This is John Scalzi’s latest novel, and it is once again narrated by Wil Wheaton. At this point I’m wondering if Scalzi has him chained to a radiator in the basement with just a microphone and a bowl of bread crusts, but thankfully the combination of these two really works for me, so I’m not going to ask any questions. There is also a version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson, most well known for her role as Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In the near future, a virus spreads across the world. For a very small percentage of those affected, which still amounts to a huge number of people, it leads to them being in a state of lock in – fully conscious and awake but trapped inside their bodies, unable to move. This became known as Haden’s Syndrome and the sufferers as Hadens. Because there was such a large group of these victims, a lot of research went into supporting them, and while no cure was found, the technology was developed to allow them to interact with society again. The main advancement being humanoid robots that the Hadens can control.
The protagonist, Chris Shane, is a Haden and a new detective, and the story begins on the first day of work. Chris is a newbie, but competent, and the assignment is a Haden-related murder, one that leads to a much deeper conspiracy (as they tend to in these novels). It’s a police procedural plot, but with a really fun science fiction twist to it. The addition of Hadens into the world, and the mistaken identities that can cause, takes the plot in unique and unexpected directions at times.
Scalzi was able to have two people of differing genders narrate the audiobook without having to make any changes to the writing, because he never specifies the main character’s gender. I completely missed this while listening, despite wondering at the beginning how the two narrations worked together, but I suppose that’s because I had Wheaton’s voice reading it to me. I do wonder how the experience would have been if I had read the hard copy of this instead. Would I have assumed the main character was male because it’s natural to me to relate to the characters I read about, or because the name was Chris Shane and I know more male Chrises? What subtle hints in the writing would lead me to think one way or another, and what would that expose about my preconceived ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine? It’s a cool experiment, one that I sadly didn’t really take part in due to my choice in format, but in the end it’s also interesting that the gender didn’t really matter.
That said, all of this was just a subtle layer on top of the story, so it doesn’t really come up while reading. This isn’t an experiment in format or something that will distract the reader. It’s more of an interesting retrospective talking point for those interested when finished.
The existence of Hadens does start to mess with gender roles in the book’s world as well. These humanoid robots are genderless, so the Hadens controlling them don’t have the same subtle societal gender pressures that may exist for others. Hadens can also travel the world by using an Integrator, which is a human that allows the Hadens to essentially borrow their bodies. They act as an avatar for them, allowing a Haden to control their body and experience all of their senses. These Integrators can be male or female, so Hadens can essentially experience life, if they choose, from both sides.
This is a fun science fiction detective story with a world that gives you a lot to think about after. Some of the plot fell a bit flat for me, and I didn’t connect to most of the characters in a way that I have in some of his previous books, but I still really enjoyed myself. You never really know what you’re going to get when you open a new Scalzi novel. He’s similar to Joss Whedon in that you know a certain type of humour, and maybe a certain type of character, will be there, but the story is always a surprise. He really switches it up each book, which is great to see.