The reason Hilketa is so popular is that the players score points through simulated decapitation, and go after each other with melee weapons. It’s team gladiatorial combat, on a football field, with a nerdy scoring system. It’s all the violence every other team sport wishes it could have, but can’t, because people would actually die. 

Head On by John Scalzi

In the not-too distant future, imagine that there is a debilitating disease that affects 10% of the population. Haden’s syndrome, named for the former first lady who contracted it, renders its victims unable to move, ”locked in” to their bodies. The US government stepped up with measures to develop technology and policy in the form of subsidies and grants to help those afflicted with the disease, referred to as Hadens, by developing sophisticated neural webs and implanting them in their (human) bodies. The other part of the government’s spend was to develop incredibly complex androids—called threeps—so that Hadens can mobilize and interact with the physical world.

After a couple of decades with this technology, Hadens and threeps have become fully integrated into society. The biggest and potentially most lucrative of Haden capabilities is seen in the form of a sport: Hilketa. Think of Hilketa as a cross between American football and good old fashioned armored combat, complete with warhammers and swords and robots. In Hilketa—a Haden-only sport—one team tries to attach and dismember a member from the other team (the appropriately named “goat”) and carry that person’s head across the goal line in order to score points. Hilketa is brutal, and glorious, and incredibly popular—especially among non-Hadens. Unlimited brutality and bloodthirst without any of the consequence—what could be more appealing to human nature?

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It’s all fun and games until a player dies on the field, the third time his head is ripped off.

FBI agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann are back to solve the mysterious and supposedly impossible death. Facing resistance from the Hilketa league—which was in the unfortunate position of seeking massive funding from would-be franchise owners during the ill-fated game—and a subsequent suicide, fire, and destroyed evidence, agents Shane and Vann have their work cut out for them.

Head On is the sequel to 2014’s Lock In, but can be read as a standalone novel—and I highly recommend that you do read it, especially if you are a sports and science fiction fan. I love the intersection of sports and sci-fi. You’d think there would be more of it, but outside of the gladiator ring or war game simulation, finding a good team sport in an SFFnal setting is not so easy to find. Thankfully, the infinitely entertaining John Scalzi is at the ready with Head On, which I downed in a single sitting. The thing that is so appealing about this series is that it’s not only a zippy police procedural, but an incisive take on public policy, discrimination, and disability. Mostly we see this unpacked through the perspective of main character Chris Shane, FBI agent and Haden. Chris Shane was a child star and Haden icon—his father is one of the best basketball players (and most successful businessmen) in the world, and Chris is well-known and respected throughout the Haden community because of his visibility and his career choices. (Chris doesn’t really understand this, but that’s part of his appeal.) In Head On, we see more of Chris trying to do his job and to make the right choices that won’t make society suck—when crossing a powerful multi-billion dollar sports league, this becomes rather difficult.

The thing that Scalzi does so well in Head On is examine all of the threads that surround a scandal, and the extent that those who have everything to lose will go to protect themselves. The arena of professional sports is a powerful one full of shady implications and seedy characters—and I’m not talking just about the usual sex scandals or doping schemes (although both have a part to play in this particular story).

Even more appealing is the way that this story unfolds the continuing fragmentation between Haden and non-Haden—yes, Hadens are a part of society, but with changing laws and reductions in federal money spent on those with the disease, the atmosphere is incredibly tense. I appreciated the way Scalzi approaches disability and discrimination in the form of Hilketa—especially those moments where the humans start to complain about Hadens discriminating against them in this league. (Mmhmm.)

All in all, Head On is a worthy successor to Lock In. And, of course, if you like police procedurals, you really can’t go wrong with this second novel.

In Book Smugglerish, seven severed threep heads out of ten.