Review of Under the Dome by Stephen King
Under the Dome
by Stephen King
My father gave me this book for Christmas of 2009, and it has been sitting on my to-read shelf ever since. I suppose I have been avoiding it, probably because I had (and still have) better things to read. However, in my quest to empty my to-read shelf before I replenish it with books from the overflow bin, I changed that.
I didn't read this book in 2009, but I did read Flashforward. Stephen King reminds me a little of Robert J. Sawyer, and Under the Dome made me think of Flashforward—more, however, of the short-lived ABC television series based on the book rather than the book itself. Like the TV version of FlashForward, Under the Dome has everything working in its favour from the start: it's a novel by one of the most successful fiction authors of our era; it has a great premise that King explores faithfully to its logical extremes; and it has a large cast of characters with conflicting beliefs and motives. All the signs point to Under the Dome being great, if not mind-blowing and awesome.
I'm sure some people found it to be so, just as some people drooled over each episode of FlashForward and made "Save FlashForward!" websites after ABC cancelled the show. My dad and I ridiculed FlashForward far more than we ridicule Smallville (and we love to ridicule Smallville), because although the show's premiere was promising, it rapidly took a nosedive. FlashForward had bad acting and bad writing, and as the season progressed, the plot made less and less sense. The situations in which the characters found themselves were far too contrived, and as a result we had to listen to pages of dialogue as the characters supplied flimsy justifications or reasoning for what was happening. The story kind of imploded under its own weight.
My experience with Under the Dome is similar. I love the premise, and there are certainly scenes in this book that I enjoyed. King certainly knows how to create and maintain mood and atmosphere; he can manipulate a scene until it evokes exactly the right combination of terror, dread, horror, and suspense (all of which are distinct yet overlapping emotions that lesser writers tend to conflate). He fine-tunes his chapters until they are well-oiled thrill machines, and then he straps in the reader, pulls the "start" lever, and we're off. There is no turning back, and there is no slowing down.
Despite its cumbersome length, Under the Dome is not a slow book in its pacing. Some, though not many, of its scenes feel redundant, but I won't get too snarky about its editing or its length. That being said, if ever you were considering trying out eBooks, you could start with this one. Your arms would thank you.
But I digress. Under the Dome has an exciting start and maintains an excellent pace, but soon the cracks begin to appear. After the town of Chester's Mill becomes mysteriously encased in a force-field of unknown origin or properties, the inhabitants find themselves the cast of a Lord of the Flies-esque descent into demagogy and tyranny. The town's most powerful man, "Big" Jim Rennie, sees the Dome as an opportunity to gain even more power and rule Chester's Mill with an iron fist. He's vain, self-centred, and hates when anyone shows him up. Depending on how you interpret him, he might be more than a little mad.
Big Jim and his minions are certainly the logical choice of antagonist for this book's plot. I mean, what else would one write about when one traps a town beneath an impenetrable dome? In that situation, it makes sense that the power-hungry would try to seize control and manipulate the citizens of the town. But does King really have to go on as much as he does about how bad Big Jim is, how much he and all the other bad guys hate women, how they're doing Big Bad Things? This is where we get into that redundancy I mentioned. We get quite a few scenes where either the protagonists are discussing how bad things are going to get the longer Big Jim stays in power or Big Jim himself is gloating about his plans for the town. It's repetitive, and it is not subtle. I am always suspicious when my literature becomes too obvious in its themes, because it's an indication that the author is worried we won't get it. And that's disappointing at best and disrespectful of the reader at worst.
Even giving King the benefit of a doubt, this repetition means that we essentially learn everything we need to know about the antagonists in the first 200 or so pages of the book. Their dastardly deeds consistently escalate from nasty to ugly to insane, but there are no surprises when it comes to their characterization. The protagonists are not that much better: not only does each character fit into a rather obvious mould, but King lampshades himself about it:
Joe covered his mouth, coughed. Behind them, the fans roared and roared. Behind them, the fans roared and roared. "I'm a smart kid. You know that? I mean, I'm not bragging, but … I'm smart."
Barbie thought of the video feed the kid had set up near the site of the missile strike. "No argument, Joe."
"In a Spielberg movie, it's the smart kid who'd come up with the last-minute solution, isn't that right?"
Barbie felt Julia stir again. Both eyes were open now, and she was regarding Joe gravely.
Tears were trickling down the boy's cheeks. "Some Spielberg kid I turned out to be. If we were in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs would eat us for sure."
This is on page 1032, quite close to the end of the book, long after King has already shown us that Joe is smart. Lest we forget it, however, he feels the need to remind us by having Joe say it. And then he points out how Joe isn't a Spielberg kid and this isn't a Spielberg movie; if they are going to get out of this, they will have to find another solution. But if Joe's not the Spielberg kid, he is certainly "the smart kid." Barbie's the retired army veteran who just wants to be left alone. There's even a nosy reporter, for heaven's sake!
