Sunday, August 25, 2019

Who Started the Fire?: Firestarter by Stephen King

Firestarter was the next stop on my tour of classic Stephen King novels, partly because I've developed a strange obsession with Stephen King's work in the last few years after hardly reading him at all for 20 years, and partly to get ready for his new one, The Institute, which is supposed to involve The Shop, or something a lot like it (The Shop is also featured in the miniseries Golden Years).  Firestarter is also one of King's more straightforwardly science fictional tales (if psychic powers can be science fiction... I guess some people have them on Star Trek).

So, how'd it go?  I took a few days to kindle a review.  Hopefully I can control the burn.

We meet Andy and his daughter Charlie on the run from a mysterious government agency called The Shop.  We learn that Andy and his wife Vicky had participated in a test of a strange drug awhile back and eventually they got married and had a daughter.  It turns out this drug gave them psychic powers, which only increased in their daughter.  You see, while Andy has the power to give people subliminal "pushes" to make them do things, Charlie can do that but also create fire with her mind (pyrokinesis if you want to get technical about it).

Of course, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Cold War baddies in the US government want to turn Charlie into a weapon.  But they need to get her to learn to control herself first.  They end up killing her mom, leaving her father on the run with her.  Some exciting chase scenes ensue, and I think I'll leave it there to avoid spoiling the whole thing.

One interesting thing that this novel shares with Carrie is the epistemological question about psychic powers.  Back in the mid-20th century, ESP stuff was taken slightly more seriously as a possibility among respectable scientists, which is probably the answer to my earlier puzzle about why ESP is often considered a science fiction trope.  King wrote this around 1980, so it makes sense.  I think Carrie handles the epistemological questions a little better, but in Firestarter, too, we get to consider: What if some people did have these powers?  How would that change our view of reality?

But the questions that Firestarter explores are more ethical: How would we react to people with these sorts of powers?  What would we owe them?  Of course, The Shop has a pretty terrible idea, but not one out of place in post-Vietnam America with the Cold War in full swing.  It's interesting how many of the baddies, including Rainbird, are Vietnam vets, many of whom have conflicted feelings about serving the government that sent them to fight a pointless cruel war.  So maybe a deeper message there is that an immoral context can make people do immoral things.  Although I'm only old enough to remember the last decade of the Cold War, it is interesting to reflect back on how it made many people on various sides of it do stupid and immoral things (nowadays of course we have found plenty of other reasons to do stupid and immoral things).  One of my criticisms of the book, though, is that I wasn't really clear what The Shop's endgame was here.  Or maybe that was the point?

Since I mentioned Rainbird, I'm not sure how I feel about his portrayal as the only Native American in the whole book (I have even more mixed feelings about King's use of Native American cultures in Pet Sematary).  On the one hand, Rainbird is a bad dude, but on the other hand he becomes a surprisingly complex character.

Another interesting theme of the novel is how Andy's and Charlie's powers can be taken as metaphors for handling emotions.  Andy's power physically saps him: the more he "pushes" people, the more exhausted he is and the worse his headaches become.  Even for those of us who have to deal with people via non-psychic means, interacting with others can be exhausting, especially when we have to do so to take care of other people, as Andy takes care of Charlie.

As for Charlie, her power is a perfect metaphor for dealing with anger.  The lesson seems to be that we need to learn how to feel anger responsibly, lest it consume us all.  I think this is a valuable lesson to consider, whether you're on the run from The Shop or interacting with people on social media.  Whether anger is always a bad thing (as some Buddhists and Stoics have argued), I'm honestly not sure.  But I think it's relatively uncontroversial to say that even if anger has its uses, like Charlie's power, we ought to think carefully about how we use it, and like The Shop, we should think carefully about the external pressures we put on other people.  Who are the Firestarters, after all?  The people learning about the responsible exercise of their power?  Or the people who recklessly ignite their propensity to use it?

See also my Goodreads review.

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