Reviewed: June 11, 2008
By: Stephen King
Publisher: Pocket Books
450 pages, $11.99
There have been concerns about cell phones from their very beginning. There
have been worries about brain cancer, worries about neural disruptions. These
have faded somewhat, but have been replaced by concerns about how people behave
when they are using the devices. How like Stephen King to take the whole discussion
up a notch.
The apocalypse began without warning. Graphic artist Clay Riddell was walking
down a street in Boston, exulting in the fact that a publisher was interested
in his portfolio and his story ideas when the lady in the power suit stopped
to answer her cell phone. Several other people received calls about the same
time. It was the last normal thing that happened that day or for quite some
time there after.
Within seconds the man in the business suit was trying to eat the dog with the
frisbee. The power suit lady was attacking the man in the Mr. Softee truck and
one of the two girls who had been listening to a pink cell phone was sinking
her teeth into power suit lady’s neck.
It got worse after that. Riddell and anyone else who isn’t effected by
the disaster known as the Pulse only remain sane and human because they didn’t
happen to pick up a telephone of any kind that day or after.
I was reminded a bit of the opening pages of John Wyndham’s The Day of
the Triffids, where the central character is prevented from going blind only
because his eyes are bandaged. The rest of England watches the lovely meteor
shower and loses its eyesight, then becoming vulnerable to the six foot high
carnivorous plants that suddenly uproot themselves and begin to wander about
looking for food.
In this case, the victims of the Pulse, transformed into living zombies with
nothing but reptile brain territorial impulses to guide them, are the Triffids.
The Pulse has somehow rebooted the living computer which is the human brain,
wiping out all memory, all civilized programming and anything that might cause
us to rise above the most basic animal instincts.
The operating system that remains is savage and territorial. Its first impulse
seems to be to kill anyone who hasn’t been effected, but it’s even
more frightening when it becomes clear that transformed ones are relearning,
reprogramming, building a new pattern of consciousness that eventually comes
to include telepathy and a group mind.
In the words of one of Cliff’s friends, they become a flock, with new
modes of behavior, a plan and a destination.
What caused the Pulse? Did the machines come up with this by themselves? Was
it a terrorist plot, the digital equivalent of crashing airplanes into twin
towers? For Clay and the small group of survivors that he moves with there are
never any answers. Civilization as they knew it is dead. How far the Pulse effect
has spread they have no idea. They do know that the only possible safe places,
places where people may still be normal, are the dead zones where there is no
cell phone coverage.
While most of the other normals are simply focussed on surviving and not getting
“turned”, Cliff is motivated by the need to find his wife and son.
He doesn’t know what state they will be in when he finds them, but he
needs to do it. The worry that they will have been rebooted like most of the
rest of New England is constantly on his mind.
In a sort of homage to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Clay and his companions
come up with the notion that they can destroy the phoners, as the zombies have
come to be known, during the periods when they flock together and become inactive,
apparently sharing information and receiving new instructions, all the while
listening to soft rock on the boom boxes they love to carry with them. This
plan backfires enormously, and the gang finds that they are being herded inexorably
towards some end that the phoners’ group mind seems to have decided upon.
I won’t say more about how this works out, but it’s a spooky little
book (“little” by King standards, that is) and you may never look
at your cell phone quite the same way after you’ve read it.