Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Institutional King: The Institute by Stephen King

My obsession with Stephen King as of late has almost turned this into a Stephen King blog, so of course I was planning to review his brand new book, The Institute, which was released on Sept. 10, 2019.  I promise I will have some non-Stephen King content soon.

The Institute is definitely one of King's more science fictional novels, probably more in the direction of "hard science fiction" than just about anything he's done. There are also some interesting philosophical questions lurking.  Let me do a regular, non-spoilery review first, and then I'll get to some spoilery philosophical bits.

The novel opens with the story of retired cop Tim Jamieson, who ends up in a small town in South Carolina working as a "night knocker" (knocking on doors of businesses at night to make sure all is well).  After getting to know Tim and King's typical cast of small town eccentrics (only in South Carolina instead of the usual Maine), we abruptly switch gears to Minneapolis 12-year-old Luke Ellis (which is not a surprise since Luke was mentioned in the synopsis).  Luke is kidnapped and taken to The Institute, a mysterious facility that is, thankfully for Stephen King fans, located in Maine.  It turns out poor Luke is being poked and prodded (and worse) for his psychic powers along with dozens of other children.  Oh, and Luke is also a genius, which gives King an excuse to geek out about science, math, history, chess, and more.  As you can imagine, Luke and the other kids aren't happy with their situation and soon there is a plan for escape... and I'll leave things there with just a note that Tim does come back into the story eventually after hundreds of pages.

The characters are interesting, but maybe not by King's usual standards.  Still, I liked Luke, Kalisha, Avery, Tim, and especially Annie enough to want to find out what happened to them.  It was sometimes difficult to remember who's who among the Institute staff.  A minor complaint: Luke's references seem a bit more like what a 70-year-old man would think a 12-year-old would say than what most actual 12-year-olds would say, but then again, Luke is a genius, so who knows?  I loved the references to places in the Twin Cities, having grown up there.  Is this what people from Maine feel like when they read Stephen King all the time?

Overall The Institute is not destined to sit near the top of my rankings of Stephen King novels, but nether is it near the bottom.  I've criticized King's ventures into science fiction before as not quite detailed enough for my science fiction loving heart, but I have to say I really liked that aspect of The Institute. This may also be an aspect of the novel some people didn't like. There is something almost like a science fictional detailed explanation for the psychic powers, or at least more than you'd usually expect from King.  It's not up to the standards of true "hard science fiction" like Stephen Baxter, Arthur C. Clarke, or Nancy Kress, but I appreciate that King is making an effort to give something like an explanation rather than indulging in magical or occult matters. (Not that I mind his delving into the occult in other works, but that would not work in this novel).

I was expecting more explicit connections to King's other work.  There may be some that I missed, but I didn't even notice the most obvious ones I was looking for (more on that in the spoilers).

Now let me get to the major spoilers and philosophical bits.  If you don't want any spoilers for The Institute (including spoilers about the ending), stop reading now.


While The Institute is never explicitly linked to The Shop from Firestarter, The Stand, and elsewhere (like the Golden Years miniseries), we do learn that it is part of some kind of shadowy worldwide organization that harnesses the kids' powers for political ends.  They cause their targets to have "unfortunate accidents" that are untraceable because they are caused by kids at undisclosed locations around the world.  (I was also hoping maybe for a Dark Tower connection to other worlds, but didn't see that, either).

At the end of the novel we hear from a mysterious head honcho that The Institutes have been around since WWII preventing nuclear wars, which they have done hundreds of times.  So, although the Institutes sacrifice hundreds of children, they have saved billions of children.  The moral mathematics are clear for the head honcho. The Institute is a good thing, and bringing it down puts the whole world at risk even if it saves a few kids.  They know who to target because they have an even more elite group of precogs.  This reminded me heavily of The Dead Zone, but I didn't see any explicit connection there, either.  (See an interesting article on the ending here.)

So, here are two major philosophical issues: 1. Is it right to sacrifice a small number so that a greater number can live? 2. How do they really know they are predicting what would have happened had they not intervened?

I don't think the novel clearly answers the first question, although King clearly meant for us to ask it. It seems more that we're supposed to say, "hell, no!" -- especially having spent hundreds of pages identifying with the kids to be sacrificed.  Probably only a cartoonish Disney villain utilitarian would actually answer that question with a "yes," but perhaps the waters would be muddied a bit if The Institutes say, asked for volunteers or had a lottery system or something.

A lot of people (including a surprising number of philosophers) have a visceral hatred of utilitarianism, but I have some sympathy for the view (and not just because one of its most prominent defenders - John Stuart Mill - has a surname similar to mine). The unhappiness of living in a world where children can be kidnapped and used without consent may actually outweigh the possibility of nuclear war.  Or maybe there are limits to how far utilitarian calculus can go, and one would hope that torturing innocent children is somewhere on the other side of those limits.  (One would hope so, anyway.  King says that he had the idea for this novel before the Trump administration started putting immigrant children in cages, but that resonance is there, not to mention that there are also lots of missing children for other reasons, such as millions who are trafficked into sexual slavery around the world).

The novel offers something more like an answer to the second question.  Here the geeky sci-fi aspect of the novel returns when Luke subjects the precogs' results to a mathematical analysis that shows they are only reliable if the event is a couple hours away and not years as The Institutes have maintained.  Sci-fi fans will be reminded of the sorts of puzzles involved in Philip K. Dick's "The Minority Report" and Spielberg's film version.

I don't know that King has necessarily resolved those puzzles here (certainly not as much as Luke seems to believe, math and all), but Tim tells the kids that it's not on them to solve the world's problems.  Let the kids be kids, so to speak. There's a comfort in this, but maybe it would be a little more comforting if adults hadn't screwed up the world so much for the kids (politically, environmentally, etc.).

Still, we are left at the end of the novel with an uncertain future in which people are trying to do what they think is right.  And here is maybe King's deepest point: we can't predict or control what the big picture will bring, but maybe it's enough to do the best we can with what we've got for those we can help. And maybe, just maybe a little compassion really can save the world.

See my Goodreads review.

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