The personalities of these characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, are similarly stereotypical. Under the Dome awakened a latent sense of anti-Americanism that I did not want to admit I have. Although I am not a fan of what the United States government has done in the past few decades, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, I like to think I recognize that I can't judge the entire American population based on that behaviour. But I'm loath to say it's because "I have American friends," because after all, racists love to explain why they aren't racist by prefacing everything with, "Some of my closest friends are Blacks" (or if you are Donald Trump, "the Blacks"). Of course, I don't want people to judge me by the actions of Stephen Harper, so it goes both ways.
Anyway, I would like to think I'm not anti-American. But I couldn't help thinking that Under the Dome could only have played out this way in a rural American town. Oh, sure, if this had happened anywhere else, the same general type of panic and fear would have ensued. No one likes being caged. Nevertheless, the alacrity and intensity of the panic—the fervour, if you will—is very American. It is a result of its setting, and thus of the climate in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks. And King populates Chester's Mill with stereotypical rural hicks of all flavours, from Richard Killian, a gross chicken farmer, to Lester Coggins, an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian preacher. Chester's Mill has a very high number of young men who think women ought to be treated like personal objects, and, oh yes, raped. Love the rape, they do! And they are all too happy to join the police force after the Dome appears.
I've never been to Maine, but I am almost certain this is exaggeration. According to Wikipedia, New England "voters have voted more often for liberal candidates at the state and federal level than those of any other region in the United States," and "due to the liberal lean of the region, the state Republican parties and the elected Republican officials have been more politically and socially moderate than the national Republican Party." This explains Barbie's repetitive snide remarks about Julia, a self-proclaimed Republican who publishes the town's newspaper, the Democrat, not sounding like a Republican.
So King stacks the deck ridiculously in his favour when it comes to ensuring the situation goes FUBAR as fast as possible. In order to do so, however, he's created a town that is as much science fiction as the Dome itself. While this makes his polemic stronger (read: less subtle, because apparently Subtlety Is Bad), it also weakens King's exploration of human nature and behaviour. Since this town is rather improbable altogether, never mind the Dome descending upon it, one can't help but wonder what would have happened somewhere else.
I much prefer John Irving portrayals of New England, which tend to feature wrestling, bears, deadly accidents, and writers. Sometimes it even has all these things. (Though, regrettably, seldom deadly accidents of writers owing to wrestling a bear. I live in hope.)
I'm also puzzled by the fantastic elements of Under the Dome. For the most part, King treats these as straight science fiction. There are various theories about the Dome's origin, from a government or military conspiracy to extraterrestrial experiments. Thanks to the way King reveals the answer, one can even, if one desires, interpret the answer as a delusion by the inhabitants of Chester's Mill and insert an alternative theory instead. It's not as if the book sticks around to explain every last detail. Every fantastic element, however, can be attributed to sufficiently advanced science—except one. Horace sees dead people. Horace is a dog, and dogs, as the omniscient third-person narrator explains, see and hear dead people regularly. Since this information comes from an omniscient narrator and not a character, it is more difficult to justify dismissing this as some kind of delusion. That suggests a supernatural or paranormal element at work in this world. And so I have to file Under the Dome under both science fiction and fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that, but I wonder why King employed so much ambiguity only to make an exception for a single, small part of the story.
I will conclude with one final complaint that has nothing to do with King's writing. The dusk jacket of my hardcover edition has no summary or cover copy whatsoever. They don't forget to include the price, of course, but they don't breathe a word of what the book might be about. I don't know if the publisher just assumes that people will buy it because Stephen King wrote it, but I think it's silly not to put cover copy on a book. Perhaps the real King fans will buy any book with his name on it, but I'm sure there are casual readers who prefer to browse. And there are probably even people out there who have never read novel by Stephen King.
In fact, Under the Dome is the first novel by King that I've read. Like the book itself, I suppose I have been avoiding him, because I have better things to read—both in the sense of superior quality and writing as well as just a more enjoyable experience for me, personally. Many of my friends consider King a favourite, if not their most favourite, author, and that is a high accolade. Yet I've always had a suspicion that King and I would not click, that his style just does not work with me, as a reader. And Under the Dome confirmed that. I have read On Writing, and while I found much of his advice insightful and sensible, having read some of his actual fiction, I can see where he and I differ. And I can see why many people like him. I don't think King is a great writer, but he is skilled at aspects of the craft, particularly, as I said at the beginning of this review, the manipulation of mood. King can create a great setting, even if his characters leave something to be desired.
Obviously, I can't compare Under the Dome to any of his other work, but as a King neophyte, I liked it. I doubt it has much re-read value for me. For all the criticism I've delivered, however, it is difficult to fault this novel. It is an open, unassuming polemic delivered in a fancy fiction wrapper. Or, to use a Doctor Who metaphor, Under the Dome is to great literature what a Vortex Manipulator is to the TARDIS: both do the same job, but one of them gets you there in style.