I enjoy Scalzi’s books, but the one that blew me away was Lock In – see my review here – his futuristic murder mystery featuring Haden-sufferer, Chris Shane, as his investigative protagonist. It has stayed with me where so many other books have faded into the furniture. Would I enjoy Head On as much?
Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it. Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.
Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth—and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.
So there you have the blurb. This book is designed to be read as a standalone and as it is a fairly complicated setup, where the role of Haden’s Syndrome and how it has impacted on the sufferers and US society in general has to be explained, it takes a while for the story to really get going.
The game of Hilketa initially had me cringing, but I’m not used to watching massively armoured American football players charging at each other with the force of a small truck. Once I factored in the US national sport, this next step of ripping apart the robot avatars didn’t seem so extreme.
As with Lock In, for me, the joy of this book is the worldbuilding. Scalzi’s take on how this terrible syndrome has impacted on society, as well as the individuals who have contracted the illness, is beautifully nuanced. Throughout the book, there is the on-going discussion about the initial, very generous financial support package for Haden’s sufferers – and the effects now that has been drastically scaled back. I love the unforeseen consequences of both the government handouts and what happens to a number of the characters once those payments are suddenly withdrawn.
Chris Shane is an engaging, sympathetic protagonist, with an extra edge. His famous, wealthy father was in vanguard of finding new therapies and road-testing the threeps – the robot bodies that Haden’s patients use in daily life while their biological bodies remain bedbound and apparently unresponsive. So Chris became a posterchild in the political fight for recognition of the Haden’s Syndrome – and even now, he is moderately famous. I’m aware that I’ve been discussing the world rather than commenting on the murder mystery. I enjoyed that every bit as much as the futuristic setting and I particularly appreciated reading about a crime that wouldn’t be able to take place now, because we simply don’t have the technology or those circumstances.
Scalzi’s plotting and pacing is skilful, the mystery is suitably twisty with a satisfying number of suspects and I also liked the denouement and the reasons for the crime. Once again, they are all too plausible. There is plenty of drama with several memorable action scenes featuring these tough robots – I could see this world making a wonderful TV series. Once again, Scalzi has nailed this one and it is highly recommended for fans of futuristic murder mystery adventures.