This week I read John Scalzi’s Lock In. I’ve read most of (or, perhaps, all) of his Old Man’s War series and enjoyed them, for the most part. Before I discuss Lock In, a brief summary lifted from Tor’s site.
Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four per cent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.
New technologies emerge to help those who suffer from the condition—a virtual reality network and a system of “riding” in the bodies of other individuals—which are quickly regulated, licensed, bonded, and controlled. Nothing can go wrong. Certainly nobody would be tempted to misuse it, for murder, for political power, or worse…
One of my favorite books of all time is Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein, in that book and others, challenges Western cultural sacred cows, such as monogamy and monotheism. His thought provoking challenges are worthy for consideration.
Pushing past challenges to cultural or social institutions are authors who question what it means to be a human or belong to this species, and is there stable ground to claim what actually constitutes “humanity” are authors such as Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is my favorite examples of his books that toy with these ideas.
As a quick sidebar, the celebrated Ridley Scott adaption of that story, Blade Runner, I’ve seen three times now, and I dislike it. It dings any sort of nerd cred that I might have. The motives of many of the characters are opaque and the final act, the bizarre fight(?) between Decker and Roy, is incoherent. The moments of truth and depth in the movie are lost in an otherwise shallow plot that coasts through Ridley Scott’s well-polished weird-for-the-sake-of-weird setting.
However its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, does carry coherence, does dip into the well of what does it mean to be human, and if the lines between machine and biology are blurred, does it matter? I could have used so much more of Jared Leto’s Wallace though. I’d recommend it.
Also, I did like the inclusion of one tiny thing that I’ve said (and I’m sure others too), when someone marvels at how computers do the amazing things they do with only one’s and zero’s, I like to say to people that the machine’s instructions are in base-2, but ours aren’t much further off in base-4. That comes up in the movie and I enjoyed that.
Returning to Lock In, Scalzi does a terrific job of exploring similar themes through a similar investigative narrative with a more accessible setting than Blade Runner. The idea of a pandemic that results in a ambulatory device accessible wirelessly by the minds of those are trapped in their own body? I could imagine that happening and happening soon. Blade Runner’s future is too far away from today.
The story also explores transitional strata between people who grew up knowing what it’s like to have a normally functioning body then transitioned to using their “threeps” (mechanical bodies that are remotely controlled), people who were infected early in life, and, the most recent generation, who were infected early (or in utero), that arrive in a reality that has already adapted to receive them and do not understand their condition as alien.
I am of the opinion that our species progress is hindered by our biology and am quite interested in what we’ll look like in a few generations of biological engineering. We miss a third of our lives to sleep, can we escape that? Our cells can only duplicate so many times before that process starts failing, is that something that can be changed? Genetic disorders, large and small, are landmines in our DNA, and I’m happy to see we’re starting to be able to strip those out.
The religious who claim that tinkering with our own genetics is liken to the Tower of Babel. I say, if we are created in God’s image, let us behave accordingly. Our souls are what are of value to God. The bodies? Vessels for the spirit. I find it unlikely that God has an opinion of any strength on how those vessels are shaped or adorned.
The ethicist may say that its incorrect to shape the bodies of our unborn to fit our liking, but I disagree. We shape their minds without their consent in the name of bettering the generation following ours, why not their bodies as well?
Or, in my opinion, better still, escaping biology to the fullest. A machine that holds my immortal mind inside a body that is only defined by my own imagination? Or a mind that controls multiple bodies?
I cheer on these scientists who discover liberating rivers as they build bridges over them.
Read John Scalzi’s Lock In. It works with deep concepts while managing to be an otherwise light read.