► What drew you to the idea of Lock In to begin with?
As I’ve previously called it: I was interested in writing an apocalypse that wasn’t.
Meaning that there are a lot of books where a virus has infected the world and 99 per cent of the people are dead and the remaining one per cent is busy stabbing each other. Or everyone has been turned into zombies, except for a small number of people who are immune. And there have been excellent stories that have an apocalypse of one sort or another happening, but I found it interesting to deal with something that had the potential of being a world-ending thing and yet the world didn’t end; instead, humanity got its act together, managed to slow down the advance of the disease and make it a manageable, chronic condition for humanity, rather than a rampaging infection … and then write what happens next. The whole point of Haden’s Syndrome in the book is that it is an inflection point – like the Great Depression or World War II were inflection points. There was a world that happened before, there is a world that happened after, and in-between was this chaotic event that changed the world order, but normal life – or the new definition of normal – still existed and moved forward. In the case of Haden’s you had about a third of the world’s population infected, 400 million people worldwide dead, and 40 or 50 million people worldwide with the third stage of the disease that locked them into their own bodies. This is a world changing event, but it is not catastrophic. It had the potential – but the interesting thing for me was not the catastrophe, but the question “What is the new normal?”
► When I was reading Lock In, I was not getting the feeling that you were trying to make a general statement or criticism about the use of technology. For the most part, it felt like a story meant to entertain me. There is, however, the one moment where you write that curing Haden’s would not just cure a disease, it would destroy the community that has come out of it. Did I read too much into that or is there a deeper meaning or message?
Well, it reflects some of the thinking in communities that have what is now generally considered a disability. In particular, I was using the deaf community as a touchstone because I know people in that community. And I know that one of the discussions they are having is the idea of cochlear implants that allow people to hear. If you are a hearing person, it seems obvious that you would get the cochlear implants, so you could hear. Right? That just seems to make sense. But people who are born deaf and born into this community see that as a real problem because they don’t buy into the idea that being deaf in necessarily a disability – to them, it’s just a different way of living. To them, having cochlear implants could destroy the larger deaf community. From the point of a hearing person, that doesn’t seem to make sense, and that is exactly the kind of “We know better than you what you should be doing” thinking that pisses off minorities. Let’s take the idea of people who have Haden’s. There has been this huge technological leap that has been designed to create a world for them online, called the Agora, and to create those threeps that allow them to participate in the physical world. And the question becomes: Do we see that as a disability or as a different but legitimate way to live? That is not a revolutionary thought on my part. It is based on conversations that are already going on in communities where there are disabilities. And I want to be very careful about claiming that I am now a speaker for communities with disabilities, which emphatically I’m not. What I knew about this world was a stepping stone for creating the world of the Hadens.
► You might not have come up with that thought, but – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – it was a completely new concept to me. Before Lock In, I never thought about this problem or question.
Well, then my question to you is: Why would you have thought of it before? You are an able-bodied guy who can hear and see, you’re not in a wheelchair. These are things you literally don’t have to think about. I admit that, on a day to day basis, I don’t think about them much either. I do think about them when I see my friends who are not hearing or who have some other physical disability talk about their lives. And it doesn’t even have to be a physical disability. I have tons of friends who have depression. The number of creative people I know who suffer from depression is almost to the point where you have to ask yourself not who you know among creative types who have depression but who doesn’t. But again, you and I are astoundingly typical in that we don’t think about it because we are not forced to think about it. As a straight, white, able-bodied male, who is also very well off, there are lots of things I don’t have to think about and so, on a day to day basis, I don’t. Unless I make an effort. So the fact that this thought was new to you is utterly unsurprising to me. I think that is the position of a lot of people.But one of the things I didn’t want to do with the book is have this position and beat people over the head with it. People don’t like it when you get into their face and say “I have a message for you, this is a very important message, I’m going to stop the story to tell you this message”, because that takes them out of the moment. But if you can have it as a logical, organic part of the story, it can work. Some people will think about it while reading, some later when thinking about the book, which is the way I want to introduce concepts. The way that I think about my books is that they are primarily entertainment.
If I’m doing my job and keep you entertained page by page, then there is the opportunity to insert issues – like in Lock In issues with disabilities, or like in Fuzzy Nation issues of environmentalism. When the book is done and you think “That was a cool read”, you have the option to think that and never think about it again or think that and also think about the content some more, because the issue was in service to the story, as opposed to the story being in service to the message. And as a storyteller, I find it much more interesting to put this stuff in there for people to pick up, than stuffing it in there and absolutely making sure that people understand that it’s there. But having things in the background is still important. For example, there have been people telling me in tweets or blog posts that one of the things that they love about the book is that there is a gay married couple in the book and absolutely no character in the story cares that they are a gay married couple. That was an intentional point on my part – that there is a same sex couple married in the US and that’s just the fabric of it. But for folks who are gay, lesbian or trans just having it there and not having it a big deal meant something.