Book Nook: Head On, by John Scalzi

May 18, 2018

John Scalzi is probably the best known writer who lives in our area. Here's a review of his latest book that I wrote for the Cox Ohio newspapers:

John Scalzi just published "Head On," the follow-up novel to his 2014 book "Lock In." Scalzi, who resides in the village of Bradford (OH) is full of surprises and this book contains several. The author has recounted how years ago he determined at random whether to write mysteries or science fiction. Science fiction won out. Even so this new book contains elements of a murder mystery.

The protagonist in "Head On" is an FBI agent named Chris Shane. Scalzi makes a point of having Chris lack any determinative gender. In a recent interview the author told me that his male readers usually think of Chris as a male and about half of his female readers will consider Chris to be a female. Interesting disparity, eh?  Chris is a "Haden" - Hadens are the survivors of a disease that has rendered them motionless and immobile.

Hadens function in society through the use of "threeps" - sophisticated android devices designed to provide their users with the physical abilities that their inert bodies lack. Hadens "port" themselves into "threeps" while their physical bodies repose in locations where caretakers can provide the services they continue to need. For example, their hair still grows and at one point in the story we find our FBI agent back home inside their body while their mother provides a haircut.

"Head On" is a science fiction/mystery/police procedural/cyberpunk thriller. The story opens as an athletic event is underway. That's another surprise, "Head On" is also a sports book and the title could refer to the goal of the sport known as "Hilketa" which is being played by Hadens in remote locations operating gladiatorial "threeps" on a playing field and scoring goals by literally knocking their opponents' heads off. Any potential victor will probably have been able to keep his or her "head on."

Our first fatality occurs when one of the players who is operating his "threep" remotely like every other Haden "on the field" keeps losing his head and meanwhile back in Philadelphia the actual person guiding the "threep" has died during the match. This never happened before, how did this happen? Was it a natural death? Or was there foul play involved?

The FBI is notified and Chris and their partner the agent Leslie Vann are called in to investigate. Coincidentally Chris was attending the game as the suspicious death was occurring. A running gag: Chris keeps wrecking "threeps." They are expensive - Hadens can function in society because they had been the recipients of excellent government health insurance. John Scalzi describes "Head On" as "a novel of the near future" but it has a very topical, current feel to it.

The Book Nook on WYSO is presented by the Greene County Public Library with additional support from Washington-Centerville Public Library,  Clark County Public LibraryDayton Metro Library, and Wright Memorial Public Library.