Humanity has been ravaged by Haden's Syndrome. While most individuals simply experience flu-like symptoms, 1% of those infected have their brains permanently damaged. These unfortunate few become completely paralyzed and trapped within their own bodies.
But there is hope. Thanks to aggressive federal funding, technology was able to advance enough to allow Hadens to interact with the physical world through robot bodies, known as "Threeps" (as in C-3PO). Hadens can use similar technology to "borrow" the body of an Integrator, someone who had their brain affected by Haden's but not to the point of lock in.
Now, 25 years since the outbreak of Haden's, the federal funding that has been supporting those affected has been cut, leading to massive Haden protests. On the first day of these protests, Chris Shane, a newbie FBI Agent and Haden, and Leslie Vann, an FBI veteran, are assigned to investigate a murder involving a sofa thrown out a hotel window. Things get complicated quickly when they discover the main suspect is an Integrator, who may or may not have been carrying a Haden at the time.
A companion novella, Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome, was released around the same time as Lock In, serving to provide expanded backstory for the book's universe.
Now has a sequel, Head On, which was released in April 2018. After the death of a Hilketa player on the field, agents Chris and Vann must delve into the darker side of the Haden-specific sport in order to get to the bottom of it.
Lock In contains examples of:
- Advert-Overloaded Future: This is something Hadens are concerned about with the end of federal funding. Once little things like updates for the brain implants they use to run threeps or access VR are being run by for-profit corporations, what's to prevent those corporations from cramming everything full of adware?
- To an extent, it's already happening; Hadens without a lot of money can subsidize their virtual reality spaces by letting companies put ads on their "walls" (although the companies will try to cater to each Haden's artistic sensibilities and give them things they at least don't hate).
- The Alcoholic: Vann. It seems that whenever Shane calls her outside of work, shes in a bar getting drunk.
- The All-Concealing "I": Scalzi uses this to conceal Shanes gender.
- And I Must Scream: While Johnny's Integrator network was programmed to retroactively cause him to lose time, Brenda Rees and Nicholas Bell weren't so lucky.
- Angry Black Man: After Shane's father shoots a man in the defense of his child, his party asks him to drop his candidacy and endorse a rival for fear that the perfectly justifiable act will be seen as this trope by the public.
- Automated Automobiles: Cars have an auto pilot function, but drivers can still take manual control of cars.
- The Big Board: Chris Shane constructs one of these in VR space to visualize connections between the people in the case.
- Blood Sport: Hilketa, a Haden-exclusive sport, is half this trope and half-football. The name literally translates to "murder" (it's Basque), and the "ball" is actually a designated player's (called a "goat") head, which the opposing team has to tear off before they can use it to score goals. Players can pick up and use certain weapons, from swords and bows to grenades, although all damage is simulated, since Threeps are expensive. It's the first truly gender-neutral sport, since physical stats do not come into play, as Threeps are piloted remotely. Currently, Hilketa is restricted to Hadens, although there is a growing movement demanding that non-Hadens be allowed to play. Naturally, Haden players are resisting, as they feel the league will marginalize them, if everyone is permitted to play. At the same time, it's pointed out that Hilketa is still far from being the most popular sport in either the US (still football) or the world (still soccer). This is why the league is so eager to expand into foreign markets. Currently, the North American Hilketa League is composed of 24 American, Canadian, and Mexican teams.
- Bluff the Imposter: How Shane and Vann expose Hubbard while he's controlling Nicholas Bell - by switching out his intended victim, with the body of a recently deceased Haden's victim, banking on the fact that Hubbard doesn't know what she looks like.
- Both Sides Have a Point: Although Abrams-Kettering, the bill that slashed government assistance for Hadens, has been financially very bad for many people, it is true that the government protections were being used by many as a tax shelter or a way to launder money—shady corporations were just tacking on some flimsy justification for why something could be useful to Hadens to whatever they wanted, thus sponging off money that should have been for things like enrichment programs.
- Conspicuously Public Assassination: In Head On, Chris witnesses a fellow FBI agent being gunned down by a threep near the Independence Hall. The sheer audacity stuns everyone.
