Monday, December 22, 2014

Chi-SF: Lock-in

Yesterday was the Chicago Speculative Fiction Community's discussion of John Scalzi's new novel, "Lock In" (2014). The unanimous consensus was that we liked it: an enjoyable read. However, that caveat out of the way, we had some pretty in-depth criticisms. Gripes and spoilers below!
First off: most of us were rather hilariously flabbergasted to learn about the gender ambiguity of the narrator. The novel is told in first person, and it never reveals the gender of our narrator, Chris Shane. Attention was drawn to this by the fact that Scalzi commissioned the audiobook with two different versions--one by Wil Wheaton, and another by Amber Benson. However, the novel doesn't throw this in your face, Scalzi kept it on the DL in early publicity for the book, and unless one were tapped into news about the book it could easily escape one's attention. It certainly did me!

(BTW it's worth reading Scalzi on this topic [make sure to read Scalzi's first comment on the post]; the Tor article by Chris Lough is good stuff as well.)

I gotta say: guilty as charged for assuming Shane is male. If "Chris" were a name I were inclined to read as ambiguous I might have caught on--a few of the people at group said they consider Chris as much of a woman as a man's name--but as it stood I, as a man reading a first-person book by a male author, assumed Chris was a "he" the whole way through. Flipping back through afterwords, I can see the way Scalzi ducked the issue--Shane was a "child" or a "kid", never a boy/girl/son/daughter. There's only one fleeting reference to their romantic life, and checking the text we confirmed they're only referred to as an "ex"--not boyfriend or girlfriend.

Alright Scalzi, points for doing this pretty subtly, presenting us with a pretty compelling case for the kind of gender assumptions your readers make, without making it a plot point. Me certainly included.

We couldn't help drawing some comparisons to Leckie's "Ancillary Justice" (2013), where gender ambiguity is decidedly not in the background: it's the main topic of discussion for that novel. I'm also of course thinking of the so-far-timeless meditations on gender in Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" (1969), and Winterson's "Written on the Body" (1992). The latter isn't SF, but is one of the best genre-be-damned books I've ever read, and features a first-person narrator whose gender is never revealed.

(Seriously, check that out if you're interested in a truly beautifully-written novel on love and loss, extremely smart and sexy and sad.)

We racked our brains for a bit for examples of first-person stories where the narrator has a different gender than the author, wanting to test the idea that we generally assume a first-person narrator to be the same gender as the writer. Couldn't come up with a lot of clear examples or counterexamples--I did bring up the "clearly masculine" narrator of pre-outed Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See" (1973), and we discussed a number of other authors whose gender was concealed by pseudonyms, initials, or otherwise ambiguous naming practices.

Moving on! One of the things I did find interesting about this novel is how uninterested it is in a lot of facts about its characters. Because the Hadens (a large community of people who have been "locked in" by essentially a viral meningitis/flu, and subsequently connected to virtual and robot bodies by means of direct brain-to-computer interfaces) never interact "in the flesh", Scalzi is able to work with characters without reference to race, for instance. Shane is black (his father is, anyway), which information we don't get until about two thirds through the book. There's also the twins who inhabit one body, which is never clarified, and indeed seems included almost as a tossed-off "see, we don't need to pry into this" kind of thing.

Curiously, there's at least one incident where Shane immediately characterizes a robot body as a "woman", based solely on tone of voice.

I was pretty bummed that Scalzi didn't explore a few issues more. Particularly, there's a scene where two characters start to discuss whether curing the Hadens--unlocking them, restoring their bodies to their control--would actually constitute an attack on what's become a very vibrant culture; but the ideas aren't fleshed out or followed up on. I am really interested in "cure" narratives and criticisms, and it's a shame this novel doesn't go anywhere with it. At group we talked about the analogous case of cochlear implants and other hearing-restoring technologies, and their potential eradication of signing languages and deaf culture. I was also thinking about some of the discussion about curing autism in Elizabeth Bear's "The Speed of Dark" (2003) at last year's Wiscon.

