My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 335 pages
Release date: 17 April 2018
Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.
Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.
Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.
When I first saw Head On in Barnes & Noble, I had never read anything by John Scalzi. Reading the synopsis, I thought this looked like a pretty violent novel, not my cup of tea. Then I read the prologue, framed as a news article, and I was hooked.
By the time Duane Chapman died on the Hilketa field, his head had already been torn off twice.
I didn’t buy Head On until a month later when I made it back to the UK and found a paperback version, but I’m thrilled to have spotted it that day. Adult sci-fi not being my usual haunt, I don’t think I’d have been introduced to this brilliant author otherwise. Put simply, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel as simultaneously fun and socially conscious as Head On.
As his cover designers will never forget to remind you, John Scalzi has been called ‘the most entertaining, accessible writer working in SF today.’ Although I haven’t read nearly enough SF to agree, entertaining and accessible describe Head On perfectly. With unpretentious prose, witty dialogue and unpredictable plot twists all accompanied by a cracking sense of dry humour, I couldn’t ask for more in crime or sci-fi.
Head On is technically a sequel to 2014’s Lock In, but it works just fine as a standalone. Scalzi integrates exposition so fluently, he manages to drop swaths of worldbuilding information without so much as a pause in the action. And there’s a lot of information–in Head On‘s alternate universe, one percent of the population are rendered immobile by Haden’s syndrome, their main method of interacting with the physical world being Personal Transports, or ‘threeps,’ essentially robot bodies. Haden’s syndrome has wide-reaching ramifications for society, all of which Scalzi painstakingly creates from the ground up. Where a weaker story would have fallen apart, Head On handles its elaborate premise with impressive realism.
Not only do Hadens show off Scalzi’s worldbuilding chops, they’re also great rep showing the small extra step minorities, especially people with disabilities, have to walk in a casual, unforced way. Anyone can see the parallels between the fictional Haden experience and real-life disability experiences. Every time non-Hadens fail to understand that no, he can’t charge his threep with a phone power cable, wonderfully likeable protagonist Chris Shane addresses the situation with a smile on the face and a tongue in the cheek. Metaphorically, of course, because Hadens can’t control their real bodies.
Aside from wonderful likability, Chris also has the distinction of ambiguous gender. This isn’t a major plot point by any means, but I find it a fascinating tidbit that kind of earns that extra half star just for how subtle it is. You don’t notice it in the text. It helps that the book is written in first-person from Chris’s perspective. When I read the synopsis I assumed Chris was male, and wouldn’t have realised their gender was ambiguous had I not seen a question about it on Head On‘s Goodreads page. It’s one of the things John Scalzi talks about in this spoiler-free interview, which I recommend reading alongside Head On.
I can’t write a decent review of Head On without mentioning the top-notch supporting characters. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to remember another crime novel where nearly every suspect, witness and bureaucrat felt like they could have been the star of their own novel. There are no superfluous characters; all of them have a role to play, even if it’s not the one you were set up to believe.
Leslie Vann, especially, is all kinds of awesome. One of my pet peeves in police procedural novels is when one of the two partners doesn’t really do anything and is just a sounding board for the main character’s genius. I was afraid that might be the case here, but I had nothing to fear. Chris and Leslie share a dynamic partnership where they each learn from and help the other in equal measure.
The ending comes together well, even if I guessed the main villain from almost the moment they walked onto stage. I would have preferred if all the loose ends were tied up instead of what Scalzi does leaving one minor thread left up in the air, but hey, life isn’t perfect, and you can’t criticise Head On for not being true to real life.
This was my first time reading John Scalzi, and I’m confident it won’t be my last. The Collapsing Empire, I’m coming for you next. (Eventually. When I make a dent in my massive TBR.)