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Head On: A Novel of the Near Future    by John Scalzi order for
Head On
by John Scalzi
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2018 (2018)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

You can always count on John Scalzi for SF novels that are both thought-provoking and entertaining. I especially enjoyed his hilarious Redshirts and engaging Old Man's War series. Lock In, prequel to Head On, was a combination of near future techno-thriller and murder mystery, with a unique and appealing lead, Rookie FBI agent Chris Shane.

Chris is one of many that a pandemic left locked in to their bodies, their voluntary nervous systems paralysed (Haden's Syndrome). Technology allows them to interact with a virtual Agora and (through robotic bodies, Personal Transports or threeps) the real world. More than four hundred million died in the pandemic. Also, brain changes left a small number able to act as Integrators, allowing the locked in temporary use of their bodies, for a fee. Chris is partnered with Agent Vann, who was an Integrator before she joined the Bureau.

This second episode centers on a widely popular new game, Hilketa, at which Hadens excel. Think football where 'the point of the game is to rip the head off a selected opponent and then toss or carry it through a goal at the end of the field.' All the players use threeps and feel only mild pain, so there should be no serious injuries. As Head On opens, though, journeyman Hilketa athlete Duane Chapman dies during a game, and Chris and his tough senior partner (who has attitude in spades) investigate.

As before, Chris goes through expensive Personal Transports steadily during his investigation - one in a burning building, another when his apartment is attacked, and one run over by a car - making him unpopular with his superiors. The investigation involves 'Two suspicious deaths, one apartment fire, a yanked data stream, an interviewee bolting, a cat with a data vault for a collar, and kinky threeps galore.' Tons of fun along with the mystery.

Of course Chris and Vann do solve it and even catch their villain, though that's a close call that requires serious hacking to succeed. I look forward to more as I enjoy every word that Scalzi writes, including his Acknowledgement that ascribes the delay in finishing this episode to the fact that '2017 was a raging trash fire of a year, filled with horrible people trying to do horrible things and often succeeding.' Hear, hear!

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