We had a lot of specific criticisms of how Scalzi set some things up, including:
  • No off-site data storage for a major company.
  • Incredibly small size of that pharmaceutical company (characterized as a multi-million dollar R &D).
  • Being able to definitively identify a programmer based on their "voice" in a programming language, compared to code they wrote several decades previously. This is perhaps plausible, but stretched it past the breaking point for a few of us, especially folks with actual knowledge of coding. That kind of deduction is a little tough to believe even for natural languages, unless it's incredibly idiosyncratic, and much harder to believe in a programming language, particularly one that's changed over the years.
  • Kim brought up the rather glaring problem that Hadens have brain implants that allow them to completely control robot bodies or even the biological bodies of human surrogates--so why can't that same technology be used to reconnect them to their own bodies?
  • We also wondered why the "threeps" (the robot bodies the Hadens use) were so crude, particularly in terms of facial expressions: most of them seem to be immobile robot faces. Cost and difficulty were brought up, but 1.) threeps are characterized as costing "as much as a car", so to say, non-negligible but not really that much--why aren't there high-end models? and 2.) puppeteering work has produced pretty good mechanized, expressive faces for a while now, and could be much better with future technology--look at the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (1990), for instance, or Hoggle in "The Labyrinth" (1986).
  • We then got into an extended tangent about the Uncanny Valley and how that would relate to telepresence robots. I tried to make the case that the valley is kind of a false lead (see for instance this excellent Erik Sofge article that characterizes it as "an unsupported theory that has morphed into a nerdy breed of urban legend"). Joe brought up the issue of micro-expressions and how their absence can result in various kinds of creepiness, and how the FBI and others now train to look for those to detect lying. (Really good Radiolab on that, btw.)
  • Qua police procedural mystery, "Lock In" is kind of breathtakingly straight and non-twisty. The villain is telegraphed pretty early on, and there are approximately zero plot twists or surprises. If anything this worked as a kind of reverse twist for some of us--we couldn't help trying to construct a way that the plot might not really be so ruler-straight, only to find out that, yep, that's whodunit.
  • Bill brought up the "cozy mystery" genre, where all the suspects and clues are typically "in the room from the beginning", so to speak. With a police procedural, we as readers are more likely to assume twists, new evidence, or unknown characters/suspects--in that way, "Lock In" feels more like a cozy.
  • Writing-wise, maybe this was to protect Shane's gender ambiguity, but they are a crazy-shallow, unexplored character. No sense of history at all, from someone who has had an incredibly weird upbringing. What was it like growing up, going to school, making friends in an all-virtual environment? How are you in law enforcement? Also, is it really your first day on the job ever? 'Cos you seem pretty good at this. Have you ever had a friend? Or a hobby? And so on.
  • We also wondered, given the time-lag between the Haden epidemic and the creation/implementation of the support technologies, what the side effects of lock-in would be. Prime in my mind are: RAVING INSANITY from being locked in too long, and maybe even more realistically, severe developmental disorders for all the kids who are locked in for long periods of time. Fine motor control, speech, emotional/personality things...all susceptible to being permanently disrupted.
Alright, so, big guns: I think I could make the case that this is not science fiction. Or at any rate it's REALLY BAD in terms of science fiction, and much more enjoyable if you go into it with the notion it's a "techno-thriller". Dust-jacket blurb comparisons to Michael Crichton are a step in the right direction.

