Book Review: The Institute (Stephen King, 2019)

DSC_0476Year: 2019
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 485
ISBN: 9781529355390

Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts – telepathy, telekinesis – for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He’s just a regular twelve-year-old, except he’s not just smart, he’s super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use…

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He’s basically just walking the beat. But he’s about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute’s downtrodden playground of corridors where posters advertise ‘just another day in paradise’, Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments – even the infamous Mrs. Sigsby – suspect.

It’s fair to say that I was a little cautious going into The Institute because, as much as I love Stephen King’s work, I wasn’t as enthralled by his latest output as I have been by the classics from his back catalogue.  Sleeping Beauties, for instance, was a great read until the anticlimactic finale and implication that men are the cause of most of the world’s problems. Then there was Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation – two enjoyable page-turners that were just too short and not wholly satisfying as a result.

But Amazon were offering the The Institute at half-price (£10 instead of £20) if the book was pre-ordered so I threw caution to the wind and did just that. I’m glad that I did too because The Institute is a fantastic read and a real return to form that left me with very little to dislike.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it had the classic King formula of multiple plot strands converging for the endgame. On one hand, there is Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter. Jamieson is hitch-hiking his way to New York, taking on temporary jobs along the way, until fate brings him to the tiny South Carolina town of Dupray. Tim takes on an old-school night knocker job, only intending to stay in town for a while, but finds himself unexpectedly warming to small-town life and the people in Dupray. And they warm to him too. Tim quickly goes up in the estimations of Sheriff Ashworth and also manages to impress the frosty Deputy Wendy Gullickson, earning himself a dinner date with the attractive officer.

But if life is on the up and up for Tim, the same can’t be said for Luke Ellis. Luke is a child genius – a real one-in-a-million find – who is about to be enrolled into two colleges simultaneously…at the age of just twelve. Bright, popular and seemingly destined for greatness, Luke’s life should be about to take off but other people have different ideas. Luke is abducted from his home in the dead of night – and his parents murdered – by a special ops team who deliver him to the titular Institute, a top-secret off-the-books state facility that gathers together gifted children and subjects them to experiments.

It isn’t Luke’s incredible intelligence that the Institute are after however; it’s his latent telekinetic (TK) abilities. The Institute acquires children with TK or TP (telepathy) and uses their collected power to eliminate targets deemed dangerous for the world’s stability; terrorist leaders for example, or prominent figures that are seemingly on-course to start undesirable chains of events. The kids don’t know this to begin with though. What they do know is that they live in eerie replicas of their real bedrooms and have the freedom to roam the corridors of the Institute, use the vending machines and even access the (censored) internet…provided that they have earnt tokens from the Institute’s staff of course. They can even buy cigarettes and alcohol from the vending machines!

But this soft, open-prison style of incarceration comes with a nasty side. Scientists at the Institute subject the kids to all kinds of experiments that initially make little to no sense to Luke and his new group of friends. Failure to co-operate results in beatings, electric shocks from stun guns and even waterboarding. And this all before they have even graduated to the dreaded ‘Back Half’ of the Institute where their TK/TP abilities will be harnessed for the “greater good”.

So you have these two seemingly disconnected plots running parallel to one another before they finally meet up. It works very well in my opinion because I grew to really enjoy each of the lead characters and the supporting casts surrounding them. Whether it’s the town folk in Tim’s story or the kids that Luke befriends inside the Institute, both sides of the book are nicely fleshed-out and even the most minor of the supporting characters are brought to life believably in that special way that Stephen King has always been so adept at doing. Admittedly, there is more intrigue in Luke’s story but I wouldn’t say that either half is weak.

And you will love to hate those Institute people. From the cold and ruthless Mrs. Sigsby to the caretakers who seem to enjoy beating on kids and torturing them – they are all pretty nasty pieces of work and the cruelty that takes place within the walls of the Institute is described vividly by King with no punches pulled, even if it is just scared children who are the victims.

The book is apparently inspired by the thousands of children who go missing all across America each year and never seen again. The themes of government conspiracy and black site operations are also so relevant in this post-Wikileaks age where countless Youtubers and internet sites are eager to show you the proof that operations like the Institute are, perhaps, not so fictional at all.

I think that Stephen King has really done it again with The Institute. I would have liked the book to be just a little bit thicker and have the same level of detailed characterisation that the likes of IT and The Stand boasted but that’s pretty much the only criticism I have. The plot is full of intrigue and leads up to a fast-moving, action-packed finale that I found myself unwilling to pause with a bookmark. And the characters – as I have already said – are just so likable (or detestable in the case of the Institute’s staff). I would say that this is the best Stephen King book in this style since the fantastic Doctor Sleep (which seems like such a long time ago now!).

