Head On: A Novel of the Near Future
John Scalzi
Tor Books
Copyright 2018 by the author

FBI Agent Chris Shane had something of a front-row seat to the death of hilketa player Duane Chapman during an exhibition game. Because the league was trying to persuade his father to invest in their expansion, he was in the luxury box for the game. Well, not really there in person. Shane is one of the millions who is a “Haden” – he suffers from a neurological condition where (as described in the “prequel” Lock In) his mind cannot control his body. Thanks to a neural interface, he can operate an android body to get around.

The same tech is used in hilketa – a superviolent sport that involves knocking the head off a player on the other team, and using it to score. Can’t do that with real people, obviously.

Agent Shane finds himself on the case, with two big questions. How did Chapman die, and why does it look like the league is desperate to cover it up?

I haven’t read Lock In, so I wasn’t up to speed on the deal with the “Hadens”. Thankfully, none of that is relevant here. Once you buy into the premise, it’s just there. This novel is not an exploration of what effects the syndrome will have on society; it’s a rather straightforward crime drama. Hadens being able to remotely operate people is never used as a cheat; it’s not even a “go ahead and abuse the android body, because you yourself aren’t going to get hurt” card. The androids are expensive; roughly the cost of a high-end car. Nor (with the exception of the models designed for hilketa games) are there any deluxe versions with special powers. Shane’s investigation does take him to a company that manufactures “specialty” models that allow “Hadens” to have something resembling a sex life, but that’s it.

Scalzi has the case deal more with the international financing of professional sports leagues. Sounds like it will be a real snooze fest, right? Wrong. The stuff about marketing, expansion, sponsorships, gambling, and all that is just background that provides a motive for the killings (yes, there’s more than one as things unfold). And it was rather interesting to this baseball fan who cannot stand how sports betting has invaded the National Pastime. There’s even a bit of office intrigue in the FBI, too. In Scalzi’s hands, it all makes perfect sense.

The novel moves along at a brisk pace, never slowing down, unless Shane needs to interview someone. I didn’t get any sense of the passage of time; no one seems to eat or sleep. And when you can just connect to another android that’s already where you need to be, there’s no reason to spend time on traveling. But who wants to read about that, anyway.

I grabbed this from my local library because I wanted a SF novel to read, and I’ve read good stuff by Scalzi before (Agent to the Stars, specifically. I thought Redshirts was a good idea that wound up falling into a pile of boring sentimentality). I’d say I lucked out. Maybe I’ll read Lock In next.

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