Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Stephen King's ambitious Under the Dome plays out almost like a science fiction version of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series (and indeed it inspired a TV show as well). While geographically it's much more confined than Martin's epic, it boasts a nearly equal cast of characters. King's novel is longer than any of Martin's novels in the GoT series, but it's a quicker read because it's much faster-paced. While Under the Dome lacks in the character development category, it has an engaging, gripping story that at times transported me completely into its world.

Like Martin's A Game of Thrones series, the opening of Under the Dome will have you scrambling back and forth trying to figure out who's who and where's where. King tells the tale from many different perspectives, which means that by page 80 you've advanced no farther than the dome just dropping (it first drops on page 3), but you've seen it drop from almost every angle possible. The parallel structure of the story is most obvious at the start. First a woodchuck gets sliced in two, and then the story moves backwards very briefly to show a small airplane crash into the dome at the exact same moment the poor woodchuck meets its fate (for dramatic effect, it's a cow in the show), and so on. What happens is probably well-known by now. A forcefield-like dome surrounds the small town of Chester's Mill (population two thousand or so). Many animals die, people included. The dome is invisible, which creates a driving hazard, but it emits a static shock when you get close and touch it. Only once, however. Once the dome drops, all us helpless readers can do is watch and see how people react under this bizarrely (impossible) intriguing scenario.

Summarizing the plot will be impossible, as there are so many characters who want to achieve conflicting goals that it would take far too many words to give you a good idea of what's going on. So I will give you an idea of some of the main characters stuck inside said dome. There is Dale Barbara (aka Barbie), an ex-army captain and now short-order cook at Sweetbriar Rose. Barbie was just leaving Chester's Mill when the dome said otherwise. Barbie had gotten in a fight the night before with the son of the town's most powerful man, Jim Rennie. Rennie is the town's second selectman Andy Sanders, but he's the real muscle behind the town's leadership. This political situation invokes the Bush-Cheney era of American presidents, with Bush viewed as a dummy and Cheney as the brains. However, just as Cheney needed the charismatic Bush to achieve power, Rennie needs the charismatic Sanders. Rennie's son, Junior, is a psychopath. When we first meet him he is strangling Angie McCain. Junior has problems. There is also Julia Shumway, editor of the town's newspaper, the Democrat, and perhaps a romantic love interest for our hero, Barbie. Lester Coggins is a reverend with about just as many problems as Junior. Rusty Everett is a young physician's assistant, husband to police officer Linda and father of two daughters. Colonel Cox is the town's one outside contact who attempts (impossibly) to establish order inside. Romeo Burpee owns the town's largest wholesale store. Joe McClatchey is a computer geek who sees the dome incident as a government experiment and organizes a protest. Duke Perkins is the sheriff, and his unfortunate early demise (pacemaker explodes near the dome) paves the way for Rennie to achieve near-unlimited power.

This covers many of the main characters, but there are so many more. One of the problems with the characters is lack of dimension. Barbie is your typical good guy hero, and King's attempt to add some depth to him later feels like an afterthought. Rennie, on the other hand, is pure evil. His only motivation is power at any cost. I prefer the version of Rennie portrayed on the television show. That Rennie genuinely seems to love the town, and he actually helps the people out. However, flat characters are not always necessary for a good story. Charles Dickens was often accused of writing flat characters, yet he is one of the greatest novelists ever to live. The main problem I had with the characters, though, is that their decisions seemed to come at the whim of the plot rather than their own intellects. Too often the good guys do stupid things, such as decide to have a "chat" with the bad guy alone, that helps make Rennie's rise to power that much easier.

Thematically, King runs the gamut. The drive for power is a major theme. Chester's Mill does not, once we see its workings, seem like an ordinary small town (some crazy stuff is going on there, with one too many messed up people). However, it is apparent that if it weren't for the power-hungry Rennie, the town's operations would run much more smoothly under the dome. The townspeople want things to go well and they want to help one another. People instinctively know the right decisions to make. Barbie sees the wisdom in rationing Sweetbriar Rose's meal times. Shop owners see no use in rationing their own goods, not yet. However, Rennie has no care about wisdom. He sees an opportunity to gain power and to make a good name for himself once the whole dome thing blows over. One of the motivating factors behind Rennie's power grab is that he can get away with it. He has stuffed the police force with men loyal to him (and too stupid to question him). The dome also serves to his advantage because nobody on the outside can stop him. Chester's Mill, in a sense, becomes a separate nation from the United States, one that doesn't have to bow to the laws of Constitution. When put in such a situation, the majority of people will want to do the right thing, but it's the powerful minority that will abuse their power.

King's novel is politically-charged. He seems concerned with a radical movement within out politics, and I think it's safe to say his target is the Tea Party movement. Chester's Mill serves as a microcosm of the United States, and perhaps even the world, as a whole. The question King seems to pose is, what happens when a radical minority within our government decides to start making bad decisions for the rest of us? This radical minority can be a force that galvanizes the people because it's fresh and energetic, and some people will believe even the most irrational words to come from its speakers. King's villains take advantage of this fact in this very frightening scenario by enforcing irrational laws against the better wisdom of the majority of the people. Today's rabid political climate makes the situations in King's novel more believable. As much as I wanted to tell myself Rennie's actions were unrealistic, I could think to real life examples that told me otherwise. And if those individuals who lead our more radical political parties were to be trapped inside a dome like this, there's no doubt they would behave in a similar way.

There's also the importance of the human condition, particularly how it interacts with the environment. As the town is now enclosed in its very own atmosphere, the effects of pollution become much more apparent. With people still driving their cars and using propane to fire up their generators, the dome quickly becomes cluttered with the resulting pollution. Eventually people see a hazy sunset through a filter of pollution and they become afraid of what it means. The human condition goes hand in hand with this environmental problem. At one point we find animals who have committed suicide, likely due to the drastic and frightening change in environment. Eventually we also find humans doing the same thing. Humans and animals aren't so different after all. The last fifty pages contain some of the novel's most powerful passages, as great tragedy strikes and we see people at their most vulnerable, trying their best to survive and to ensure the survival of others. There are images that may stay with me for the rest of my life.

The story itself is very well-told, sometimes funny and sometimes thrilling. At spots it was difficult to put down. At other spots, such as when a dog hears a dead person speak, it was characteristic silly Stephen King. You'll get a good dose of King's slang, the types of words you don't usually hear in real conversation, but still have a poetic touch to them. You'll also recognize some of King's tropes, such as villains who suffer some unseen ailment: Junior suffers horrible migraines and Rennie suffers the occasional arrhythmia. The most unfortunate trope is the discovery of the origin of the dome. Anyone familiar with King can probably guess fairly early on what elements will come into play later, though I will say King handles it far better than I expected. There's currently a TV show, airing on CBS. I've watched the first two episodes and am amazed at just how different the show is from the book. This isn't a bad thing. It means I will get a different experience from both. One major difference I noted, however, is that the television show avoids the topic of religion almost completely, whereas religion plays a key role in the novel. What that tells me is books are much braver than television shows.

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