Head On has a classic mystery feel despite its sci-fi setting


John Scalzi’s Head On doesn’t care if you’ve read Lock In or not, but it does care if you enjoy a mystery wrapped up inside a science fiction novel.

Mystery is the kind of genre that can go with pretty much any other. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require a certain touch in order to be done well. It appears that John Scalzi is also aware of this, considering his work on Head On, which Tor sent this reviewer’s way for a review. After all, opening with a murder pretty much plants at least one foot in the mystery genre. Scalzi, in a completely unsurprising move, has his other foot in sci-fi.

Agent Chris Shane is a Haden — suffering a locked-in-their-own-body syndrome — but it doesn’t stop Chris from using threeps, which are basically robot bodies designed for Hadens. Scalzi does a fine job explaining enough of the basics, including other methods for Hadens to get around and socialize, because it turns out to be relevant to the case, which centers around the sport of Hilketa (where Hadens use specialized threeps to play a violent sport).

It’s here that you might worry you’re missing something, since this isn’t the first time Scalzi has written about Hadens. However, it seems as though Head On was purposefully written to be your introduction to the world in case you missed Lock In (or it’s just too far down your to-be-read list, which is also a distinct possibility). Some things get repeated a little more often than this reader might like, and this is a mystery. If things weren’t repeated, I’d probably be suspicious, too.

It’s strange, though — Chris is our narrator and one of the lead investigators, but ends up being more bland than pretty much everyone else involved with the case, a bit like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. That’s not to say Chris’ own personal history doesn’t come into play with the case, and there are a few sly moments in the narration, but you probably won’t stay in the case just for Chris.

That honor probably goes to Leslie Vann. She’s a lot more like the classic tough cop — with no softening because she’s a woman. Whenever she shows up, expect a ride in the best sense of the word. If it’s not her, than it’s Chris’ housemates, particularly Tony, who also ends up assisting in the case.

But even if you’re not a fan of Chris, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the case at hand, which ends up being about a lot more than just Hilketa. Like a classic mystery, there are a lot of hidden connections that end up coming into play, a few near-death situations, actual deaths and more to keep a reader engaged. Scalzi doesn’t waste time, either — the final copy as sent to me runs just 335 pages, and that’s including the acknowledgements at the end.

Next: Review: Before Mars, Emma Newman

This might even be one of the best introductions to Scalzi out there, although he is particularly known for Old Man’s War. If you’re a fan of his and you haven’t picked up Head On, then you’re missing out.