Crawlers by John Shirley
Del Rey / Random House Trade: ISBN 0345446526 PubDate: 11/01/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
400 pgs. List price $ 15
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In a secret military research lab nanotech assemblers get out of control and tear the bodies of the researchers apart, some for food, and some for parts to combine to make bio-mechanical monsters out of. To contain the "infection", the lab is sterilized with a high temperature bomb that leaves no evidence behind.Would this be a good time to shut down the project? Of course not, just to move it to a "safer" location.
Three years later, a satellite falls out of the sky, streaking over a sleepy Northern Californian town and coming to rest in a nearby bay. Oddly, it almost seemed to have tried to slow down before hitting the water, something it wasn’t designed for. Black (or at least dark green) helicopters and military types arrive to take charge and when a local salvage diver goes down to grapple the satellite for recovery, he comes back subtly changed. Soon changes spread throughout the town as nanotech critters interface with and take control of people and animals to create a massive hive-mind and prepare for expansion beyond the town. Some people and pets are better targets prospects for nano-conversion than others. Older humans, set in their mental programs, and passive media consuming kids are both ripe for the taking. There are some, however who aren’t going to go quietly, aren’t going to buy the military cover-up story, and aren’t going to let their town be assimilated without a fight. Cats, by the way, turn out to be really poor candidates for conversion.
The strength and weakness of Crawlers is its devotion to the small town horror formula. Nanotech stands in for the 50s classic radioactivity, but townsfolk still turn into flesh eating (nano) zombies. A few plucky kids and a few courageous grownups still stage a last ditch effort to stop the zombies while the government stands back offstage and wonders whether or not to bomb the infestation into slag. But just because it's formulaic doesn’t make it a bad story, and I expect Shirley is really planning to pitch it as a B-Horror movie, which might be fun to see. Gruesome fun, with humans and animals turned into creatures of torn flesh and scrap metal, perfect for today’s CGI wizards to play with. William Gibson calls these visions "Bosch-like", and he’s dead on. Descriptions of cyber-critters tearing humans apart while calmly talking to them conjure up the bizarre 16th century visions of Hell by Hieronymous Bosch with unnerving clarity. Adair, Waylon and the other teens in the story would fit right in with Buffy and their crowd, though more realistically, and the grownups range from pathetic to likeable, spineless to heroic.
Though this shares the cautionary tone (and many of the story elements) of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, I’m tempted to say that the technology isn’t nearly as well done, nor as plausible. Still, I have to admit that I’ve never actually seen a space borne virus, so maybe I shouldn’t be too quick to condemn Shirley’s nano-assemblers. The "Trust no one", litany of things you can't trust, Science, Governments, Parents and Authority in general is familiar, if less than useful. I'd like cautionary authors to consider the "Trust but verify" alternative once in a while, but then that makes you part of the process, and perhaps sharing responsibility is something they are not comfortable with.
While main stream SF readers may not find Crawlers to be the deep stuff they’re yearning for, fans of Dean Koontz, should like it, and fans of Buffy or Smallville may find it an engaging encounter with one of cyberpunks best authors.