Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.
This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.
I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.
There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.
This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.
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It’s making the headlines once again after a long radio silence and like all things related to Google Glass and the headlines, the news isn’t good. Google is ending its Explorer program for Google Glass and going back to the drawing board. This program, for those who don’t obsessively follow all things tech, was where a person such as you or me could write an application (including written essay!) to be allowed to buy your own Google Glass and test it out. It sounds pretty cool, except for the part where Glass itself costs $1,500. That price tag caused my attention to wander, but I also don’t want to pay more than $200 for a smartphone, so I might not be the best person to ask.
The reason why I’m concerned, however, isn’t because I was a Google Glass aficionado but because I’m concerned about what the Glass setback will mean for the trajectory of electronics that we carry with us daily. I first became interested in just how far our cultural obsession would go when I noticed that I literally haven’t been more than ten feet away from my smartphone since I bought it in 2011. I also read a study that claimed that a third of Americans would sooner give up sex than their smartphone device.
All of those things started swirling around in my brain and pretty soon I had the framework for the two novels that I’ve been working on since 2012: a not-too-distant future where instead of a smartphone that you need to charge and can drop and could lose, you get a nice little microchip implanted in your brain through a quick and painless process that can be done right there at the store. Of course, being a science fiction novel, things have to go horribly wrong with that idea, but at the time, I still felt that the trajectory was such that we were on track from going from devices we carry with us every day to devices that we wear on our bodies to devices that are actually inside us.
Does the lukewarm embrace (or even outright rejection) of Glass indicate that this path might not hold? Maybe. It’s also true that the first device in a completely new category doesn’t often win the race; the iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone by a longshot, but it’s the one that convinced everyone that smartphones were must-have gadgets. There are a lot of things that could be responsible for Glass faltering; I personally blame the price tag and the admittedly interesting but also convoluted Explorer program. Will Google keep going with Glass and try something else? Or will wearable computers seem like a dead end?
I really hope we haven’t reached a dead end, not because I’m a huge fan of the whole idea, but because I really want my story to still be relevant by the time I’m done writing it. Science fiction is littered with examples of stories outdated by the forward march of time but it would well and truly suck to be outdated before I’ve even finished the book.