In recent years, apocalyptic fiction has gotten pretty political. Where once it was the preserve of the firmly fantastical or the nominally natural, like the rampaging rats of James Herbert’s unforgettable first novel, or Michael Crichton’s reconditioned dinosaurs, such stories have since taken a turn for the topical. Now we have nuclear winters to worry about, a cache of climate catastrophes, and the release of diseases genetically engineered to “solve” the planet’s overpopulation problems. For those of us who read to escape the devastation of the day-to-day, it’s all gotten uncomfortably current.
Happily, The Hatching hearkens back to the detached disasters of yesteryear. The end of the world as we know it isn’t even our own fault in Ezekiel Boone’s book—it comes about because of some damned spiders.
There are thirty-five thousand species of spiders and they’ve been on earth for at least three hundred million years. From the very origin of humanity, spiders have been out there, scuttling along the edges of firelight, spinning webs in the woods, and scaring the hell out of us, even though, with a few rare exceptions, they are no real threat. But these were something different.
These spiders are more like ants, in fact, in that they’re essentially social: what they do, they do for the good of the group as opposed to their own individual ends, which means they can set their collective sights on bigger and better prey than bluebottles. Creepy as one arachnid is, in other words, it’s got nothing on a sea of the beasties with an appetite for people.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves—a lesson Boone would do well to learn, because before the inevitable rise of the spiders, he gets bogged down in setting up a situation for them to chew through, and sadly, it isn’t up to snuff, largely because it relies on a cast of conspicuously cartoonish characters.
Of these, there are those whose only role in the whole is to be summarily dispatched so as to show that the aforementioned arachnids are the real deal. That’s clear—and effective, yes—the first time a spider eats its way out of one of their forgettable faces; by the fifth time someone is dispatched in that fashion, it’s gotten a bit boring, and alas, The Hatching has hardly started.
The survivors at the centre of the text—such as Lance Corporal Kim Bock, FBI agent Mike Rich, arachnid expert Melanie Guyer, President Stephanie Pilgrim and Manny, her chief of staff—are more memorable than the other lambs the author sends to the slaughter simply because they last a little longer, but that’s about all they have going for them. That, and the fact that they’re all supremely sardonic, altogether awesome at their jobs, and, in the interim, “effortlessly attractive,” “athletic,” or else “the sexiest.” Pardon me—some of them are simply “pretty.”
In real terms, they’re represented with kind of depth you’d expect from an off-Hollywood casting call. And indeed, The Hatching as a whole could conceivably be a script rejected by the Syfy channel and retooled as a book; it’s very visual, dialogue- rather than exposition-driven, and what little of the latter there is is markedly more interested in how cool a swarm of spiders would look than in the internal complexities of the characters caught in such spots:
It looked to Miguel like a black river. […] And then the blackness started streaming toward him, covering the path and moving quickly, almost as fast as a man could run. Miguel knew he should be running, but there was something hypnotic in the quietness of the water. It didn’t roar like a river. If anything, it seemed to absorb sound. All he could hear was a whisper, a skittering, like a small patter of rain. The way the river moved was beautiful in its own way, pulsing and, at certain points, splitting and braiding into separate streams before rejoining itself a few paces later. As it got closer, Miguel took another step back, but by the time he realised it wasn’t actually a river, that it wasn’t water of any kind, it was too late.
But you know what? I enjoyed the shenanigans in Sharknado as much as the next person, and as such, I did have some fun with The Hatching in hand. Just because it doesn’t have the deeper meaning most apocalyptic novels do these days doesn’t mean the throwback disaster it documents isn’t intermittently thrilling, and although its shallow central characters might disappear into the ether if Boone ever took them out of their respective elements, they’re perfectly fit—for purpose, in the first, but also in terms of their, ah… hot bods.
I could find it in my heart to live with the fact that there’s not a lot to The Hatching as a narrative, but even as brief, beach-side reading, there’s not nearly enough of it to really recommend. “Basically, nobody knows what’s going on” for most of the novel, then it ends just as folks are figuring out what’s been staring us in the face from the first page.
What we’re left with, at the last, is a superficial story that spends its length establishing a premise that isn’t at all hard to get your head around and a cast of caricatures even the most devoted popular fiction fans be hard pressed to remember after this slow opener’s over. As the author asserts, it is “just the beginning,” but The Hatching doesn’t give readers a great many reasons to be interested in the middle.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.