Stephen King has written bad novels before, but Under the Dome is his first novel that’s not only bad, but also boring. With a plot that has more than a little resemblance to the Simpsons movie, it’s also an idiot plot in which everyone behaves stupidly and then almost everyone dies, The End.
Under the Dome recycles most of King’s own work, from the growing alien isolation of the town in Tommyknockers to the police serial killer in Dead Zone and the rise of two post-apocalyptic factions in The Stand; it’s a pastiche of much better material from King’s own library. Which is no surprise, because Under the Dome was a trunk novel that King decided to finish and polish up, but still somehow reads like a bad first draft. Under the Dome is handicapped because it lacks King’s specialty, supernatural events. Stephen King tries to toss in an alien box responsible for the dome, and visions of disaster, but they’re an afterthought in an 1100 novel that is mostly about people killing each other and themselves.
Under the Dome wouldn’t be so bad if Stephen King had at least tried to invest something in the characters, but instead he just phones it in. The main character, Barbie, is one of those retired special forces captains who always show up in action movies when there’s a crisis. The main villain drives a Hummer, talks a lot about Jesus, runs a meth lab and just in case readers still didn’t get it, has a photo of himself with Sarah Palin. And I’ve still managed to make him sound more interesting than King does. The rest of the characters are completely forgettable, so much so King has to put a list of them after the title page, which in a novel is usually an admission that the author needs to give readers a guide to figure out who the hell these people are. Which means that no one’s really going to care anyway.
With that kind of setup, Under the Dome is a hopeless shambling mess. For 700 pages, character after character confronts the main villain in private, only to get murdered or jailed. It’s as if Under the Dome was a haunted house movie that ran for 10 hours straight, and was filled entirely with people going into the haunted house, and getting killed. And it would still be more interesting than Under the Dome was. But King can only move the plot forward by killing someone, and people can only keep dying the same way if they’re extremely stupid. That makes for an odd and boring novel, in which characters hang around for hundreds of pages, only to die pointlessly. For example King treats us to an entire subplot which has a town selectwoman going cold turkey in order to be able to confront the main villain at a town meeting. After 800 or so pages, this finally happens, and she gets out two sentences before she’s killed out of hand.
Under the Dome is a novel where the good guys are hopelessly stupid and incompetent. They’re only good because they share King’s politics and religion (Baptists show up as the villains, Congregationalists as the heroes.) Just as the villains are sociopaths without a motive, who are bad only because that’s their role in the plot. Barbie, the main character, and the one presented as competent, willingly goes off to jail, and stays there for half the novel, even when he knew beforehand that he would be arrested, forcing the rest of his gang to break him out of jail. But none of that even matters, because hardly anyone survives, and almost nothing that anyone in the novel does, affects their survival one way or another, or even matters. Even the villain only dies because of a heart problem. Our heroes survive because they beg an alien child for mercy through a mind meld with an alien Apple TV. (And I wish I was joking, but that’s the actual ending. Spoiler alert.)
You can tell that Under the Dome is a trunk novel by how dated it is, a key part of the book involves a newspaper editor desperately trying to photocopy editions of a print newspaper, even while the town has internet access. Another has a folder with damning evidence being passed around from hand to hand, when it could have been emailed to everyone in town in 15 seconds. This wouldn’t have been a problem if King had set the story in the seventies or the eighties when he originally began writing it, but instead he set in the present day, and drops mentions of YouTube and cell phones, and yet the plot revolves around the same mechanic as it would have in 1978. King dusted it off and belatedly decided to turn it into an 1100 page book about how much he hates the Bush Administration, a book proposal that would have made more sense if it had been done in 2003, not 2009.
Under the Dome is supposed to be King’s On the Beach, a grand statement about how we’re all doomed to kill each other and burn to death, unless we start doing some of the right things, whatever those are. But it’s actually an 1100 page borefest about people we don’t care about, getting killed because they have no common sense. King keeps the bodies raining down, but without any reason to care, it’s just more gore. An extended Twilight Zone episode without much in the way of the supernatural, an annoying omniscient narrator, a battle between good and evil over town politics in which both sides prove they’re too stupid to live. That’s all Under the Dome is.