Head On (John Scalzi)

Head On (John Scalzi)Head On (Lock In, #2) by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books on April 17th 2018
Genres: Sci Fi
Pages: 335
Format: audio
Source: Purchased
Amazon
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John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

Plot: ★★★
Characters: ★★★
Readability: ★★★★

I have a habit of searching for audiobooks based on narrators, and then narrowing those down to titles that sound interesting. Since Wil Wheaton’s narration of Ready Player One remains one of my favourite audiobook performances ever, I tend to keep a pretty close eye on what else he’s narrating, which led me to Lock In way back in 2014.  The premise of Lock in – and it’s sequel, Head On – is really interesting: in the near future, a medical syndrom called Haden’s leaves some people ‘locked in’; unable to move, or speak.  Hadens interact through the world through threeps (robots), and the series follows Chris, a famous Haden who’s also a rookie FBI agent, attempting to solve murder cases.  In Head On,the mystery revolves around Hilketa – a game in which Hadens control robots and earn points by ripping off another players head and shooting it through a hoop.  Partway through a game, one of the star players dies, with no obvious cause.

I really loved the concept of Lock In, but I found it a bit predictable and slow.  I’m pleased to say I thought Head on was much less predictable, though the pacing was still a little off – it took a while to really get going I thought, maybe thanks to the background we needed to understand Hilketa.  I thought the characters were slightly better than in Lock In too – Chris is, as before, a likeable, normal character: the kind of character you’d probably happily have a drink and play pool with, pretty down to earth despite the family’s money.  Vann is significantly less irritating in this second book, although I’m still not emotionally invested in her one way or the other.  I found her and Chris’ relationship kind of so-so; they have some mild occasional teasing, but otherwise don’t seem to have much of a bond.  Chris’ housemates are all interesting and I’d definitely have liked to see more interactions there, though I can see why there weren’t more – the pacing was a little slow at times as it was, so I don’t think they could have added much more without making that more noticeable.

The series is great in terms of gender, diversity, and challenging your unconscious assumptions without being at all in your face or preachy.  In fact, although I called Chris ‘he’ all the way through my review of Lock In, Scalzi deliberately didn’t specify Chris’ gender and both books have two audiobook versions: one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson.  I actually didn’t realise at all, and assumed based on Wil’s narration that Chris was a he, which gave me lots of pause for thought when I eventually realised!  Despite my issues with the books, I’ll definitely be pre-ordering if the series continues, because the premise is so interesting, and Scalzi’s clearly put a lot of thought into how the world would be changed as a result of 1% of the population having Hadens.

Buy it? I think this is worth buying as an audiobook, because Wheaton’s narration really does add to the experience.
In a nutshell: It’s very clever, the premise is interesting, but the characters and pacing let it down a little.