Cell

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 These have faded somewhat, but have been replaced by concerns about how people behave when they are using the devices.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.