In this light and charming novel, we see a side of author John Scalzi that will surprise his readers — a sense of humor. The writer best known for works like the tragic, grimdark space opera, Old Man O’ War, about an artificially intelligent military starship confronting its own obsolescence, or the biochemistry-driven hard SF thriller Reagent to the Stars, which famously inspired Peter Watts to comment, “I couldn’t finish it. Too intense. And would it kill Scalzi to crack a joke once in a while?” isn’t a name that we usually associate with comedy.
But I’m here to tell you, Scalzi can be funny. Who knew?
Head On is a transhumanist bildungsroman post-cyberpunk comedy of manners, but despite revisiting a tired subgenre that we’ve seen explored so many times before, John Scalzi manages to achieve something new, and noteworthy, in the oft-trod ground of transbilropocymannercompunk.
The setting is a near-future world where technological breakthroughs allow human beings to exchange their heads at will. In this terrifyingly plausible imagined future, people casually swap heads, or bodies, depending on your perspective, I guess, like we in the real world swap underwear, and for the same sorts of reasons — professionally, recreationally, educationally, et cetera.
Scalzi deftly world-builds this speculative conceit in a prologue that takes a big picture look at a world profoundly changed by head-exchange technology, so effectively that it wasn’t until the end of the chapter that it occurred to me to wonder why, if everyone is able to take their heads off, the book is called Head On.
It turns out that the answer involves something called “dramatic irony”.
Alicia, or “Al” Bukirky is the only person on Earth medically unable to use the head-swapping tech that has become fundamental to human society, for reasons that are initially unclear to both the reader and to Al herself. Al’s journey through a world that she literally can’t remove her head to fit into, and her keen observations on the hedonistic head-exchanging hubris of the people around her, form the heart of the story. Al’s need to understand why she alone can’t remove her head and trade it around like a bubble gum card is the impetus for her quest, that, like all Scalzi plots, is secondary to what becomes a series of loosely-structured series of vignettes exploring the central idea.
To be clear, Scalzi’s light touch with the plot works very well, because we, as the readers, so enjoy sharing Al’s head — and hey, there’s that “dramatic irony” again! Unlike the stoic, tragic figures central to previous Scalzi novels, Al responds to her circumstances with a sly wit, although not always good cheer. The snappy patter leaps off the page, a surprising choice for a Scalzi protagonist, but a remarkably effective one.
Head On isn’t without flaws. The notoriously reclusive Scalzi’s unfamiliarity with real-world social media is evident in the scenes where he tries to imagine online communities in his world of head-swapping. Really, calling one of his setting’s online platforms “Twitter” is a little too on-the-nose to be effective satire.
But one shouldn’t quibble at occasional, trivial misfires in an overall strong work, especially when it’s down to an author trying to stretch their boundaries, and it’s wonderful seeing a cult author like Scalzi, whose previous works have so often flown under the radar, write a work that could bring him wider recognition, and, dare I suggest it, perhaps even financial success.
John Scalzi, heretofore known for standalone works, may in this departure from his previous literary comfort zone also finally have hit upon a concept that will sustain a series. I look forward to many more adventures of Al Bukirky, with her head on straight in a heads-off world, starting with the hinted-at sequel, Head On Goes To Hawaii. I’m there for it!
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