31 August 2010 ~ 6 Comments

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

by David Steffen

Stephen King is not known for his brevity. Many of his books are above the 500-page mark, with a few surpassing 1000. This can be good or bad. I never minded the longer books until I started writing, but now it’s hard to look at a 1000-page book and wish it had been trimmed down. Not that I only like short books, but I like a story that is exactly as long as it needs to be. Every part has some purpose, whether it moves the plot forward, illuminates character background, or a variety of other purposes.

Some of his books, like Duma Key are just far too long, and start much too slowly. In that book, there’s not much in the way of plot until about 3/4 of the way through at which point everything suddenly happens all at once. His recent novel Cell is not long by King standards, only a few hundred pages, but it seems long because the characters are not his usual well-rounded sort. They’re little more than placeholders, one-dimensional and uninteresting.

But when he finds a story and a cast of characters that merits the length, he can really make that cast come to life. This was the reason I really loved It and The Stand despite their gargantuan length. And now I can add Under the Dome to that list.

Synopsis

The premise is absurdly simple to explain–it’s the cast that makes it interesting. An invisible, impenetrable, and apparently indestructible barrier inexplicably appears along the boundary of a small town in Maine. Yes, in Maine. If I had a nickel for every inexplicable and paranormal event that occurs in Maine in Stephen King’s stories, I’d never have to work again. I do wish that he’d try some other settings once in a while. Write what you know, I suppose, but I think Mr. King could afford some traveling to make his settings more diverse. Anyway, so that’s basically it. No one knows where the dome came from, not even the government. Because the barrier is invisible, most of the boundaries are found first on the highway when cars smash into it. It also extends down into the ground, severing telephone and power lines. This inconvenience is alleviated somewhat because many of the rural Maine folk have generators, but it causes problems here and there, and they’re limited to the amount of propane they have on hand to run the gennies.

Now, populate this little town with a diverse cast from a pack of skateboarding teens to reporters to doctors to government officials, and we throw in our hero who is naturally an outsider. Dale Barbara, known to most as Barbie, is just headed out of town after a recent bar fight with some of the town’s less savory youth. Barbie is ex-military, hitchhiking around the countryside, and had stopped here for a while, but he’s decided it’s time to move on. The barrier pops into existence just before he’s able to leave town. Early on in the story he tries to mind his own business, but Big Jim Rennie, the power-hungry politician who runs the town, has a grudge against Barbie (it was Jim Rennie Jr. who Barbie bested in the bar fight). There are all kinds of conflicts going on in this town, many of them centering around Big Jim, a man you can truly love to hate. Among other things, the accidental death of the police chief leaves the police force in the palm of Big Jim’s hand. Without a chance of outside intervention, Big Jim is a dangerous man. He’s enough of a nasty character to be a threatening enemy without crossing the line into cartoon villain.

My Views

Overall, I very much liked the book, and I’d recommend it if you’re interested for a long haul. There were a few things that bothered me, though.

One thing that bothered me about the book is that no one, in general, seems that interested in figuring out why the barrier is there or how to get past it. There are a few dedicated individuals trying to deal with this, but for the most part people are just living their everyday lives under there altered in the minimum way to deal with their newfound seclusion.

Another thing that really bugged me seems to just be a problem with his technical research. It could’ve been fixed without substantially changing the plot, so it just annoys me that King didn’t realize it. A thirty second Google search could’ve found more accurate information. More on this in the Spoiler section, just in case you want to try to find the technical flub on your own.

There are occasional sections in the book, thankfully VERY occasional, where instead of telling the story in 3rd person close point of view, Stephen King writes a section as himself. I found this very irritating. He seems to think this writer’s voice is charming, but really it was grating. Ideally, I never think of the writer at all when I’m reading a story. I want to sink into the world and not surface again until I’m done reading. And speaking from the author’s voice ruins that. Example from the book, a section starts with “We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an an instant has passed since …” I can like the occasional omniscient narrator, but mentioning the “magic of narration” is a worthless gimmick that he only gets away with because he’s Stephen King, He Who Shall Not Be Edited.

