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Crawlers, according to some industry insiders, is John Shirley's most consensual to mainstream tastes and publishers' hypothesis of purchasing trends. If so, he has joined the other authors hanging out to fly on the concertina wire surrounding the Zombie Apocalypse waiting for a little bestseller breeze. Like my last review of The Missing, it's not the originality of the conceptualization, but how it sails off the terra firma that's the consideration.
Shirley also comes armed with an ardent fan base and the admiration of his fellow authors, which has engendered an esoteric reputation for creativity and innovation. Problem is everybody seems to be standing ‘round for someone to produce a cinematic version before fame falls Shirley's way. But, at this point, some 5 years after publication, popularity's maybe a glut, a la Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, I Am Legend, etc.
Unfortunately, I agree: Shirley has garnered Hollywood success with some screenplays, adaptations, and novelizations, most notably The Crow, McCammon's Stinger, and Constintine, Doom, Aliens, Predator, and Batman marketshare tie-ins. He's a rebel artist alright, with the same kind of celebratory tactics that changed Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, but a little late in the life/career not to effect the questionability of purposes and motivations. Hey, we all gotta eat, which means as artists, we gotta sell. The more relevant point is that Shirley's literary style is very filmic, and, as a result, needs those established bunkers in the reader's imaginations that rely on other media influence for total, big bang absorption. I swear to God I'm not a purist or an elitist. I just think it's important to mark off the common ground because our associations are so influenced by it.
Aside from the formulaic backstory opening to establish audience curiosity and set the bar on the creepiness scale, Shirley's version of the coming Rapture ‘N' Reckonin' unfolds on a local, non-epic level in a California suburb called Quiebra. Once again the Government has lost control of its military monster created through buzzwordy nanotechnology, combining the biological with the mechanical into particularly nasty cybernetic horrors that crawl and chew to the chortling of a hive mind called All of Us. Ensemble casting gives us a dysfunctional family, a teenage Lone Gunman wannabe, a just-following-orders Intelligence Major with a conscience and an estranged daughter, a love match between a substitute teacher and a disillusioned, freshly fired journalist, and a lost-puppy MR named Vingear Vinnie who sees the truth but is naturally disregarded. The technology used by them to slaughter us is pulsed back by good ol' ‘Merican Know How to slaughter them. The final paragraph of the novel is like an infoblock before a film's final credits, and, since the story happyends within the bobbleheaded parameters of 99% of Hollywood movies, this superfluous buttpiece is probably stylistically congruous. It is a lengthy quote from Maurice Nicoll out of Living Time and the Integration of the Life in rumination that “people lose the power of any separate wisdom . . . [because] man's inventions increasingly take charge of him” (Del Rey, ISBN 0345446526, TPB original, c.2003, p. 383).
‘Bout the SPOILERS: sorry, but it's not about plot, okay? Hell, we've all seen variations and re-alignings of these composites a hundred times. Other than just a familiar fun rocket-ride of a read, Crawlers associates modern existence to the mouth-foaming panic of an unfolding and increasing zombie population engendered by stodgy tract housing, mass-marketed consumer goods, and the brain-frying, “colored shadows of media dreams” (p.18). Cross-pollinate using adversarial Muslims wearing thobes ribbed with dynamite into the jetstream of post-911 apocalyptic hysteria and there's a very understandable stink of zombie rottenness in the air. What's fundamentalist, religious rabidity but hive-mental goosestepping?
As to the same resurrected frenzies so familiar to those with a ‘50s-style, get-under-the-desk, nuclear attack drill education, Shirley takes a crowbar to the generation gap and peels back today's teenaged dissidence from their parents' past complacencies and plotdrives it to defeat any SkyNet-like takeover. You see, “the more programmed you already were, the more programmable you were likely to be” (p.282), and “the young ones . . . don't convert so easily . . . [because they are] more aware of themselves and stuff around them” (p.255). Sounds suspiciously like hashed-over hooey, but the critical question is: which side of the bookcovers was this marketplace profiling really created for? Immersed readers or potential buyers?
Taken to its extreme, any zombie apocalypse is going to congeal in the cookie cutter punchouts of globalization. And Crawlers is no exception, as “the world would begin the next state of reorganization” (p.362) with manchine hybrids leading this warpspeed, unnatural evolution. But, examining its core ideas with the selfsame global perspective, this novel is not merely a moral condemnation on the management of technology, but that technology itself is some kind of “alternative nature” (p.119), miraculously preempting the rules of sentient intelligence and natural selection as it robotically scrambles the methodology of Scientific Realism and technical discovery to dehumanized conclusions. How the synthesis of machinery and living tissue can become telepathic is insinuated by that “it comes from math, from numbers—from just the way things are ” (p.138). This effectively puts the horror of Crawlers back to the folkloric level of Witches, Vampires, and Werewolves, via Frankenstein's monster and Godzilla.
Although it's a snort to think that “technology takes on a life of its own” and “it's like we surrender some of our own life to our technology” (p.323), such pixie dust wanes quickly after any cognizant perusal and siphons back into the brain as fun and fantastic ideas, albeit somewhat paranoid and idiosyncratic. Post-digestion regards then become categorical in diagnosis to parody, farce, or black comedy. What does imbed, however, and makes Crawlers worth the read is the intensely visual scares of those “hopping things . . . of feathers and fur and pieces of metal all tricked together and spastic with activity” (p.179). I'm still shuddering to terriers swinging through trees, “biointerfaced” squirrels with watches in their mouths, and bluejays rolling up like pillbugs.