Under the Dome – Stephen King
This novel begins with a simple concept: on an ordinary Saturday morning, the little town of Chester’s Mill in Maine is abruptly surrounded by an invisible force field. The dome extends for miles both up and down, appears to be totally inpenetrable, and nothing physical can get in or out. The residents of Chester’s Mill now have to live off their own food and fuel supplies, with no outside assistance beyond communication. Our protagonist, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, is a former lieutenant turned chef who was just about to leave Chester’s Mill when the dome appeared; instead, he finds himself being chosen by the outside world to find out where the dome came from and keep things under control. But Barbie faces many obstacles, not the least of which is local politician James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as an opportunity to tighten his personal grasp over the town.
Under the Dome is the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to, at over 34 hours. It took me two-and-a-half months to get through it (admittedly, I was listening to some other stuff in the meantime), and I eventually saved a little time by using the Audible app’s speed adjusting function. The book’s length is particularly surprising when you consider the fact that the timeframe of the story, from beginning to end, is just over a week. Granted, it’s a very eventful week for Chester’s Mill, but the story certainly takes its time, showing you what a host of characters are doing in a particular period. And yet while tackling a book of such length can be daunting, it doesn’t feel too long. Nothing really feels unnecessary; King uses the space efficiently, with everything we see either feeding into a later event, or teaching us something new about the characters.
As I listened to the story, I was frequently predicting where it was going to go, only to be proven wrong. Discussions towards the beginning of how long fuel supplies can last under the dome create the impression that it will become a long-term survival story, while Jim Rennie’s steps towards creating his own personal dictatorship become clearer as time goes on. Yet things just keep cropping up to deflect the story from more predictable paths. The one exception to this is that the dome somehow gives some local children limited prophetic powers, causing them to paint a picture of what the climax has in store; the repetitiveness of these predictions did get a bit wearisome. Even in the aforementioned timeframe, King does a great job detailing the impact of the dome in as many contexts as possible: the environmental effects for the town, how the outside world reacts, and especially what it does to the community. It brings to mind the Second Law of Thermodynamics: in a closed system, all things tend towards entropy.
There are literally dozens of characters to follow, which certainly helps keep the story stimulating. King does so well in making me root for Barbie and his fellow “good guys” that listening felt quite painful a lot of the time, because they have to take a lot of abuse from the more unsavoury customers who are all too happy to thwart their well-meaning plans, usually under the malevolent guiding hand of Big Jim Rennie. It’s been a while since I’ve loathed a character in fiction as much as I did Big Jim. For a couple of King’s other stories, Doctor Sleep and Mr Mercedes, I complained that the villains didn’t have much luck on their side; Rennie, on the other hand, has things going his way more often than not. It would be wrong to call this luck, however, given what a frustratingly competent strategist he is. Raul Esparza, the narrator of the audiobook, gives Rennie a self-satisfied drawl that makes it even easier to hate the guy.
Then there’s the revelation of the dome’s purpose, which some might find anticlimactic in the same way as some other Stephen King stories – but personally, I felt it added a fascinating new dimension to the story. Learning that it’s nothing more than a game for some extraterrestrial children, who exist on a level beyond what we can imagine, make everything that happens under the dome feel truly insignificant, the scurryings of ants – and I actually like stories which explore themes like this. For me, such a thing felt more profound than disappointing, and I was satisfied with it.
Under the Dome is comparable to The Stand in many ways, such as its epic length and huge cast of characters. For me, it didn’t quite reach the heights of The Stand, but it certainly came close, and was more than a worthwhile listening experience. Rating: 4.5/5.