Highly recommended.

Book Talk: Nightflyers And Other Stories (George R.R. Martin, 1973-1981)

night-1I had been aware that George R.R. Martin had written other things besides the epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series but until now, I hadn’t looked into them. Fortunately I have long since cleared my reading backlog and now find myself back in that lovely position of having nothing to read. It means that I can actually browse the books in shops again and pick out stuff at random, hopefully broadening my literary horizons a little more. Nightflyers And Other Stories is one such purchase. I picked it up for £4.50 (half RRP) and decided it was time to see if Martin’s other work can match the bloody and treacherous exploits of Daenarys and co.

Well, it doesn’t but I wasn’t too surprised about that. A Song Of Ice And Fire is one of those rare series of books that is near-impossible to go toe-to-toe with and that’s okay. Besides, the six short stories collated in this book were written well before Martin gave us A Game of Thrones so a direct comparison would be cruel anyway. The stories within this book feature a different sort of tone too; yes there are fantasy elements but sci-fi is the dominant genre – sci-fi that explores wondrous futures and the dark recesses of the human mind.

Headlining the book is Nightflyers, a space sci-fi/horror story that was turned into a Netflix TV series (Syfy for America) in 2018. This is the expanded version from 1981 that features an extra 7,000 words over the original 1980 version printed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Nightflyers is set on a starship chartered by Karoly d’Brannin, a scientist chasing the mysterious Volcryn alien race of which he is obsessed with meeting. D’Brannin brings a hand-picked crew with him for the mission consisting of telepaths, linguists and computer experts – people he hopes will aid him in communicating with the enigmatic Volcryn. Very quickly, the story’s focus moves away from the crew’s mission and turns instead to the ship’s resident master, the mysterious Royd Eris, a character who claims he is controlling the ship from his sealed chamber. He won’t meet them and nobody can get into his quarters to see him. He communicates via intercom and asks that the crew trust him.

Naturally, rampant paranoia and suspicion sweeps the ship, not helped by the resident Class One telepath, Thale Lassamer sensing impending danger. Who is Royd Eris? Why are they not allowed to meet him in person? Why is he watching and listening in at all times? The innocent explanation is that Eris lives a lonely life, sealed in his quarters for health reasons and as such, he is fascinated by the people on his ship and how they act. It doesn’t wash with everybody though.

“Who is this Royd Eris, really?” the xenobiologist Rojan Christopheris, complained one night when four of them were playing cards. “Why doesn’t he come out? What’s the purpose of keeping himself sealed off from the rest of us?”

“Ask him” suggested Dannel, the male linguist.

“What if he’s a criminal of some sort?” Christopheris said. “Do we know anything about him? No, of course not. D’Brannin engaged him and d’Brannin is a senile old fool, we all know that”

“It’s your play” Lommie Thorne said.

Christopheris snapped down a card. “Setback” he declared, “you’ll have to draw again.” He grinned. “As for this Eris, who knows that he isn’t planning to kill us all.”

As if the xenobiologist was a telepath himself and capable of predicting the future, people start dying one-by one in tragic accidents. I can’t go much further without spoiling the story but the “accidents” are all plausible and explained calmly by Royd Eris who shifts the blame back to the crew and their attempts to reach him against his wishes. At the same time, there is the obvious suspicion that Eris is behind the deaths. Martin is uncompromising in his descriptions of the deaths themselves (something that would carry over to Ice And Fire) and so Nightflyers becomes a sci-fi and gory horror in space. It keeps you guessing at who or what is really responsible and there is a twist near the story’s endgame. Nightflyers is clearly the best story in this collection and while it took a some time to get going – not helped by the strange character names – I eventually fell into that zone where I couldn’t put it down.

The other stories don’t quite live up to Nightflyers but the interesting thing is that they all take place in the same fictional “Thousand Worlds” universe. There are no direct links between the stories but the same planets and races are often referenced, letting you know that there is a loose continuinity behind the scenes.

Override is a story set on the planet of Grotto where Corpse Handlers mine precious stones using crews of ‘deadmen’, deceased human beings reanimated and managed with the Handlers’ control box devices. Override was my least favourite of the stories in this collection. The others that follow Nightflyers explored morality, religion and philosophy. Here we have the enforced enslavement of the deceased and a fairly nonplussed attitude towards the practice which is a pretty grim future indeed but it felt like a more straightforward tale.

