There's a lot to like about Stephen King's new novel, Under the Dome. Clocking in at almost 1100 pages, there's a lot to it, period.
The most striking thing about the book itself, aside from its size, is the cover art. There are no "buy this book!" blurbs and no "about the author" stuff, nor even the standard "here's what the book's about" text.
Instead, all we see on the broad, wraparound dust jacket, aside from the title and author and the helpful phrase, “a novel,” is the town of Chester's Mill, Maine under a clear dome. That's it.
Really, that's all the cover needed. Because that's the plot of the book, in a nutshell (or rather, under a dome). Take one little town, cover it over with an impenetrable bubble of . . . something, and watch the chaos ensue.
Now, when I say "chaos ensues," what I really mean is "fascism ensues." In record time. Cut off entirely from the outside world and from any sort of interference by law enforcement agencies or the military, the darker elements of this society naturally seize the opportunity to move into action.
In broad strokes, we've seen that sort of thing plenty of times before. Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle gave us the world after a giant meteor strike, in which local warlords set up shop as the only effective government. The same is true of David Brin's The Postman novel and movie, Joe Straczynski's Jeremiah TV series, and even with King's own The Stand, which this book has been compared to.
The similarities to any of those are marginal at best, however. Each of them begins with a world-shattering, society-wrecking event that opens the way for the rise of a feudal dictatorship, based on monopolies of weapons, fuel, manpower, and food.
In the case of Under the Dome, all of these situations and complications arise, too; but here they happen on a much smaller and more intimate scale, confined within the microcosm of a town of only about a thousand souls.
Everything the people of Chester's Mill do, for better or worse, is visible to everyone else in the world, looking in through the transparent dome via news broadcasts. Because the dome utterly resists any attempt to puncture it, however, those dark elements within the town are free to carry out their plans with no fears of outside involvement.
The events of Chester's Mill affect everyone within the relatively tiny space of one little town in Maine, but it's a town that might as well be on the far side of the Moon, once the dome comes down.
Where the broad canvas of the entire world allowed those other stories to draw in the reader via the sheer scale of the cataclysm, the confining of King's tale to a tiny locale serves to heighten the tension. Everyone in the story knows everyone else, to one degree or another.
The bad people who rise up over the course of events were seemingly good people, friends and neighbors, just the day before. With (almost) no outsiders to scapegoat, the increasingly paranoid leaders of Chester's Mill have no choice but to turn against their own townspeople when things go bad; something that makes the story's internal tension all the more unbearable.
There are no faceless victims in this story. Everyone who suffers and dies was a friend or acquaintance of all the witnesses, as well as of the killers.
That brings us to the characters. With this much space, King has the opportunity to flesh out a number of the major figures. We don't find out everything about any of them, but we do learn enough important tidbits about several of the key figures for the conflicts to become all the more engrossing to us, and for the resolution of the story to hit as hard as it does.
King essentially makes this town the equivalent of, believe it or not, Hazzard County from The Dukes of Hazzard, complete with Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe (except with this modern Boss drives a big ol' Hummer rather than a white convertible with bull horns).
Imagine if those two gentlemen had been afforded complete control of Hazzard, with the absolute guarantee of zero outside interference. What vast evils might Roscoe have perpetrated at the Boss's command? Read this book and find out.
What about the hidden messages and agendas of the book? As stated previously, one of the major themes is how quickly, yet plausibly, a town will first allow a sort of fascist state to develop, and then descend into chaos, when the possibility of outside oversight and interference is utterly removed. Things progress along that line so rapidly, in fact, that King has several of his characters comment that they themselves are shocked that “it's only been a few days!”
King has also stated that one inspiration for the story was his view of the Bush-Cheney White House. He has pointed particularly to the idea of a dark mastermind holding the second spot in a power structure, and manipulating a weak-willed and easily-directed figurehead leader who's mostly there to take the blame when things go sour.
Along those lines, one can find a great deal of political commentary at work. Newspapers, reporters, and the free flow of information (the media) are mostly good, as are soldiers and veterans. Folks who spout Bible verses for every occasion and listen to Christian radio are generally hypocrites in this story and are mostly bad. (One particularly unsavory character loves to spout that anyone in mortal danger will soon be "eatin' dinner with the lord—roast beef, mashed potatoes, and apple cobbler for dessert!")
King's own political agenda has started to creep into his writing a little and it is noticeable here, though not overbearingly so. Those who share his moderate-liberal worldview may well find themselves reveling in the ways he inserts subtle messages here and there.
Those of a more evangelical or conservative bent, however, may become annoyed or even offended at times, so be warned.
Just as with The Dark Tower, a number of readers complained they were unsatisfied with the ending. Some have also found fault with the ultimate reveal of the cause of the whole business, the reason for the dome.
The point of this story is never the whys and wherefores of the dome. Such questions almost don't matter to the story. What King is about here is the social experiment aspect. What happens when you trap a thousand mostly normal, small town folks in a box, away from the rest of the world? What happens when they start to run low on supplies and have no electricity and little medical care? What do they really do when the local lowlifes crawl out from under their rocks and start to push people around?
As such, King just as well could have written fifteen different endings and the same number of causes of the dome, put them all in a hat, and drawn one of each out at random. The cause is not all that important. What matters is what becomes of these people; what they make of themselves, and do to themselves, in this pressure-cooker environment. The rest is mere detail.