Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Book Review: Cell, by Stephen King (2006)

An end-of-the-world horror story, Cell plays on one of Stephen King's favourite themes: technology turning on its creators with catastrophic results.

In Boston for a meeting, struggling comic book artist Clayton Riddell witnesses the bloody carnage caused by the event that came to be known as The Pulse. A rogue signal transmitted via cell phones turns everyone exposed to it into a murderous lunatic. Not owning a cell phone himself and barely surviving the unfolding chaos, Clay teams up with the mild mannered Tom McCourt and teenager Alice Maxwell as they make their way out of a destroyed Boston and into rural New England, fending off the phone crazies along the way.

As Clay tries to find his son Johnny, those affected by The Pulse start to undergo a brain re-boot transformation, developing flocking behaviour, group-thinking abilities, and eventually extraordinary collective powers to influence the thoughts and actions of human survivors. Clay and his friends destroy one flock, establishing themselves as enemies of the phone people, and getting themselves irresistibly drawn into a final apocalyptic encounter.

Cell is fast-paced, gory, and gripping. King creates an apocalyptic maelstrom, and drops Clay and his allies into the eye of the storm to experience the apparent end of humanity from a street level perspective. It's not a pretty sight, King revelling in soaking first Boston and then New England with the most foul images and smells of violent murder and dismemberment.

Superficially, Cell confronts technology's ability to dominate society. The craziness is triggered by an addictive small piece of human-created hardware, and a network of cell phone signals that has been purposefully built to reach every inhabited corner of the country. The mayhem of The Pulse is a logical if extreme extension of the radical changes in societal norms that have evolved as a result of technology's unchecked intrusion.

And yet, the book's undercurrent is that of humanity's potential to experience a mass rebirth. Like all births the transformation starts with a lot of blood, but it hints at the potential to evolve into something unimaginably wondrous. It does not take long for the phone people to develop supernatural powers which, if properly harnessed, could push humanity into a next stage of advanced evolution. Clay is left wondering whether his battle against the phone people represents an old regime refusing to accept change at a massive scale - change that, if allowed to continue, could eventually prove to be positive.

For better of for worse, Cell gives reason to pause before reaching for the cell phone to answer that next call.

350 pages.
Published in hardcover by Scribner.

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