The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

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Entries in John Scalzi (3)


Head On by John Scalzi

Published by Tor Books on April 17, 2018

Head On is the second novel set in the “locked in” universe that John Scalzi created in Lock In. A virus called Haden’s Syndrome has caused a small percentage of the population to be “locked” inside their bodies. They can think but they can’t move or communicate in normal ways. Those people are called Hadens. Technology, in the form of a neural network, has made it possible for them to inhabit robots called threeps. The government has funded threeps as a health care benefit for Hadens but the funding is going dry.

Head On is a science fiction mystery featuring FBI agent Chris Shane, who happens to be a Haden. Shane has as much personality as soggy tofu; his edgier partner Vann is a better character. Thanks to his wealthy parents who are considering an investment in a Hilketa team, Shane (inhabiting a threep) is in a luxury box when a Hilketa player named Duane Chapman dies.

Hilketa is played on the field by threeps that are controlled by players who are off the field. The object of the game is to cut off the head of a designated opposing player and to score a goal by carrying, throwing, or punting the head over the goalposts. Threeps are usually operated by Hadens because their neural networks give them a reaction time advantage.

The players controlling the threeps aren’t supposed to be injured by their threep’s decapitation, but Chapman dies after his threep’s head is ripped off for the third time in the game. Shane is therefore front and center in a death investigation which arguably falls within the FBI’s jurisdiction because of the interstate nature of Hilketa, whose players are generally in a different state than the venue in which the game is played.

Hadens shouldn’t die from contact with their threeps, so establishing the cause of death is the first problem. Did Chapman’s use of a nutritional supplement that he didn’t endorse have anything to do with his death? Is the league covering something up?

As a science fiction murder mystery, Head On is about average. I enjoyed the science fiction setting more than the actual mystery, which has Shane watching a number of deaths pile up as he tries to piece together clues about how and why Chapman died and how the other deaths are related. The plot is reasonably complex but not wholly engaging, in part because Shane is just a dull guy. Still, Scalzi incorporates enough amusing background details (including vague suggestions about Hadens use threeps to have sex with other Hadens) to make the overall story more interesting than the mystery at its center.



The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

Published by Subterranean Press on May 31, 2017

A dispatcher attends high-risk surgeries and, when it appears that a patient is about to die, steps in and uses a device to kill the patient. The body then disappears and the patient almost always wakes up in his or her home. Insurance companies love this. The patient still needs surgery, but maybe the do-over will be successful.

The device has nothing to do with the resurrection, which happens to all murder victims … but only to murder victims. Everyone else who dies is staying dead. Why the laws of nature have decided to make an exception for murder victims is a mystery to everyone.

It is such a mystery, in fact, that its defiance of reason or even religious dogma (you can believe in resurrection if you want, but why only murder victims?) sends the story into the realm of fantasy. But that’s the premise, and you need to suspend disbelief if you want to enjoy the story.

Tony Valdez is a dispatcher. He’s substituting for another dispatcher in a hospital. After performing a dispatch, the police tell him that the other dispatcher has disappeared and that Valdez seems to be the last person who spoke to him. At that point, the story becomes a mystery (although presumably not a murder mystery since the dispatcher has not resurrected) as Tony is enlisted by a police detective to help find the missing dispatcher.

The plot is reasonably clever and, given the brevity of the story, the characters are sufficiently developed. I wouldn’t shelve it with John Scalzi’s best works, but I can recommend it as a fun diversion … assuming you can buy into the premise.

Note: I review without regard to price because prices fluctuate and books can often be purchased at a reduced price as remainders or from stores that sell used books. They can also be borrowed from libraries or friends. The Dispatcher is available in a "deluxe" hardcover edition that, at the time of this review, is selling on Amazon for about $24. That's a lot of money for a 128 page book, but it may be sufficiently deluxe to appeal to collectors and fantatic Scalzi fans. The Kindle edition, on the other hand, is $5.99 at this writing. I have only seen the text (which doesn't seem like it would easily fill 128 pages) in an ePub review copy, and I cannot comment upon what makes the hardcover edition "deluxe."



The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

Published by Tor Books on October 31, 2006.

You know The Android's Dream isn't meant to be taken seriously long before genetically altered electric blue sheep make their appearance. The sheep and the title combine to form a not-so-subtle reference to Philip K. Dick's classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the inspiration for the film Blade Runner). For reasons too convoluted to explain here, the electric blue sheep are important not just to the ruling family of a race of aliens from the planet Nidu but to an Earth-based religion called the Church of the Evolved Lamb, a religion that was founded as a scam by a hack science fiction author. That not-so-subtle reference to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology seals the impression that John Scalzi's tongue was firmly embedded in his cheek as he wrote this novel. Of course, the opening scene, in which a human farts an alien to death, suffices to establish Scalzi's comic intent. Taken in that spirit, the action-filled story is a fun romp, although not nearly as memorable as Scalzi's serious fiction, particularly Old Man's War and its progeny.

Harry Creek, a veteran who lost his best friend in a disastrous military conflict, is happily employed in a dead-end government job when he's unexpectedly tasked with tracking down a rare sheep of the Android's Dream breed. His search causes him to revive his dead friend as an Artificial Intelligence, then leads him to a woman named Robin Baker, who (for reasons that are best described as twisted) happens to share some DNA with the Android's Dream. For most of the novel, Harry and Robin are fleeing and fighting to avoid capture by a variety of humans and aliens who think the ruling family on Nidu should or should not get hold of Robin. Either eventuality seems destined to trigger an interstellar war that would not end well for Earth.

It says something about Scalzi's writing ability that a plot this silly actually holds together. Given Scalzi's proficiency with military science fiction, it should come as no surprise that the most powerful scenes in The Android's Dream occur on a battlefield, as humans join Nidu in a botched effort to suppress a native rebellion on a Nidu colony world. Yet the novel's strength lies in its acerbic look at politics and its practitioners. Scalzi also has fun lambasting pseudo-religious doctrine. For additional comic relief, Scalzi serves up an alien who eats people whole, a practice that his native religion not only permits but encourages, although only during that short period during which he must take a religious journey to discover himself by exploring decadence. Naturally enough, the religious alien finds himself drawn to the nonsensical writings that underlie the Church of the Evolved Lamb.

Scalzi puts more imagination into throw-away sentences than some sf writers can muster for an entire novel. Silly as it is, The Android's Dream is tightly plotted; the many plot threads all tie together in a nifty package by the novel's end. I wouldn't call this laugh-out-loud science fiction of the sort often produced by Connie Willis, but it is nonetheless a fun, amusing read.