Weekend in a Warzone was much more interesting. In the future, there are no wars so to satiate man’s primal bloodlust so multiple fighting clubs will take your money and drop you into a warzone for a specified length of time. You will fight against “soldiers” from a rival fighting club. The war and the death is real but the chilling aspect to this story is that people choose to sign up for it; war and killing for the entertainment value and thrills. Man’s appetite for violence contained on artificial battlefields and packaged as a weekend away from ordinary life.

The Concom guns are molded from greenish plastic, but otherwise they’re the same. Of course. The weapons have to be the same, or the war wouldn’t be fair. Underneath, there’s a serial number, and a legend that says PROPERTY OF CONSOLIDATED COMBAT, INC.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Fight in the mountains, Maneuver against Consolidated Combat! Try and jungle war, General Warfare versus Battlemaster! Slug it out in the streets of the city, Tactical League against Risk, Ltd. There are thirty-four war zones and ten fighting clubs. You pays your money and you takes your choice. But all the choices are the same.

Weekend in a Warzone is a short story but a very good one. It paints another unsavoury future where war has become trivialised and a sport rather than the result of two sides fighting for deeper causes. And it struck me as the kind of future that could actually exist if wars and conflict were ever to be completely eradicated. As I said, chilling stuff.

The next story is And Seven Times Never Kill A Man. This one takes place on the world of Corlos where the Steel Angels have established a colony and are systematically wiping out the native Jaenshi with brutal force. There are some religious themes running through this story as the Steel Angels worship their God, Bakkalon, and everything they do is driven by their zealous belief system. Outsider Arik neKrol is a trader and as such can move between both races. He views the Steel Angels as evil and plots to arm the passive Jaenshi in order to fight back. I didn’t really enjoy the conclusion of this story and found myself wondering whether I’d overlooked an underlying message or subtle detail. Nevertheless, it was detailed, enjoyable and made me want to know how it would all end.

Nor The Many-Colored Fires Of A Star Ring is a mouthful of a title. It’s also possibly the most sci-fi of all the stories in this collection. In the future, enormous ring-shaped structures called Star Rings surround nullspace vortexes and use them to open up dimensional warps, allowing for fast travel across the cosmos. There’s definitely a Star Trek vibe to this story, especially with the descriptions of the control panels and Star Ring itself. But the main focus of the story is the character of Kerin daVittio and his growing obsession with the infinite, utter darkness of unexpanded space lying outside of their particular Star Ring.

But on the far side of the Hole to Nowhere was the darkest realm of all. Here blackness rules, immense and empty. There are no stars. There are no planets. There are no galaxies. No light races through this void; no matter marks its perfection. As far as man can see, as far as his machines can sense, in all directions; only nothingness and vaccuum. Infinite and silent and more terrible than anything Kerin had ever known.

You aren’t ever certain whether Kerin fears the darkness or can’t get enough of it. Or both. The story makes you think philosophically and realise how small and insignificant we are as a race compared to the unfeeling blackness of space which goes on forever.

The final story is A Song For Lya. Two telepaths – Lyanna and Robb – arrive on an alien planet where a human civilisation butts up against that of the native Shkeen, an ancient, peaceful race that don’t mind co-habiting with the humans. But the Shkeen all follow a singular religion whereby they ‘join’ with a jelly-like organism known as a Greeshka before proceeding with the Final Union between the ages of forty and fifty. Humans are converting to the Shkeen’s religion and slowly deserting the colony and so Lyanna and Robb are brought in to try and read the minds of the Joined and work out why seemingly healthy humans are giving up everything for the Shkeen religion. Final Union involves being willingly sacrificed to the Greeshka and so the religion has become viewed as a worrying suicide cult by the human administration. There was a lot going on in this story including religious themes and the romantic relationship between Lyanna and Robb and how it is affected by what they learn from ‘feeling’ the emotions of pure love from those who are Joined in Shkeentown. It is a very good story and like the proceeding one, it did make me stop and think once I’d reached the end.

Overall, I enjoyed dipping into sci-fi, a genre that I rarely flirt with. All of the stories in this collection were worth the entry fee even if some were better than others. Nightflyers, Weekend In A Warzone and A Song For Lya were my personal favourites but I wouldn’t say that that there were any weak links. Override stands out as the story I got the least out of but even then, I still enjoyed it for what it was. As with the books in the Ice And Fire series, it’s Martin’s descriptive powers and ability to create believable fantasy worlds out of alien ideas and futures that makes this book. If you are into classic sci-fi or enjoyed A Song Of Ice And Fire then you should also enjoy Nightflyers And Other Stories.