Stephen King, THE INSTITUTE (2019)

This is a solid contemporary thriller with SF (or perhaps fantasy) elements. As I’ve said before I like Stephen King but read only about his every third or fourth book, just the ones that seem to have some, to me, provocative theme (e.g., the others in the photo).

The book is expertly plotted and structured. It breaks down cleanly into half a dozen blocks of varying sizes. The whole book is about 560 pages.

  • 40 pages: Tim Jamieson, an ex-Sarasota police officer, forced out of his job due to a bizarre incident of circumstances, gives up his seat on a plane to New York and instead hitchhikes north. He ends up in a small South Carolina town, DuPray, where he gets a job as a “night walker,” that is, someone who walks up and down main street all night checking that doors are locked and everything is OK. His quick action when a local night mart is robbed leads to a better job with the local sheriff.
    • Right away in this section the central theme is emphasized: the results of chance circumstances, how the future is a result of chance encounters and unpredictable events. Tim gives up his plane seat on impulse; one of his rides gets stuck and in traffic and so he walks to the next town; the night mart robbery.
  • 40 pages: Luke Ellis is a gifted teenager in Minneapolis whose high school guidance counselor recommends he attend not one but two universities simultaneously, MIT and Emerson. Unremarked by his parents, he seems to have incidental telekinetic abilities: he can knock an empty pizza box onto the floor. One night a black SUV pulls up to his house; people enter, casually shoot Luke’s parents, and kidnap him. Luke wakes in a replica of his bedroom, inside some institute with other kids who exhibit TP and TK (telepathy and telekinesis).
  • 120 pages: We learn about the institute, which we gather is in Maine, run by the stern Mrs. Sigsby and a security staff. A dozen or so other kids are there, periodically taken to lower levels for various kinds of tests. After a time each kid is removed to the institute’s “back half” from which there is no return. The tests involve Stasi lights, symbols on playing cards, and the torture of being dunked into tank of water for minutes at time, supposedly to release latent psychic talents.
  • Mrs. Sigsby assures them that they are here to serve their country: the world is an arms race, a mind race. When their service is over, their memories will be wiped and they will be returned to their families. But new kids arrive regularly, and one of them, a talented TP named Avery, perceives that everything she says is a lie. (Luke already suspects his parents are dead.) Avery can also perceive that kids in the “back half” are shown movies, and apparently are being trained to execute targeted attacks on various victims, as psychic drones.
  • — spoilers from here on —
  • 75 pages: Luke escapes the institute, with help from one of the housekeepers, by digging under a chain link fence late one night. He makes his way through the woods to a river and rides a rowboat to a train yard and hops on a freight train heading south, all the way to… DuPray SC.
    • The last line of this section: “Great events turn on small hinges.”
  • 250 pages: Then follows plot, playing out the consequences of everything set up so far.
    • Luke meets Tim Jamieson and tells his story. That housekeeper gave him a flash drive, which has videos of the inside of the institute, including the “back half.”
    • Meanwhile the staff in Maine discovers that he’s gone and frantically searches for him. They are absolutely convinced that the survival of the world depends on continuing their mission – since the 1950s! – of testing, and torturing, kids, in order to selectively assassinate targets whose survival might trigger the end of the world. That the world hasn’t ended since the 1950s is proof their work is successful.
    • Agents from the institute arrive in DuPray; there’s a big shoot-out; Luke and Tim try to negotiate a deal with the security team at the institute…
    • Meanwhile, in an over-the-top special-effects sequence, the kids at the Institute join psychic forces with all the other kids at some 20 institutes around the world, and revolt: they escape their quarters, literally lift one portion of the facility into the air and drop it on top of the other. By the time Luke and Tim arrive from South Carolina, the staff is dead and only a few kids survive.
  • Last 30 pages: Three months later, Tim and his girlfriend live on a farm with Luke and the other surviving kids. A man, the “lisping man” who was Mrs. Sigsby’s unseen boss by phone, drives up, to explain himself, how the 20 institutes around the world have kept the world from destroying itself – and without them, now, the world is now on suicide watch. Isn’t it worth torturing a few kids to keep the world from destroying itself? Tim says, no.
  • Lisping man further explains that they selected their targets (an open question through the second half of the book) via a small handful of very rare Precogs, i.e. people with precognition, who can see the future.
    • And here the book’s theme coalesces: Luke, hearing this, objects. He says that analysis is flawed; they can’t predict consequences that far out; too many random factors intervene. Lisping man seems to realize this, but insists they were doing good. (There’s the suggestion that the Precogs are taking advantage of the situation, to live the high life they enjoy.)
  • And, in an almost wistful conclusion, the surviving kids, one by one, are sent back to where they came from, with stories to tell of how they’d been kidnapped for unknown reasons, and keys to a lockbox with that flash drive in case the news gets out.

Key points:

  • Again, the theme that echoes through the book is the effect of chance encounters, of unpredictable events, and without being explicit about it, King contrasts that with the claim, at the end, that history is being manipulated on the basis who can see the future—because the future is predetermined? Obviously not, or they couldn’t make changes. There’s a rich history of speculation in science fiction of the past century about whether history is alterable, via changes in the past or, as here, changes in the present to affect the future. Without dwelling on the theoretical, King’s conclusion seems to be: can’t be done. Too many random factors make prediction, or interference, impossible.
  • More generally, King is a popular writer who uses off-the-shelf SF and fantasy themes when he uses them at all. You don’t read Stephen King for original speculation. This book combines a couple familiar SF themes, and one philosophical moral theme familiar from a famous SF story. The latter is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: if a perfect society could be maintained only through the suffering of a single child in a basement, is it worth it? The SF ideas are the try-to-change-the-future time travel notions, and a helping of the central theme of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel MORE THAN HUMAN, in the psychic unification of a group of variously talented people – here, when kids in the institutes around the world join forces to bring the Institute down.
  • I mentioned fantasy in the first sentence of this post because, really, there hasn’t turned out to be any scientific basis for telepathy, or for telekinesis, let alone precognition. (A funny point in the book is in the final scenes, when Tim accepts Lisping Man’s explanation until precognition is brought up: “I can buy telepathy, and I can buy telekinesis, but precognition? That’s not science, that’s carnival bullshit!” Alas, while all three premises are fun for use in fantasy and SF stories, they are passing (in public consciousness) or have already passed (among the scientifically savvy) into the dustbin of ideas that humans might wish were true, but are not.

Couple off-hand points:

  • In a clever bit of irony and character sketching, there’s a homeless woman in DuPray who listens to a conspiracy theory radio show, and all her fears about government conspiracies, down to hit men in black SUVs, seem to come true.
  • There also a moment late in the book in which one of the children complains, bitterly, “It’s not fair!” A common cry among children – humans have a deep sense of fairness, especially among siblings, and some never grow out of the feeling that life just has to be fair, even though it obviously isn’t. That’s the just-world fallacy in a nutshell.
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