UNDER THE DOME
by Stephen King
This is a welcome return to the classic sagas of King’s early career with powerful human drama, a sprawling cast and constant action, all choreographed by a master storyteller. It’s a book that’s been over 25 years in the making, mixing beautifully some themes and ideas that have been simmering away in King’s potent subconscious mind with current world events and even some very entertaining pop-culture references.
The essential premise is classic sci-fi: one October morning (this October just gone in fact) an invisible force field completely encases the town of Chester Mills in Maine. Completely impenetrable, the dome causes a number of explosive traffic accidents and even a plane crash before the reality of the situation is grasped by both the residents and the outside world. Families lose loved ones, either killed by the Dome or cut-off by it, and in the chaos that follows Big Jim Rennie, a second-hand care dealer and crystal-meth manufacturer, seizes power and enacts his own little dictatorship.
Big Jim quickly points out that the Dome must be a terrorist plot and accuses anyone who disagrees with him of being with the terrorists. What unfolds is an intricate and claustrophobic account of the development of a fascist state. Big Jim uses fear and prejudice to manipulate the townspeople and there are few who stand up to him – indeed the crime of complicity is a recurring theme through the novel. His most prominent enemy is Dale Barbara, an Iraq War veteran battling demons from Fallujah, a man who has seen fascism in person and knows what symptoms to look for.
King is certainly making a few political statements here, and organised religion doesn’t escape attention either, but what really stands out in this very impressive novel are the individual stories and human reactions to the arrival of the Dome. There’s Big Jim’s son and his growing psychosis, to the strength of women such as the Diner owner Rose, the Dome-widowed Brenda and those who take on roles as surrogate mothers for children separated from their parents by the dome. The cast runs to over 100 people and the book reads as a masterclass of characterisation.
The sci-fi aspect of the novel takes a back seat to the lives of the people trapped in the Dome and the resolution of the question about the Dome’s origins is never quite as important as the events that transpire beneath it. This is true of some of the greatest sci-fi stories, where the simple ability to ask “what if?” opens up entirely new avenues to explore the human condition. In the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen King the results speak for themselves.
This post adapted from my article in the Booktopia SF & Fantasy Buzz