- Cops and Detectives: A future version of the FBI, to be more precise.
- The Corpse Stops Here: The first suspect, Nicholas Bell, is found in the same hotel room as the murder victim.
- Dead Man Writing: Sani leaves a video for his grandmother and sister telling them his suspicions about his employer.
- Death Is the Only Option: Sani eventually realizes that he knows too much, and will probably be killed by his employers. So he throws a sofa out a hotel window and slits his throat while his boss is controlling the body of Nicholas Bell. This is what got the attention of the FBI, which lead to Shane and Vann uncovering the whole plot.
- Dehumanizing Insult: Calling Threeps "Clanks" is described as very insulting.
- Hadens have an equally-dehumanizing insult for non-Hadens: "Dodgers," a reference to Dodger Dogs.
- Driven to Suicide: Charlie Sebring, one of the cofounders of Sebring-Warner, after the pressures of being rich and famous got to him.
- Dude, Not Funny!: President Haden had been ignoring David Abrams (of the Abrams-Kettering bill), up until he made a crack about the First Lady, which earned him a very uncomfortable visit from the NSA.
- Faking the Dead: Done for Dwayne's girlfriend's pet cat, whose proximity unlocked the data vault on its collar. If they believe the cat's dead, the bad guys think that the FBI can't get to the information on it.
- False Flag Operation: Schwartz and Hubbard set up the Loudon Pharmacy bombing and Brenda Rees's murder-suicide attempt to make it look like the culprits had done it on behalf of the Hadens movement, and would have set up Cassandra Bell's death to look like an act of anti-Hadens violence.
- Fixing the Game: This turns out to be the motive behind everything in Head On. The Big Bad plans to use her vitamin supplement company to distribute specially-targeted drugs to certain Hilketa players. The drugs would be triggered by mild electric shocks and serve to reduce the players' performance. Thus, the Big Bad could ensure a game's outcome. Unfortunately for her, her test case's boyfriend got his hands on one of the supplement packets and used it himself. Since the drug was configured to his girlfriend's biochemistry, it ended up killing him in a very public fashion.
- Gender-Neutral Writing: Chris Shane's gender is never specified; references to it are avoided very unobtrusively, helped by the first-person narration. Two versions of the audiobook were recorded, one with a male narrator and one with a female one.
- In addition, it's not until much later that we find out that Chris is black, as it hardly matter when one is using a Threep. It only matters for Chris's father, who blows away the assassin going after his child with a shotgun and is immediately told that his chances of winning the election are now nonexistent, as all the voters are going to think of now is a "black man with a gun".
- Grand Theft Me: Hubbard developed software that allowed him to take complete control of an Integrator without them remembering. He then uses it to frame Integrators for murder.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: Chris's dad, Marcus, has this reaction when he explains the conspiracy going on Lock In, saying that it's a miracle that he didn't just bring in the (scotch) bottle with a straw.
- It's Personal:
- Vann admits that the events of Lock In have become personal to her after finding out what Hubbard and Schwartz were doing with and to Integrators, because it's everything she feared during her time as an Integrator.
- President Haden's reason for wanting the Haden Research Initiative Act in the first place - his wife, the First Lady, was one of the disease's most notable victims.
- Man in the Machine: Threeps, although they were purposefully made to be no stronger than a human.
- Mind Rape: How Vann views Integrating. She does not like the idea of someone else being in her head and controlling her body. She attempted to cope with it using alcohol, which only made her even more vulnerable. It doesn't help that her last Integration involved a mentally-disturbed girl trying to commit suicide in Vann's body to see what death was like.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The suicide of a man in a hotel leads to a plot to corner the Haden's technology market.
- Mistaken for Servant: Happens to Chris early in Head On. The moment one of the investors sees Chris walk into the stadium skybox, he shoves an empty glass into Chris' hand on the assumption that a threep in that group has to be part of the catering crew. Bonus irony points in that the investors wanted Chris' dad to put money into the league and should have known Marcus Shane's child was a Haden.
