I love that the entire plot of John Scalzi's newest novel, Head On, hinges on a cat. I mean, it's such a stupid idea. It's a gimmick that's been played straight, played crooked, played backwards and forwards in so many stories that there's just no trope-life left in it. Cat as McGuffin. Cat as material witness. Cat as embodiment of damsels in distress. It's the literary equivalent of Scooby Doo and the gang pulling the rubber mask off old Mr. McGillicutty the groundskeeper because he was the pirate ghost all along. And I love that Scalzi did it anyway. Mostly because he found a new way to use it (in addition to all the old ways in which he absolutely uses Donut the cat) which, in conforming so literally to the defining nature of science fiction, somehow makes it seem new and fresh. The #1 thing that defines science fiction — that separates I, Robot from War and Peace — is that technology (no matter what it is) must play a pivotal role in the development of the plot. Read: It ain't enough just to have spaceships, the spaceships have to matter, get it?
And Donut? Donut matters. There's no story without Donut. No book. No robots tearing each other's heads off in broad daylight.
But let me back up a little.
A while back, Scalzi wrote a book (which I reviewed) called Lock In. It was about a near future in which a meningitis-like disease called Haden's Syndrome has rendered a small percentage of the population completely paralyzed. They're alive, reasonably healthy, fully cognizant, just can't move. At all. Ever.
Into this world, Scalzi put robots (called "threeps") which Haden's sufferers can inhabit in order to function in the meat world. He created "integrators," who are Haden's survivors who never got paralyzed, and can now rent their actual bodies out (via complicated neural networks) to Haden's victims who need a more human-like experience than can be gotten via robot. And he created the Agora — a virtual world populated by Hadens who use it as a digital simulacrum of the real. Their own private mirror-world.
And it was awesome, because it was so complete. It was a master's thesis on how science fiction is supposed to work. You invent a problem. You invent a technology to address it. And then you follow that interaction down whatever interesting rabbit hole it leads you to. In Lock In, we followed rookie FBI agent Chris Shane (a Haden), partner Leslie Vann (a grumpy, damaged, hard-boiled veteran detective straight out of Central Casting) and an investigation into an integrator who was up to some seriously shady stuff on behalf of some seriously shady clients. Head On is a sequel of sorts; another rabbit hole for Scalzi to explore. This time, it's professional sports — a game called Hilketa (Basque for "murder") that's kind of like Kill the Carrier but with swords, war hammers, robots, and the point being to literally decapitate one designated player on the opposing team and carry, kick or throw his or her head across the goal line.
Only it is nice, because these are robots. Robots being operated by professional Haden athletes from their crèche-beds, but still robots, which allows for a sport that fulfills all the blood-lust of sports fans without any actual blood being spilled and no humans actually being hurt. Right up until one of the Hilketa players, Duane Chapman, dies in the middle of a game. Shane and Vann are back for this go-round — one meat, one (primarily) metal, still partners, only now a year or so down the line. And, at its core, Head On works like a police procedural, almost an homage to all procedurals everywhere: There are reluctant witnesses, cagey lawyers, a grieving widow with a secret, and of course the chief has a problem with the way the case is being handled and will throw Shane and Vann right off the force (or whatever) if they wreck any more property. Scalzi's smirking, impish voice is a nice touch. And the body-switching convenience of being a Haden is genre-bending, allowing agent Shane to "die" (in a fire, decapitated on a practice field, hit by a car, etc.) without actually dying, and be in a threep in Philly one minute, then in a perfect simulation of a mansion out of The Great Gatsby, then in D.C. being yelled at by the chief ten minutes after that.
But the wireframe on which Scalzi hangs all his wildest imaginings is still a story of gumshoe detective work — of lies and double-crosses and clues stacking up over time until the mystery of what (or who) killed Duane Chapman hangs on one thing. Can you guess what it is?
Donut the cat, of course.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.