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John Shirley

Del Rey / Random House

US Trade Paperback First

ISBN 0-345-44652-6

Publication Date: 11-04-2003

385 Pages; $14.95

Date Reviewed: 12-06-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, Horror

02-14-02, 03-04-02, 04-18-02, 08-05-02, 12-13-02, 12-31-02

All novels live or die by virtue of their characters. If the characters come alive, they carry the reader through the action effortlessly, pretty much no matter what does or does not happen. John Shirley has the skill to spark his characters into a life beyond the page, and he deploys it frighteningly well in 'Crawlers'. Set in the San Francisco suburb of Quiebra, 'Crawlers' paints a picture of average Americans put in the line of fire by a government that loves to lie. Circumstances being what they are, it's very hard to divorce this tight, exciting novel from reality. It's hard not to look over your shoulder, and wonder what's behind the face you're seeing. We all assume it's flesh and blood and prefer not to think much about it. You meet people and you like them or you don't. Using the science fiction trope of the bodysnatcher, Shirley has crafted a novel that's tense yet often poignant. That's because Shirley has followed the age-old maxim foisted upon generations of writers with very good reason; Shirley writes what he knows. As a visionary writer, Shirley has a long and strong record demonstrating his knowledge of void-induced terror; as a father, Shirley has three sons in the vicinity of their teenage years. He combines his knowledge to create some of the best-written teenagers you're going to find in this year's fiction. They'll annoy and endear you, just like the real thing. As a reader, they're cunningly deployed to keep you in a reality that slides from family tensions towards a believable apocalypse.

Shirley's MacGuffin in 'Crawlers' is a plausibly portrayed nanotech program run by a government set on staying one step ahead in the arms race. You thought the arms race was gone? Shirley puts it right in your face, bringing back an unwelcome nostalgia for bomb shelters. That's because there's no shelter on earth from this weapon. And thus the government launches the whole shebang into space, just to be sure. But a government that lies is also on the incompetent side, so three years later, the satellite drops into the bay outside the town of Quiebra, California. There, Nick Leverton runs a salvage operation with his son, Cal. Nick's having problems with his wife, Suzanne, because he's only sporadically employed and even less motivated. The current economic boom hasn't managed to make it to Quiebra yet. After Nick helps recover the crashed satellite, their daughter, Adair starts to notice some odd compulsive behavior in her parents. Then there are the squirrels whose heads can turn, no, swivel, completely around, Exorcist-style. It's a bad sign of something worse than family tensions.

Shirley handles both sides of this novel with complete ease. He nails down the Stephen King-style story of average Americans under attack with the confidence that King himself commands. This is largely due to his dead-on portrayals of the large cast of characters. Shirley's teenagers talk the talk and walk the walk like the real thing. As the parent of two teenagers myself, I feel well qualified to judge here. Even excellent writers seem to stumble when it comes to portraying modern teenagers. Their information seems to come from a mixture of sitcoms, commercials and MTV. Shirley's clearly comes from seeing, hearing and watching real teenagers speak and interact. As a result, there's no cringe factor when the kids are onstage, which is good, because they're on stage a lot. But Shirley's adults are equally well-rounded. That's not to say they're all nice people you'd like to have as neighbors. They're more like the real people you probably do have as neighbors. As a portrait of middle-America, 'Crawlers' is entertainingly, compellingly right-on.

Of course the other side of a novel like this is the monster MacGuffin, and few are as qualified as Shirley to write about soul-devouring micro-robots. Shirley's menace has formed a sort of hive mind called the All Of Us, and it's shiveringly believable without being disgustingly gross, even when it's shredding bodies in front of your eyes. Shirley has managed a very neat trick here. He starts the novel with an initial sort of jailbreak by these critters that goes well over the top. The reader is immediately bathed in blood in such a fashion that when the All Of Us begins a series of experiments in Quiebra that involve shredding and rebuilding bodies with spare parts looted from televisions, computers, and the sundry electronic gadgets we surround ourselves with, the fascination factor outweighs the quease factor without diluting the incipient terror. He's created the ultimate automobile accident, bloody and mangling from which we cannot look away. What's more, this automobile accident threatens to spin out of control and fractally engulf the world in a convincing apocalypse.

Once the pages are in motion, they won't stop turning, and Shirley keeps the tension high. He's not known to be a happy camper, and the outcome is far from certain. Don't expect me to tell you what happens to this family. You might not want to know, but Shirley ensures that you will. What's interesting about 'Crawlers' is that Shirley manages to deploy compelling characters and terrorizing tension with a sort of light hand. There's a sly undercurrent of humor that doesn't undercut the power of his images, but does steer the novel away from overly-meaningful moralizing. 'Crawlers' is tense, terrorizing, compelling, but also fun to read. Set aside a few sick days, cover up on the couch and prepare to become very wary of squirrels. That's no loss. I've always thought they were more rat-like than cute. Now however, I'm happy just to see that their heads don't swivel.