- Mutual Kill: An integrator in Head On is attacked by a mobster and his bodyguard. However, the Crazy-Prepared woman manages to get her hands on a knife she taped under her table and deals mortal wounds to the two men (she has special forces training). She gets distracted, however, and the bodyguard manages to put a bullet into her head before succumbing to wounds. Shane finds out that she also had a gun taped next to the knife. Vann reasons that she grabbed whatever was closest. Had she grabbed the gun instead, it's likely she would have survived.
- Never Suicide: Subverted in Head On, where the second victim really did hang himself. Why? Because the NAHL lawyer told him he would be the scapegoat.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: When Hubbard explains what happened with Johnny, he admits that after he switched from him to Bell, Schwartz (who would have taken over Johnny's body) got distracted for a few minutes, giving Johnny an opportunity to act. Then, after Johnny killed himself, Hubbard panicked and disconnected from Bell for a couple minutes, unintentionally giving Chris and Vann a clue that something was hinky.
- Non-Idle Rich: Shane becomes an agent of the FBI despite having a pretty sizable trust fund.
- Not Disabled In VR: Haden's left a significant portion of the planet with Locked In Syndrome, and so the government built a huge VR system, the Agora, to allow Hadens freedom of movement in a simulated setting, including Chris.
- Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: When Chris first meets Hubbard, he denounces Buchold for wanting to create a cure, all but claiming that it would be akin to genocide. However, as events unfold, it turns out that he cares less about Hadens' rights and more about ensuring that he makes a ton of money from them, even going so far as to try and kill a famous Haden's activist to help make it happen. Cassandra Bell (said activist) even describes him as "able to speak passionately about Hadens when it is convenient and advantageous for him to do so, and when not, not."
- Obsessed with Food: Some Hadens experience this after being locked in for a while. Vann and Nicholas Bell talk about how the first thing many Hadens do after integrating is eat a bacon cheese burger. It got to the point where all Vann had to do was walk into a Five Guys and they would start cooking one up.
- Oral Fixation: Vann is constantly smoking.
- Papa Wolf: When an assassin tries to kill Chris's physical body, Marcus Shane blows him away with a shotgun. Then Marcus finds out who sent the assassin and starts running down murder methods.
- Running Gag: During the course of the investigation, Chris goes through threeps like Stephanie Plum goes through cars. ("in a single day I had managed to seriously damage three separate threeps.") And while Chris's own threeps are expensive, at one point Chris has to borrow a loaner in Arizona that's described as "like the Ford Pinto of threeps."
- This doesn't change in the sequel, and even gets Chris in trouble with the Philadelphia FBI office, when their guest threep is lost in a house fire. They try to put all the blame on Chris only for him and Vann to counter that they were the ones who failed to keep the threep charged, as per the regs, resulting in Chris losing power before making it out of the fire.
- Sharing a Body: Neural Networks allowed Hadens to project their consciousness onto an Integrator in order to interact with the outside world. The Haden can control the body, but the Integrator remains conscious and can take control when needed. However, the software that Hubbard developed overrides the Integrator's control.
- Shout Out: Chris mentions in Head On that he's a fan of Scalzi's real life author pal Catherynne M. Valente.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: When Hubbard tries to apologize to May and Janis Sani for John's death, Janis tells him to stuff it, saying he's not sorry about his death, but because he helped screw up his plans.
- Slashed Throat: The cause of death for Sani.
- Spanner in the Works:
- John Sani's suicide to Schwartz and Hubbard's plans.
- In the sequel, Dwayne Chapman borrowing the spiked vitamin booster from his girlfriend ends up killing him in a very public and messy way. Things snowball from there.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The climax of the novel has the main characters plotting and discussing their plan, but the reader doesn't get to hear it, only see it in action. Naturally, it goes off without a hitch (except that another of Chris's threeps gets trashed).
- Your Cheating Heart: In Head On, Chris and Vann discover that the dead Hilketa player was having an affair with a teammate. It's easier for Hadens to get away with it, since all they have to do is connect to a different threep somewhere else. The victim kept a secret love nest, filled with specially-designed "fully-functional" threeps: one with male sex organs, one with female, and two with special "neutral" ports. Apparently, the victim and his lover tried out all of them. His non-Haden wife found out and ended up sleeping with her husband's friend out of revenge.