Review of ‘Head On’ by John Scalzi

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Efficient near-future crime thriller in which paraplegics operate robot avatars called threeps (presumably after Theepio) in a sport whose point is to rip the head off an opponent and use it as a football. No more stupid than any other mass-entertainment game, this one at least highlights the glaring disjoint between the absurd activity itself and the labyrinthine manipulations that ensure its profitability. A locked-room mystery, the novel begins with the death of a player whose demise is not only witnessed by an arena full of people – and those watching from home – but also those monitoring public access to the player’s vitals, which show no sign of obvious trauma or even distress outside the norm.

The author is canny in his examination of the ways legislation used to curb corporate tax-avoidance hits those living with the disease (‘Hadens’) that causes total immobility hardest, prompting ever more inventive ways of satisfying the shareholders. Only Chandleresque in that it involves rich scumbags doing what they always do to the detriment of the detective, it nonetheless has a nice line in snark and a great supporting character in Agent Vann, who is actually the superior FBI officer to Agent Shane, the hero. Shane is a Haden himself, who exists in the various threeps he ‘blinks’ into, and is thus believably blown up, shot and run over while still living to investigate another day. Enjoyable rather than mind-blowing, but informed by a genuine sense of clear-sighted, righteous rage.

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