Review: Head On

What happens when the accommodations that have been extended to disabled people as a result of a serious pandemic are slowly but surely rolled back as the political climate changes? It’s a question many are asking right now, as politicians and media outlets continue to insist that Covid is over despite increasing evidence to the contrary; as widespread mask-wearing becomes a distant memory and social distancing a pipe dream. But it’s also something John Scalzi addresses, one might say presciently, in his 2018 novel Head On.

Head On is the sequel to Lock In, which first introduced Scalzi’s near-future premise: a flu-like pandemic has torn through America, leaving 1% of its sufferers “locked in”, unable to move their physical bodies while remaining fully conscious. To meet the needs of this small but significant group of people – whose condition is dubbed “Haden’s syndrome” after one of its most famous sufferers – scientists develop the Agora, a virtual reality which Hadens use to socialise and build community. There are also “threeps”, robot bodies which Hadens can pilot remotely, allowing them to interact with the physical world and gain some measure of independence.

These last are instrumental to the plot of Head On, which focuses on the Haden sport Hilketa, a gleefully violent game in which elite teams compete to decapitate one of the players and score a goal with the thusly detached head. Hilketa is made possible, of course, by the fact that the players are physically represented on the pitch by robots; no actual injury is involved. But! When a Hilketa player dies for real in a major match, FBI agent and Haden Chris Shane is assigned to investigate what is quickly deemed to be a murder.

This is, then, a sports story, a crime procedural and an SF novel all rolled up into one; how much you enjoy it will, I think, depend heavily on your tolerance for the first two types of writing. In particular, the narrative hits some very familiar murder mystery beats: suspects who don’t tell the whole story, signs of a cover-up, the lead detective being placed in mortal peril, the case becoming ever more complex and convoluted until, finally, it’s resolved. It’s all narrated in the sort of generically sarcastic prose that is the province of the Extremely Online (Scalzi is one of the few big names still engaged in the noble project of keeping the blog format alive).

It is, in other words, a reasonably pleasant, competent read. Scalzi makes some well-taken points about structural ableism too: Hilketa is the subject of protests by able-bodied people claiming the sport is discriminatory because only Hadens have the mental reflexes required to enable them to pilot threeps to an elite level; legal protections for Hadens are being rolled back by the government, which, given that many of them rely on 24-hour healthcare to keep their physical bodies in good condition, is pushing lots of people into financial precariousness. Similarly, there’s a suggestion that Scalzi might be doing something interesting with gender: Chris remains ungendered throughout the narrative, which implies that the Hadens’ shifted relationships with their physical bodies, and their ability to choose how they present both in the Agora and in public, might affect how they think about gender.

But neither of these thematic elements is developed very far. The critique of ableism is substantially defanged by the fact that Chris’ parents are extremely wealthy, which in turn means that Chris is insulated from the changes to the laws that affect Hadens’ access to healthcare. And, apart from the fact that the narrative never uses a third-person pronoun for Chris (it’s narrated in the first person, which makes this less obvious than it sounds), the concept of gender in the text remains largely untroubled. Certainly no-one ever mentions it; there’s no exploration of how different types of physical and virtual embodiment might affect Hadens’ experience of gender. Conceivably that’s the point: perhaps gender simply doesn’t mean anything to Chris. But absent any other discussion of gender, the lack of third-person pronouns feels like a gimmick, a faux-profound authorial trick that’s not doing any meaningful work. (Partly that’s because it’s quite possible to write a story about a cis first-person narrator that doesn’t indicate what their gender is and that isn’t about gender at all; it doesn’t strike me as a particularly memorable or interesting thing to do.)

I don’t want to sound too critical. Head On is solidly constructed; its speculative premise is carefully worked out; its plot moves at a decent pace. It is, in other words, a professional effort. As always, though, I wish it had given me a bit more.

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