I generally find Scalzi’s work fun, very readable, but maybe not too thought provoking, not too serious. This managed to combine that sci-fi fun feel with serious issues of disability politics, racial politics, gender — well, all kinds of identity politics, really. It helps to read Unlocked if you’re not very good at picking up context quickly, though I don’t think it’s necessary; it gives you a lot of background, and even a starting point for imagining the characters.
I would actually be interested in listening to the audiobook for this, because Scalzi avoided stating a gender for Chris Shane. Thus, there are alternate readers — Will Wheaton and Amber Benson. The existence of the two versions meaning that I don’t really consider this a spoiler! Particularly as it’s not germane to the plot: it’s a thing outside the plot that will affect your reading, because you’re almost inevitably going to choose which gender you assign to the narrator in your head unless you’re used to queer communities. Personally, I chose to read Chris Shane as female if I could. I ended up reading them as something more nebulous: if you grow up spending most of your time outside your physical body (in the Agora or in a threep, it doesn’t matter which), are you going to think of gender in the same way as embodied people do? I don’t think we can answer that with modern technology, but I think the answer might be no, and that’s how I read Chris.
In a way, this fits right into a tradition with Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, which is a mystery as much as it’s a sci-fi story, and which relies intimately on both elements to make the full story (rather than being a mystery story that happens to be in a science fiction world, or vice versa). And because one character is walking around in an artificial body and the other isn’t, and with some of the political issues. (Ask me another day how I react when Hawking says a robot uprising might destroy humanity, everyone reports it as news, and nobody wants to listen to the sci-fi fan in the corner yelling “Isaac Asimov got there first!”)
Ahem. Anyway, Scalzi keeps his lightness of touch here, despite all the issues that he explores; it remains intensely readable, a page turner, and something that can suck you in enough that you forget about your surroundings. And I love that it’s based on all sorts of real situations: some people are ‘locked in’, we are finding solutions like the ones here for them (my New Scientist this week has a cover story: “Out of the Twilight Zone: Portable mind-reader gives voice to the locked in”), there were epidemics like this before (the closest analogue being the flu epidemic closely followed by the sleeping sickness epidemic)… These are not concerns only relevant in a hypothetical science fictional world.