Under the Dome

Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009).1088 pages, Scribner.

There is no author alive who can write a page-turner like Stephen King. None. I have read almost every single book he has ever written. And the vast majority of them have kept me up late at night – not because I can’t sleep (although, considering his usual subject matter, that is often the case), but because I just cannot stop reading. His books are that involving.

Under the Dome is no exception to this rule. This is another in King’s occasional Massive Book oeuvre; previous occupants include The Stand, IT, and Insomnia. That means the book is over a thousand pages long, has a very large cast of characters, and is going to be a grand take on the basic concept of good vs. evil.

(As an aside, I’d like to point out that if you’re a Constant Reader and you don’t have a Kindle yet, this would be a great opportunity to get one. The hardcover version of this book weights 3.6 pounds. A Kindle weighs 10 ounces. The hardcover version of this book sells on Amazon for $21.00. The Kindle version sells for $9.99. I rest my case. Now back to my review currently in progress…)

Unlike any of King’s previous Massive Books, however, this one has (almost) no actual supernatural elements. Technically, I guess it would be classified as science fiction, although it’s really a dramatic thriller. The science fiction element exist as the MacGuffin that drives the story. The story is basically: What would happen if a small town were completely and totally separated from the rest of the world? If nothing could get in, and nothing could get out?

The story begins on a nice day in mid-October, a few years from now. The town in question is Chester Mills, Maine, population about 2,000. At about 11am one morning, an impenetrable dome suddenly snaps into existence over the entire town, sealing it in. The dome is perfectly transparent. It reaches miles up in the air and miles down into the earth. It precisely follows the borders of the township, so it cannot be natural. Sound and all types of radio waves penetrate the dome easily, so radio and tv work fine. In fact, people can talk on opposite sides of the dome without any trouble. The dome is slightly permeable to air and water, but that’s about it.

When the dome appears, deaths occur immediately. Cars smash into the dome from either side; a small plane collides into the dome in seconds. The first helicopter to investigate crashes into the dome, killing everyone aboard immediately. And, within just a few hours, the dome over Chester Mills is the biggest news story in the world, and the focus of intense military scrutiny as the entire town is cordoned off and surrounded.

But that’s all mostly background. The real story is: What happens to the town inside the dome? Because, as it turns out, Chester Mills is a hotbed of tension. The town is run by the Second Alderman “Big Jim” Rennie, who is as cynical and evil as they come. Big Jim’s son, Junior Rennie, is every bit as mean as his father – and thanks to a very active brain tumor, is a raving psychotic as well.

As the hours and days go by, Big Jim turns from a simple Alderman into an all-out dictator, amassing his own police force within 24 hours of the dome’s existence. Will anyone oppose him? Of course! For starters, there’s former Army Lieutenant Dale Barbara (“Barbie” to his friends) who’s been working as a cook at the local diner. The local newspaper editor, Julia Shumway, has never been a fan of either Big Jim or his creepy son. And the former police chief’s wife isn’t too fond of have her husband’s old job being turned over to a complete retard. Oh, and let’s not forget another common King element, the teenage heros: “Scarecrow” Joe McClatchey and his gang of fellow skateboarding computer geeks.

Big Jim is big physically (there must be a dozen places in the book where the size of his gut and his eating habits are the focus of a scene), and his personality is bigger than life as well. Even though he’s an evangelical Christian, his favorite bible saying seems to be “The Lord helps those which help themselves”. Which, the last time I checked, is not in the bible (I think it originated in one of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanacs, actually). But that hasn’t stopped Big Jim from running the country’s largest meth lab, under cover of a Christian radio station. As evidenced by Big Jim, I’d have to say that Stephen King is not exactly a fan of evangelical Christians.

As the days progress under the dome, the townspeople take sides: Who’s in favor of the law-and-order regime set up by Big Jim, and who prefers to live free? Add into the mix the military forces amassed outside the dome, doing everything they can to break inside. Because the air is running out, and every time a fire burns or a car runs inside the dome, the oxygen count goes down a little further. Oh, and that giant meth lab isn’t helping the environment either…

Under the Dome, like all good King novels, is a capsule morality play that does it best to make observations on our modern world via an engaging story. Big Jim is obviously supposed to represent the approach to government taken by certain right-wing Christian fundamentalists. The ticking time bomb of life under the dome stands for our current debate over global climate change. And the anguished tensions of the townspeople stand in for our challenges in fighting the “war on terror”.

All of that is well and good, and you either like it or you don’t (I happen to like it, personally). King is well-known for didactic commentary in his fiction; see The Tommyknockers for his takedown on nuclear power, The Stand for his condemnation of government biological weapons, and even Firestarter for his low opinion of the CIA. It works particularly well in this case, since you can read the novel perfectly well without any outside allegory at all if you like. The story holds up perfectly fine on its own.

There’s definitely a Lord of the Flies vibe to the book, so much so that several characters even make explicit reference to that fact. The body count is high and rises quickly; I don’t think I’m spoiling much by warning that only a few of the people you meet in the beginning are still going to be alive at the end. Pretty much everything that could go wrong does go wrong, in other words.

My only real complaints are:

  • Some of the characters are not as fully realized as I would like, especially for a novel of this length. For example, we know almost nothing about Dale Barbara other than that he used to be in the Army, he served in Iraq, and he’s basically a good guy. King usually gives lots of depth and back story to his heroes, but not in this case.
  • The villain, Big Jim Rennie, is cartoonishly evil. He literally has not one single redeeming feature. It’s hard to believe that someone this glaringly odious would ever be admired by anyone, much less elected to public office. It’s fun to have a villain to hate, but Big Jim is a bit over the top.
  • The solution used by the heroes at the end of the book could have been used at anytime after the middle of the novel, by any one of a number of characters. The fact that they don’t think of it until the very last moment rings false; without giving away an important detail, I’ll just say that the minute a certain mysterious object is discovered, I thought of the solution that is ultimately used. Why did it take the characters in the book so long to think of it?
  • The Kindle version (which is the one I read) doesn’t have a table of contents, which makes it difficult to move back and forth between chapters and the map and character list at the front. Very annoying. In fact, I’d suggest printing out the town map from Amazon’s web site and keeping it beside you if you read the e-Book version, since there is no way to navigate back and forth to the map at the beginning of the book. I haven’t seen a major e-Book with such an obvious formatting flaw in a long time, and it’s especially unforgivable seeing as how the electronic version was delayed by almost two months.

But those are quibbles. This really is some good Stephen King here. Personally, I’d say this is his best novel since he changed publishers to Scribners (beginning with Bag of Bones back in 1998). If you liked The Stand or IT, you’ll like this one. This is King in full-on Save the World mode, and it’s a blast.

Like I said at the beginning, this is a real page-turner. So be prepared to put aside some long nights if you crack open Under the Dome. It’ll grab ahold of you tightly and won’t let go until the end.

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