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Head On: A Novel of the Near Future

Review

Head On: A Novel of the Near Future

John Scalzi is a popular and celebrated science fiction author who occasionally makes a side trip combining sci-fi and mystery. HEAD ON is his second police procedural set in the near future, featuring FBI agent Chris Shane. Readers first met Shane in LOCK IN, published in 2014 and set in the same near future.

A flu-like illness known as Haden’s Syndrome --- named after its most famous victim, the First Lady of the United States --- has spread around the world. Initially more than one billion died from the disease, and countless others suffered from a condition called “lock-in,” which completely paralyzes the body but leaves the mind fully conscious and alert. Those who suffer from this paralysis are known as “Hadens.” Technology allows them to integrate into society through the use of robot-like machines known as “threeps.” After an introductory explanation, readers will find themselves absorbed by a traditional murder mystery, with Agent Shane as the lead character.

"HEAD ON is an entertaining, creative and thought-provoking novel. Whether you deem it science fiction or mystery, or a combination of the two, it is well worth your attention."

Shane and his partner, Leslie Vann, are called upon to investigate the death of a famous athlete, Duane Chapman, who was afflicted with Haden’s Syndrome. A new and exciting sporting event confined only to those with Haden’s is sweeping up sports fans around the world. The game is called hilketa, a violent and frenzied athletic contest that combines the best and worst of real and electronic sports. Participants attack each other with swords and hammers. The objective is to remove the head of an opposing player and carry it across the goal.

Keep in mind that all the players on the field are Hadens, and real bodies are not involved. Hadens play in hilketa while occupying their mind-controlled robot-like threeps. In theory, all of the injuries are only to the machines that are run by the Hadens’ minds. The game is similar to professional wrestling --- the violence and brutality appear to be genuine, but the reality is different. That is, until one evening when, during a match between the Boston Bays and the Toronto Snowbirds, Chapman dies. Was it an accident, or was he murdered? Agent Shane is attending the game and immediately becomes involved in the case.

After the opening scene-setting and plot explanations, the story transitions quite easily into a typical law enforcement investigation. Whether threep or human, Scalzi’s characters engage in snappy dialogue. In addition, they experience the typical authority clashes often depicted in these kinds of stories. Shane and Vann battle with FBI superiors over policies and investigative methods. The rogue police officer, who chafes at the limitations others place on him, is a staple of mystery novels. In HEAD ON, the rogue officer lives in a machine. But Scalzi keeps the story moving and real.

The future world that readers enter is laced with many issues that exist in contemporary society. One basic theme, which is easily recognizable, is how we deal with those who are disabled and how treating the disabled community often becomes bogged down in politics and money. As the investigation into Chapman’s death intensifies, the influence of professional sports on society, where players and owners believe they must win at all costs, also serves as fodder for Scalzi’s witty and sometimes acerbic treatment.

HEAD ON is an entertaining, creative and thought-provoking novel. Whether you deem it science fiction or mystery, or a combination of the two, it is well worth your attention.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 20, 2018

Head On: A Novel of the Near Future
by John Scalzi