Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
One of the features that makes continuous reviewing so fascinating is the serendipity that suddenly throws two completely unrelated books together for comparative purposes. In narrative structural terms, we have the same broad format applied in The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel and Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi (Subterranean Press, 2014). The first is the result of an investigation by a journalist through interviews with the people who live in the village where a horrendous murder occurred. Scalzi has written what he describes as an oral history. In both books, the first called a short novel, the second a novella, the text is divided into small compartments, each one occupied by a member of the community affected. Both are, in a sense, the literary equivalents of the found footage genre that has become slightly more popular in film-making with elements of film or video, supposedly from different times and cameras, edited together to show a chronological sequence of events (often demonstrating how a group of people died as in The Blair Witch Project, developed superpowers Chronicle, or avoided being eaten by monsters rampaging through their city as in Cloverfield). Whereas this can be highly effective on the screen as, given the time, the audience can come to identify with the characters, there’s less opportunity for readers to genuinely get to know the characters whose words we read.
At this point, I need to make a slight distinction between the two books I’ve mentioned. Andrea Maria Schenkel takes great care to give each of her villagers distinctive voices. Even though they may only have two or three pages on which to be heard, they are given every chance to demonstrate their uniqueness. Whereas the parade of people whom Scalzi introduces all have the same basic voice. Only the content of what each is saying demonstrates a difference in role or responsibility. In a way, I think this an inevitable quality of the project. Schenkel is essentially a “literary” writer where the means are as important as the ends, whereas the Scalzi is a companion prequel to his new novel Lock In. The point of the exercise is therefore telling the story rather than doing so in the most literary or elegant way. This is not, in any sense, a criticism of Scalzi. He delivers a very effective piece of writing which says what it needs to say to get the job done.
As to the plot, Scalzi leads us through the initial period as the infection spreads and then the first wave of casualties emerges as what later becomes known as The Super Bowl Flu. It’s one of these ironic coincidences that what later evolves into Haden’s Syndrome appears at the same time as one of the annual outbursts of H5N1 flu. The first response by health professionals is to treat the two diseases as the same. Although this is a mistake, it’s not a mistake for which anyone can or should be blamed. Once the disease was released into the wild, the only effective action was strict quarantine around cities if not neighbourhoods, preventing movement until exposure was proved or disproved. Only then could the scale of the disaster have been mitigated. As it is, developed societies resist limits on freedom of movement so, before anything could be done, the world was exposed and the epidemic becomes a pandemic. Only the South Pole escapes because the New Zealand government suspends flights to the remote area.
In real terms this begins as a near future science fiction story with levels of medical response much as we would expect today. But it then quite dramatically shifts gear into quite radical science fiction. I suspect it will make an interesting lead into the novel which is due to be published in August. However, I have to say I find the later stages implausible to say the least. Since we’re into oral history, my grandfather was diagnosed as suffering from encephalitis lethargica and he chose to commit suicide. In 1973, I noted the arrival of Awakenings by Oliver Sacks which helped some of these long-term patients wake up at the Beth Abraham Hospital. The difference between the real world and the fictional diseases is the question of consciousness. Encephalitis lethargica induced a catatonic state in which the patient is in a stupor, i.e. is oblivious and does not react to external stimuli. To all intents and purposes, the patient is unconscious. Whereas Scalzi has his patients remain conscious, listening immobile to everything going on around them. I seriously doubt such people would remain sane for very long. Anyway, having got that out of my system, the rest of the book quite elegantly delivers a relatively plausible set of consequences to this disease and, presumably, sets up the novel a treat. So Unlocked is an interesting read with some entertaining moments. If I have the time, I’ll try to fit the novel in.
For the review of another book by John Scalzi, see The Human Division.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.