The thing about reading Stephen King is that it’s like eating potato chips. Once you finish one book, you’re either voracious for more, more, more, or you’re burned out and don’t want to read any more for a long, long time. In my case, I can never get enough. I’ve read pretty much every book the man has ever published. I’ve been reading Stephen King nearly since I’ve been able to read, starting with Carrie way back in 1976, shortly after I saw the movie. King’s work has been a part of my life ever since. He’s all pervasive in pop culture, whether it’s one of the mostly shitty movies that periodically get chainsawed out of his novels and short stories, or it’s his newest novel or short story collection, or even one of his non fiction pieces, he’s everywhere. He’s a consummate teacher, a keen observer of our culture, and, let’s face it, more often than not, he’s a righteously good read.
The thing about reviewing Stephen King is that he’s just so huge a literary and cultural force of nature, that it’s a daunting task at best, and downright terrifying at its worst. Which is, I suspect ironic in its implication. It’s hard to be critical of Stephen King’s work. The man is a frikkin’ national treasure. It’s like trying to review Chuck Yeager’s flying, or the poetry of Maya Angelou. How the hell do you do that? I’ll tell you how. You jump in, stop worrying about it, and just enjoy the ride. You realize that Stephen King isn’t such a big deal and that he’s just as full of shit as anyone else. You get on with the review.
Stephen King has written fiction and nonfiction in nearly every format imaginable. From novels and novellas to screenplays and short stories, the man rarely disappoints. With his newest full length novel, Under the Dome, King has created a new literary world that is easily more complex and deeply detailed than anything he’s yet written. He paints a portrait of small town life gone horribly awry, with mad writing skills honed over more than three decades of writing some of the most amazing fiction ever created. Under the Dome is easily the best novel King has produced to date, cementing the fact that the man is still at the top of his game.
The plot of Under the Dome is quite simply summed up in a classic Hollywood pitch, twenty five words or less; a mysterious force field suddenly slams itself down over Chester’s Mill, a small town in Maine, cutting it off from the outside world. Hi-jinks ensue. Unlike your typical Hollywood fare though, King’s story isn’t all about the dome. It just starts there. We’re quickly introduced to Dale Barbara, a short order cook and a drifter, the proverbial new kid in town, who ends up being much more than he seems. He serves the role of primary protagonist, until he’s taken off the playing field midway through the story. His friends ably pick up the slack though, proving that the situation isn’t just a one man show. The primary villain of the piece is Big Jim Rennie, a used car salesman and the town council’s second selectman. Big Jim sees the dome cutting off Chester’s Mill from the rest of the world as an opportunity for greatness. He proceeds to reorganize the local police force into his personal stormtroopers “for the good of the town,” of course, as he begins to make his bid for power. Jim Rennie has a few nasty secrets buried in Chester’s Mill, though, including a couple of metaphorical ticking time bombs that eventually prove disastrous.
As the townspeople begin to divide into tribes, the fact that the dome is there begins causing all sorts of unforeseen problems for the town and the outlying area it covers. It starts with a few vehicle crashes, including several cars and a couple of airplanes, and the situation gets progressively worse as various fires break out and the air quality becomes a serious problem. The animals are of course the first to feel the climate changes, and I think Stephen King kills enough birds in this novel to make Alfred Hitchcock blush. The story works as a fantastic parable for global warming, greenhouse effect, and any number of other global disasters. King shows us how fragile our ecosystem is by allowing us to examine the drastic effect the humans have on the microcosm covered by the dome. Under The Dome is a bit of a cautionary tale in that regard, like taking a napalm canister to the face might caution you not to play with explosives.
From the first scene, where we get a woodchuck’s eye view of the dome coming down, to the final scene where the situation is ultimately resolved, every second we spend with the people of Chester’s Mill is nail-bitingly tense, jaw-droppingly intimate, and set at a pace that would give Michael Bay a heart attack. Under The Dome is sort of the inverse of The Stand. Both novels clock in at over 1000 pages, both have a large cast of characters, all of whom are important to the story at one point or another. But whereas The Stand ranges all across The United States, Under The Dome traps everybody in a literal pressure cooker. The story is claustrophobic, and has a sense of urgency that seeps through every page. Life is idyllic in the small town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, but once the dome slams down over the top of them, you start to see the characters in shades of truth.
King’s strong point has always been writing characters that are absolutely believable. In this tale he takes his keen observational skills, and masterfully gives you a good long look at everybody’s true natures. In the immortal words of Gerald Kersh, “There are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down in torment.” King liberally applies this truism to every character in this story.
Make no mistake. Under The Dome is most definitely a science fiction story. It’s not horror, and it’s not a mystery novel, although there are elements of both in it. The story has one MacGuffin, and like the best science fiction stories, it isn’t about the dome. It’s about the people, and what happens to society and civilization when the outside world is taken away. If there is any bit of class or good taste left in the science fiction community, Under The Dome will be put into contention for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Under The Dome will be available on November 10th, 2009. As it’s Stephen King, you’ll have no trouble finding it anywhere that sells books, including Amazon.com. It’s a big novel, and certainly King’s longest story since The Stand (the uncut version.) It’s well worth your reading investment though, as it’s definitely King’s best work to date. Anyone who wants a look at the awesome cover art for Under The Domego check out the ultimate online source for all things Stephen King at www.stephenking.com.