Hilketa is a sport that has become popular thanks to the fact that players are on the field through their threeps, robots remotely controlled through a neural implant. This makes it practically a monopoly of Hadens, people who got struck by a disease that made it impossible for them to use their organic body, because they’re the only ones who can use a threep with the skills needed for the game.
When Duane Chapman dies after his threep’s head was cut off during a Hilketa match, establishing what happened to him is crucial because there are many interests behind Hilketa, with a league trying to expand outside the USA. FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann investigate and immediately start discovering complications, starting with the apparent suicide of a league executive.
“Head On” begins like a science fiction detective story set some decades in the future, after a pandemic caused many millions of deaths and left permanent consequences for more millions of people. A small percentage of those affected by what was called Haden syndrome lost the ability to interact with the outside world and can only do it through neural implants that allow them to interact indirectly, in a virtual world called Agora or by controlling a threep, an android robot that can move in the physical world.
“Head On” is an novel from independent “Lock In” and doesn’t require having read it to understand plot and protagonists. However, already in the first novel John Scalzi started providing information on that future world and on the influence of the pandemic on humanity. Many details are given, including Chris Shane’s considerations as he tells both novels in the first person.
As in “Lock In”, John Scalzi didn’t define Chris Shane’s gender. The American “Head On” audiobook was released in two versions like the first one: one read by actor Wil Wheaton and one read by actress Amber Benson.
Hilketa is a sport invented by John Scalzi in which the players literally tear themselves to pieces and represents one of the rare cases in which Hadens have an advantage over people not affected by that syndrome. The death of a player could cast a shadow over the future of the league that runs the professional championship. “Head On” is a science fiction mystery but John Scalzi uses the investigation of FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann to tell a complex situation in the intertwining of difficult personal relationships and above all economic interests.
The author exploits the fact that Chris’s father is a billionaire courted by the Hilketa league to provide insights into the league’s attempts to expand and its future prospects. There’s a considerable cynicism in the management of players and also in the psychological techniques used to try to sell what is considered a commercial product.
At the same time, John Scalzi keeps on providing information on that future society. An important element in “Head On” is a new American law that cuts the tax benefits associated with the assistance to Hadens, with a series of consequences yet to be evaluated. In other cases there are daily problems Chris sometimes has to face as a Haden such as having to conduct a part of the investigation in another city and finding himlself in a threep with batteries almost out of power because nobody took the time to charge them.
In my opinion, the result is another excellent novel set in a well-built future, to the point that on various occasions I found the considerations regarding that society more interesting than the investigation conducted by Chris Shane and Leslie Vann. For these reasons, I recommend reading both “Lock In” and “Head On”.