Friday Reviews: Unlocked by John Scalzi

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

John Scalzi

This short novella is a preview of Scalzi’s new novel, Lock In, about a plague in our near future. The story is told through interviews with government officials, reporters, scientists, and business people who were involved in fighting a mysterious, rapidly mutating disease called Haden’s Syndrome, named for the First Lady of the United States who becomes its most famous victim. It begins like any other disease in recent memory, such as SARS or the swine flu. Our interconnected world sends a mysterious flu-like bug around the world in days, which takes out a huge swath of the population. And like SARS and the various flu viruses that get away from doctors, many recover. Only it has a second “meningitis” stage, where victims relapse, this time with stiff necks and back and severe headaches. While fewer people who survive stage one reach stage two, the mortality rate is higher. If victims survive this stage, a third, more terrifying stage awaits some of the survivors: Lock in. (Hence the name of the upcoming novel.)

Haden’s syndrome locks its victims into their bodies. They are conscious, but unable to speak, unable to react, able only to respond in an MRI chamber where technicians can tell if they are responding yes or no.

The fight against this plague, which actually reverses population growth for a time, is described as a “moon shot.” The rich and powerful give everything because, as those interviewed point out, everyone is impacted. Scalzi illustrates what humans seem to do best: When the race’s back is against the wall, we seem to perform at our finest.

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