Though I’d recommend the book overall, there are definitely slow patches. At least 150 pages could be cut from the middle without harming the story. But it starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, so if you can power through that mid-book slump, I think you’ll enjoy it. And, though the ending section has lots going on, the actual manner in which it resolves wasn’t all that satisfying.

SPOILERS

Okay, so there are a couple spoiler-based things I’d like to complain about in this book.

1. The technical flub I referenced earlier. When the barrier pops into place, it’s not just above ground, but slices down below at least 50 feet (as far as they try to dig). This means that it severs any kind of utility lines laid within the ground. Electricity and phone services are cut off, which makes sense, but they still have internet access. Mr. King justifies this simply by calling it WiFi. Now, I realize there are forms of internet access that pass data via satellite, but those are very rare and very expensive. And are not called WiFi. Likewise, you can run a cell phone WiFi hotspot, but neither of these seem to be what King was referring to. Maybe he doesn’t have WiFi at home, but your standard WiFi is only wireless in the sense that your computer is untethered. The computer is sending signals to your wireless router, which then sends signals through your wall through your cable jack or phone line–both of which would’ve been severed. The plot never hinged upon having the internet available, so it would’ve been easy to just remove it.

2. The ending was rather weak. Like I said earlier, almost nobody is really interested in trying to figure out what put the dome in place or how to take it down. A long way into the story someone does find the generator, a little bit of alien technology sitting on the tallest hill in town. Touching it connects you telepathically with alien lifeforms who have apparently put the barrier in place just as a form of entertainment. The device is immovable, and putting a lead shield over it just melts the lead shield. When they realize that neither of these things work, they just give up and don’t try anything else until the very end of the book. Me, I’d be blasting it with dynamite, pouring acid on it, placing a lead shield at a distance without touching it to the device, etc… At the end, everything takes a turn for the worse, fires run rampant, and the fresh air is very limited. Almost everyone dies. (I’m happy to say that one dog actually survives! King seems to have a vendetta against dogs, they never survive in one piece, except for this one). As a desparate last ditch effort, a few of the characters go back to the device and they beg for their lives to the aliens. And the aliens lift the barrier and then the book is pretty much over. Seriously? No one thought of that before? Why wait until almost everyone is dead? It seemed to me that he just got to the end of what he’d planned and said “oh shit, how do I get them out of this now?” and wrote it on the fly.

6 Responses to “Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King”

  1. Jordan Lapp 31 August 2010 at 3:09 pm Permalink

    Great review! Informative, and important points were tackled in the spoilers section instead of just obliquely referenced.

  2. Anthony Sullivan 1 September 2010 at 9:39 am Permalink

    Stephen King’s books are often a little saggy in the end. I think this is because of his writing style of producing ‘What if’ stories. I imagine that when he came up with this idea for a book he didn’t have a solid ending in mind, trusting himself to come up with one before he got there.

    “What if a small town were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world without any warning?” Stephen thought as he chewed an especially tough piece of dog-bacon. “I like it. Now how should I end it?” He paused for a moment. “No idea… oh well, I have to figure out what part of Maine it’s going to be based in first!”

    I guess that works sometimes and not so much in others.

  3. David Steffen 1 September 2010 at 9:49 am Permalink

    “No ideaà ₠oh well, I have to figure out what part of Maine ità ₠℠s going to be based in first!”

    This made me laugh until tears came to my eyes. 😀

  4. Christopher 15 September 2010 at 3:43 pm Permalink

    Thanks for sparing me reading the book. King is a gifted writer who doesn’t try anymore. Doesn’t bother to google for credibility or take a lazy step away from his own backyard. I’d guess he wrote the book in just under triple the time it took you to read it.

  5. Kay 26 September 2011 at 3:40 pm Permalink

    I was rather dissappointed when got to the end of the novel. Expected that the aliens must have had a purpose which wld be defeated by Dale barbara and friends. The end was so lame, having to beg the aliens to lift the dome. The aliens could very well visit the next town with the dome. Lol.


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