzi’s popular and well-regarded technothriller from 2014. Lock In set up a near-future scenario where a small but significant percentage of the population is afflicted with Haden’s syndrome, which leaves its victims with fully active brains literally locked inside their completely inert bodies. Public accommodations for this new class of persons with disabilities ensue, resulting in, alongside other technological advances, robotic vehicles called “threeps” that a Haden can operate remotely using a neural net attached to their brains. Threeps allow Hadens to live relatively normal professional and social lives while their bodies remain stationary. Lock In introduced us to Haden FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner, non-Haden Leslie Vann, as they investigated a murder committed using Haden-based technology. In Head On, Scalzi explores the way Hadens culture leaves its mark on mass entertainment – in this case a professional sports league called Hilketa, where Hadens pilot their threeps in a game where scoring depends on forcibly removing the (robot) head of an opposing player. At the opening of Head On, a player’s real body dies as its threep’s head is removed, and suspicious activity by the league’s front office points to a coverup. Shane and Vann once again become enmeshed in a high-profile case with huge stakes, big money interests, and intense media scrutiny.
I’ve always felt that Scalzi writes fiction with a journalist’s flair for delivering information in accessible, controlled bursts. The overture to Head On comes in the form of a magazine (or probably webzine) article, a very convincing bit of faux sports reporting for Scalzi’s imaginary Hilketa league that effortlessly manages to pulls off the holy grail of genre writing: the invisible info-dump – a way of setting the table for the estranged reader in a way that would feel organic to a familiar one. It’s an effective tone-setter that plays on Scalzi’s strengths as a writer – his ability to write science fiction that appeals to SF fans without alienating non-SF readers. Scalzi can sometimes be overly meticulous in designing his plots, so part of the fun of Head On comes when you realize that his protagonist shares his creator’s passion for methodical professionalism, but his enemy is more likely akin to a belligerent fool who let one bad idea spiral dangerously out of control. A snapshot of the present moment in America, if there ever was one.
In many ways, Head On and its predecessor feel closer to the Scalzi of internet lore than his space operas do. POV narrator Shane disseminates his tale in the same easygoing, smart and snarky manner that Scalzi the blogger is known for, and while one could say the same of his other protagonists, only Shane gets to do so in a milieu that roughly approximates present day America. Because as much as Scalzi likes to make up cool stuff about things that might happen someday, he also likes to say witty things about stuff that’s going on right now, and in Head On he gets to do both in the kind of quick, digestible bites that fire up the neurons without weighing the reader down. In other words, Head On is about issues that matter to readers’ lives today, told with characters who pilot anthropomorphic robot suits. Add to this the fact that he is doing so in the form of the invincibly popular crime thriller and that the deciding agent of the story is a cat named Donut, and you know you are dealing with an author who sucks up to his readers in all the right ways.
As much as I find Scalzi’s writing consistently entertaining, I’m actually surprised at how much I liked Head On. Lock In has the distinction of being my least favorite of Scalzi’s novels; I can say with confidence, however, that Head On won me over without diverging much from the formula its predecessor established. Fans and skeptics alike should be satisfied by the time they reach the final page.
Many thanks to Netgalley and the folks at Tor Books for the opportunity to read this ARC.

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