Under the Dome – book review

I read Stephen King’s Under the Dome over the holiday – its 1074 pages took me 12 days of on-and-off reading between various family activities, but it was not a difficult read. At the start of 2009 I read Neal Stephenson’s 937 page Anathem – the first couple hundred pages of Anathem were significantly more difficult to get through, though I definitely liked the overall experience of Anathem significantly more than I did Under the Dome. Interestingly, I couldn’t give a blanket recommendation for either book; there are some people I couldn’t recommend Anathem to enough, and others who should stay away from it (and who wouldn’t get past the first 100 pages, anyway). Oh, and I probably wouldn’t recommend Under the Dome to anyone. Here’s why:

If you’re the sort of person who would enjoy a book like Under the Dome, you probably already want to read it (or have already read it). You’re either a fan of Stephen King’s writing, or the premise of reading a thousand-page book detailing the devolution of a small town when it is totally cut off from the outside world by an inexplicable “Dome” sounds like fun. Everyone else need not apply. Seriously. If you have any doubts, stay away.

The main character of Under the Dome (and there are dozens of townspeople to keep track of throughout the book) is Big Jim Rennie, and he is undoubtedly the villain of the piece. (The hero isn’t even present for a good chunk of the story, and some of the most important actions taken in the entire book are at the hands of children; I certainly don’t count anyone as more central to the story than Big Jim.) Big Jim is a character that frustrated and upset me in practically every scene he was in, just as real people who behave in similar ways do in life. I simply cannot wrap my head around these sorts of people; he is willfully ignorant, he is manipulative, he is power-hungry, and he generally works from the position that it isn’t important whether a decision is right or good or rational, only that it is his decision.  Often Big Jim made decisions and put plans into motion, knowing that they would injure and/or kill innocent people, waste scarce resources, and otherwise ignore obvious harm (and better solutions for all), simply because he believed it would lead him to have more control, more power, and more respect from the townspeople. Every time he would do such things, I would find myself both uncomprehending -as though up were brown and black were trout- and recognizing the accuracy and truthfulness of Stephen King’s characterization at the same time, since I’m aware that there really are quite a lot of people who operate in this way I can’t seem to grasp.

The premise of the book, aside from the obvious “town cut off from the world by an inexplicable Dome,” is that Big Jim has put himself in a position of power in the town by surrounding himself with stupid, drug-addled, and easily manipulated people, one of whom is a nominally-in-charge rubber stamp, and that he sees The Dome as his chance to become dictator-in-fact rather than manipulative second fiddle.  The entire plot, besides many gruesome interactions with The Dome on the first day and a heavily-foreshadowed catastrophe that really ought to have killed everyone in the end, revolves around Big Jim’s manipulations to put himself totally in control, regardless of the cost. Military attempts to break through The Dome from the outside and the small, poorly-managed effort to see if maybe there’s something that can be done from inside are minor sub-plots; just distractions, to readers and to Big Jim’s machinations alike.

Except for me, it didn’t really work. I don’t like people like Big Jim in life, I didn’t like him on the page, I hated almost everything he did, and he was the book. I hung on throughout the book, but barely, leaping from one rare glimpse at the world beyond Big Jim’s games to the next – I liked things like examinations of what happens to the environment when it gets cut off, what effects extreme outside events had across the barrier, and until the “truth” was revealed, I was really interested in the cause of The Dome. The writing was on-par for Stephen King, sometimes great, sometimes cringe-inducing, and I felt he captured the characters of all the miscreants and evil people (especially Big Jim) far better than I would be able to. If nothing else, it inspired me to want to maybe, someday, be able to write a really good villain. Unfortunately, there was little else.

The environmental effects (ie: pollution building up, temperature going up, et cetera), the civilization-limiting effects (ie: running out of power, running out of fuel, running out of water, food, et cetera), and a meaningful examination of the source, purpose, extent, intentions, et cetera of The Dome – these were all left unfulfilled. The first two because of the much-foreshadowed catastrophe that ends things in a hurry, before the more interesting long-term effects became really relevant, rather than a thought exercise. It almost felt like King had more story to tell, that he would have written on and on, allowing Big Jim to fight for power against the few intelligent people left in town indefinitely, and that his publishers asked him to cut it off somewhere. Like they said “try not to go over 1k pages; that’s the effective maximum length of physical, single-volume books,” and with his opening and his ending already written, he just wrote middle until he hit that length, and stopped. Oh, and if you’re interested at all in the source of The Dome, you’re bound to be disappointed; Stephen King is, as he almost always is, rubbish with explanations. It would have been better, in my opinion, if there had been no explanation at all. “It just is.” –of course, then probably literally everyone dies. Sigh.

So, for me, Under the Dome was a frustrating book, full of frustrating characters, which had a maddening plot and a bad ending.  The ending was both unsatisfying and it was badly written. I’d say the last day’s worth of story’s writing felt unpolished, even rushed, which is unfortunate for such a high-profile release. When I started this review I’d thought I’d give it 3 stars on Goodreads. After writing the review, I think I’ll give it two. I’d maybe consider it two and a half, but they only have whole stars on Goodreads.

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