Review: Head On

Posted: June 5, 2018 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: John Scalzi, Science Fiction

The first time I ever read a story by John Scalzi was a short of his about something to do with an alien, but I don’t remember the details. He was selling it for whatever you wanted to pay for it, but hoped that you would pay more than a buck because, ya know, it cost him a solid buck per sale to run the transaction through Paypal. Even before I’d read his story, and the dude already had me laughing. I remember enjoying that one quite a bit, but some of his others I haven’t been too enamored with. I still haven’t read his Old Man’s War series, although there have been several times when I’ve been tempted to pick them up. After reading this one, I think I might just have to do that.

HEAD ON (Amazon) is apparently the second book in the “Lock In” series, but I didn’t know that until the writing of this review. I guess I don’t know how to read back covers. Usually I’m pretty adamant about reading the series in order, as I hate coming into a story that would have been better had I already known the characters and the setup that the author had completed in prior books. At this point, I’m kind of wondering just what I’ve missed. Hold up for a minute. Okay. I’ve put myself on the hold queue for the audiobook now. Expect a review of that one in the coming weeks. 🙂

The setting for the book is a world now partially populated by individuals with Haden’s syndrome that are called, not surprisingly, Hadens. These people can no longer physically interact with the world, and so technology has been developed to interface with their brains and allow them the ability to move their consciousness into robot bodies that they call threeps and live vicariously through them. A violent version of rugby, called Hilketa, for Haden threeps only has been developed where one player is defined as the “goat” for a given time period. The job of the offense is to tear the head from the threep goat and then toss it through the goal post at the proper end of the field. The job for the defense is to protect the goat. Pretty simple. Not really any other restrictions to speak of. The upshot is that no one has ever died as a result of playing Hilketa. After all, why would they? They’re all just robots.

Thus, in the opening gambit of the book, a Hilketa player is deemed to be the goat three times within a single game, and after the third time having his head ripped from his threepish torso, he dies in a rather public manner.

Hooray for a mystery! Enter, Chris Shane. Shane is a Haden, and works in the Haden-affairs branch of the FBI. His partner, Leslie Vann, is a non-Haden. Their job, put simply, is to figure out why this Hilketa player died before the whole league spirals down the drain in the aftermath.

One of the signs of a great author, in my book, is the ability to write books that come late in a series and not bore the reader with infodump that is non-necessary to the long-time reader while still being able to accommodate the noob that comes into a mid-series book (aka: me). One of the greats at this is Jim Butcher, in his Dresden Files series. In like manner, I can say that I never once felt at a loss for understanding of the world into which I had been dropped, and for that I am very grateful. In general, Scalzi’s ability to write is very accessible and smooth. He allows the reader to slide right into the story and not get caught up in the words on the page. My kind of book.

Shane is a well-drawn character. He’s intelligent, no-nonsense, and has a sense of humor. His life and family are each drawn in as part of the story. In some ways, he has an in. Rich parents, unasked-for fame, and an apartmentfull of great roommates. (Hey, good roommates are hard to find.) In other respects, he’s a normal Joe and likes it that way. Vann is a great partner for him. Their interplay was frequently humorous and always informative. She was driven and capable and more than just a do-the-job kind of girl. I liked her. But this was essentially a single-POV story, and Shane’s persona was more than capable of carrying the load.

HEAD ON is a solid book that reads fast, kept us guessing, and made us laugh. What more can you ask for in a read like this? Not much, we'll tell you.

I also liked the world-building quite a bit. You could tell Scalzi had thought out several aspects of this world that is only slightly altered from ours. He looked at the science supporting Hadens and then extrapolated it into the social and economic and political realms (something every Science Fiction book should do), but never allowed it to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of any one of them (something every GOOD Science Fiction book does). It’s a world that feels full, despite the fact that we only see a relatively small portion of it.

In the realm of ratings, I’d say this landed pretty solidly in the lower-end of the Love rating it got. Mostly this was because it was a solid book that read fast, kept me guessing, and made me laugh pretty consistently throughout the entire book, but wasn’t a book that really wowed me. Absolutely worth the read though.

I’m definitely going to have to get me some more Scalzi. How bout you?

  • Recommended Age: 18+
  • Language: Strong pretty consistently throughout
  • Violence: Gets pretty morbid in parts, and violent but not gory in others
  • Sex: Frank discussions and sex robots


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