Saturday, December 14, 2019

Book Reviews: The Institute

The Institute
by Stephen King
I don't think that Stephen King has lost too much speed off his fastball. There are certain repeated themes, phrases and subplots that are recognizable in The Institute from several of King's other works as well as a few deliberate callbacks to creations or adaptations that King liked, or in the case of Kubrick's The Shining, did not like at all. 

King remains a master at quickly creating realistic characters with minimal description who nonetheless feel as if you've known them for years. So you care when good or more often, bad things happen to them. At a little over 500 pages in hardcover this is not a short investment in time but because King is such a compelling storyteller I think most readers will feel that time flies past while reading. 

King is really good at writing from a child's perspective. It's hard to describe it but I think readers of both genders may recognize bits and pieces of themselves and/or people they knew all those years ago when they were young.

Well, what's it about? I don't want to talk too much about that. In some respects it's a mashup of King's previous novels Firestarter and Dead Zone, with a little Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort thrown in to complement a hefty base of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series--that is Harry Potter if an even more sadistic Dolores Umbridge was in charge of everything. There might be some Nurse Ratched elements as well. 

Twelve year old Luke Ellis is a certifiable genius whose intelligence is off the charts. Even by gifted standards, he's an anomaly. But that's not his most unusual trait. No, Luke has telekinesis. His telekinesis is weak, but it's noticeable. 
When Luke concentrates or is under severe emotional strain, he can move things with his mind. His parents know about this but just accept it as part of his nature. They are more astounded to learn just how smart their son is.

Shortly after they discover that Luke at twelve, is ready to simultaneously attend MIT and Harvard, Luke's parents are murdered by a professional team of men and women moving with military precision. These people take Luke to an unnamed remote facility in Maine. 

There, doctors and guards watch over a number of preteen and young teen boys and girls, all of whom, like Luke, have the beginnings of psychic powers.

The Institute's staff ruthlessly train, torture, and brainwash the children to get force them express this power so that it can be measured. This is all done in the Front Half of the facility. Once they either show potential or show that they are incapable of certain actions, the children are moved to the Back Half. Nobody ever comes back from Back Half. The facility's boss is the dour, sadistic, and secretive Mrs. Sigsby, who has the same sympathy for children that a lab scientist has for her mice or monkeys.

If the children go along with the program without making a fuss they get tokens for vending machines that dispense treats. If they make trouble they're badly hurt before the doctors do what they were going to do anyway. And they won't get any tokens.

They are quite deliberate allusions to Abu Ghraib, Mengele, and Guantamano. The real question though is the same one King posed at the end of The Stand, --Do we think people ever learn anything?

Although King dedicated this book to his grandsons there is , as with many of his recent works, a profound elegiac sensitivity that suffuses the entire narrative. In the afterword I wasn't too surprised to discover that in part the book was also dedicated to one of King's best friends of forty years and the only person besides King's wife who read and vetted King's original manuscripts. That fellow just recently passed away.

This was a worthwhile read.
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