Someday I'll write out a big genre apology/elitism thing, where I lay out that this stuff isn't really important, except in all the ways it is. Skipping over that:

The way I like to think of science fiction, at least in terms of case-type SF, is not for its inclusion of props--robots, aliens, ray guns, space ships. Rather, it's for how it functions in a few different ways. Relevant for my denunciation of "Lock In":
  1. Use of cognitive estrangement to both defamiliarize and stimulate imagination and the vaunted "sense of wonder".
  2. Introduction of novum--something new. Obviously this is subjective at a few layers (new to me, new to the author, new to the world considered from some hypothetical uber-scholar viewpoint). But doing something new is vital to challenging the reader, asking new questions, otherwise everything "out of the ordinary" isn't actually very strange, and just feel like props.
  3. Not just asking a "what if" question, but asking it deeply, following it until it gets someplace weird.
(I follow Darko Suvin pretty hard on this; it's also fun to look at some of the other definitions of SF that are out there).

"Lock In" is pretty weak SF by these lights. Despite being set in the future--at least two or three decades--there's pretty much no evidence of technological advancement beyond the Haden support technologies, and self-driving cars. If direct brain connections are a plausible technology, if self-powered anthropic robots are not only feasible but mass-produced--we should see lots of spillover from that (ignoring all the other things we might see in 30 years given the current rate of technological progress and social/political/environmental changes). Like, seriously, there are no non-human shaped robots to control? At group we brought up things like construction work, dangerous jobs, space or deep-sea exploration, all things that seem prime for robots controlled by skilled human operators. Also, there's really no military or police or ANY specialized "threeps"? Really John Scalzi?

There's nothing new here, and it doesn't use the technology in any particularly interesting way. Surrogate bodies & telepresence have been done a lot before. See for instance Swanwick's "Stations of the Tide" (1991), Brin's "Kiln People" (2002), or the comic "The Surrogates" (2005-6) by Venditti/Weldele and its Mostow film adaption (2009); Scalzi has also picked a technology that is so eminently plausible--prosthetic limbs connecting directly to nerves and the kind of robots Boston Dynamics is playing around with, for instance, are very much in the popular consciousness right now--so that the set-up of "Lock In" comes across as "cool" at most, not weird or defamiliarizing.

The saddest non-twist for me was that the control of Sani winds up being purely direct and physical. Shane's investigation of whether a brain implant could cause a person to "have suicidal thoughts" is dismissed as "not impossible, but insanely difficult", which is kind of LUDICROUS. Even in-world, we've established that the Haden implants not only allow TOTAL sensory input/voluntary muscle output, but that they can affect autonomic functions like heart-rate, as well as the ability to "dial up/down" things like pain reception, and most tellingly the ability to affect memory formation. To anyone who's read much psychology/neuroscience, it should be pretty clear that this kind of technology could easily be used to affect moods, thoughts, intentions, emotions.

Going that direction, this story could have gone to a very interesting place in terms of blame and persuasion. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for some Frankfurt cases, basically: a hugely-discussed set of philosophical thought-experiments where blame, responsibility, and agency are explored with variations on an Evil Neuroscientist implanting an Unsuspecting Victim with various kinds of control devices.

Instead: nope, the villain just drives the surrogates like cars.

Still, all told, have to return to my original point: we all liked it! It was a fun read (albeit one with a very low re-read value). Scalzi has openly said (heard him in a talk last year at C2E2) that he consciously models a lot of his writing on big best-sellers--not something I'm faulting him for. But I think a lot of my gripes with this novel go hand-in-hand with its broad appeal and popcorniness.

Chi-SF has selected its next two books:
"The Lives of Tao" by Wesley Chu, for Saturday, January 17th, at the usual 2pm meeting spot at the Oak Park Libary.
"The Three Body Problem" by Cixin Liu will be discussed at Capricon. Time & room TBD, but presumably on Saturday February 14th. I'm pretty excited to read this, mostly as the first non-English-language SF to crop up on my radar in a while.

Books we voted on but didn't select this time around:
"Distress" by Greg Egan (lost out by a split-vote decided by coin toss).
"His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik (which came up a lot at last month's Blackstone discussion)
"Stations of the Tide" by Michael Swanwick (which I'm going to keep suggesting until everyone reads it, because it's one of the best SF novels ever written)

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