This year I pledged to read and review SF/F books authored by women. Now, this is a feminist speculative fiction blog, so that is somewhat to be expected. And lady authors tend to dominate my TBR pile anyway. And after reading about the huge discrepancy in reviews of books by lady authors versus dude authors, I formulated an agenda for myself and this blog specifically.
Well. This book is an exception.
I tried coming up with rational reasons. Like, Scalzi is feminist/dude ally/etc. Like, I’ve totally seen pictures of him in a dress (maybe I was mistaken!). But those would be lies. (Well, I have seen pictures of Scalzi in a dress, as has most of the Internet, and he is a good feminist ally in my opinion, but that isn’t why I read and reviewed this book.)
The truth is that I am a total sucker for fiction about epidemics. It doesn’t even matter if the book is dross (note: this one isn’t). If it’s about a plague, I’ll read it. This subject is my fictional kryptonite. So the truth is that you’re reading a review of a book written by a dude not because the author is a good feminist, and not because I get distracted pretty easily, even though those things are both true. It’s because I caught a whiff of my literary crack cocaine.
Since I lack self-control and read the novella cover to virtual cover between midnight and two a.m. the day it was released, I decided to go ahead and review it… in a feminist way.
Spoiler warning: I’m pretty confident that nothing revealed herein isn’t also on the jacket description for Lock In, but the extreme spoiler-phobic ought be wary.
John Scalzi’s novella Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome was released this week as a companion to his novel Lock In, to be released in August 2014. However, each book can be read as a stand-alone. Unlocked is not so much a prologue to Lock In as it is a self-contained narrative that takes place during the initial events that changed the world to the one we’ll read about in the novel. And it’s one of stark realism, both in its narration and its conflicts.
What’s refreshing about Scalzi’s stories, besides their snappy dialogue and pacing, is that at least roughly half of the characters are female. And they aren’t just window dressing, but have real agendas and motives and do things. In Unlocked, women are doctors, journalists, politicians, business entrepreneurs, government staffers, and political activists.
And together, these characters tell the story of a virus that seems almost to manifest conscious evil: initially, it looks like a particularly virulent flu that kills a substantial portion of those afflicted — enough of a percentage that we are left to imagine the effect of the strain on the burial system in developing nations that lack an organized infrastructure. And while most survivors recover fully, the ones that do not either die, suffer massive brain damage, or incur locked-in syndrome, in which their bodies are paralyzed but their autonomic nervous systems persist, and their brains are perfectly aware.
No one’s life is untouched by the virus. And so the U.S. government manages to reach a consensus to throw a vast sum of money at the problem (roughly one quarter the current unappropriated budget, or: one half the current amount of military appropriations, or: a goldmine). As a result, new technologies emerge. The locked-in sufferers achieve a certain amount of freedom from their useless bodies. Civil rights battles loom.
To tell much more would foray into spoiler-land, so I’ll conclude with what I think is unusually cool about this book. Most straight white dude authors (and indeed, most authors in general) fail spectacularly when trying to create “otherness” in a science fiction world. (Most of what I’ve read tends to be a clumsy — and often thinly veiled and unintentionally insulting — stand-in for race.) Scalzi (whether intentionally or not) does it and succeeds, at least insofar as I’m concerned.
For the locked-in experience something completely unlike what the rest of mankind has ever experienced. They are a brand new class of people. The most technical description of locked-in syndrome is a disability (and it is one that already exists in our world, as a rare side effect of strokes). But this is a disability that doesn’t just create challenges and incur prejudice, but in which the stopgap measure gives the locked-in a choice to separate themselves into a brand new world entirely.
So I’m glad that I made the exception and read this. First, because it didn’t tick me off, and it’s nice to remind myself that some SF/F dudes don’t. Second and more importantly, this is a story very cleverly told in the own words of these characters, of their failures and of their triumphs in a human health crisis of unfathomable proportions.