Reviews

PICARD – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

 

There is no doubt that the fans’ hopes for this new production in the long-running Trek franchise were high, partly because of its focus on one of the most iconic characters for this universe, and partly because the more recent offerings did not exactly meet viewers’ expectations, maybe (and this is only my personal opinion) due to the fact that they chose to look at the past of this universe rather than envision its possible futures, and therefore had to deal with issues of canon and continuity that provoked displeasure from some hard-core fans.

Did the first season of Picard meet those expectations? I would largely say yes, although it was not exempt from pacing and narrative problems.  The story is set some twenty years after the events of the last TNG movie, Nemesis, and starts from the premise that a supernova threatened the obliteration of a good portion of the Romulan Empire: the Federation and Starfleet mounted a huge operation of rescue and relocation of the affected population and gave Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, the task of coordinating the effort. Despite the technical difficulties and the political problems – not everyone in the Federation was happy with the idea of investing so many resources in aiding a long-standing enemy –  the operation proceeded competently until it was wrecked by an unforeseeable disaster: the androids designed to increment the workforce suddenly and inexplicably turned on their creators, destroying the shipbuilding facilities on Mars and killing tens of thousands.  Faced with Starfleet’s decision to stop the rescue mission in the aftermath of the tragedy, Picard threatened to resign in the hope of waking up their conscience, but his resignation was accepted with no qualms and he retired to his family home, angered and defeated.

As the series opens, it’s been fourteen years since that day and the Picard we meet is a disaffected, reclusive man who nevertheless rises to the occasion when a young woman comes to seek his help after having been the victim of a brutal murder attempt… I will leave the rest of this complex, many layered story for you to discover, and concentrate instead on the first season’s characterization and storytelling.

There is no question that characters are the backbone of this show, both the old and the new. Jean Luc Picard is of course the one who enjoys the most screen time, but he’s very different from the person we knew (or thought we knew…) from the seven seasons and four movies of TNG: he’s older, disillusioned and quite bitter about the way his career ended – the rescue and relocation effort could have been its crowning achievement, not just for the amount of lives saved, but for the opportunity of turning the Federation’s ideals of diplomacy and cooperation into tangible fact, of showing that even long-standing differences can be overcome in the name of a worthy goal.

Present-day Picard is not the man we remember anymore: he has turned inwards, almost forgotten to look up at the stars and see the promise they offer; there is no more hope in him and at some point he understands that for all this time he has been vegetating, waiting to die as he claims in a moment of merciless introspection. The long years spent in this self-inflicted isolation have left their mark on him, and it’s not a welcome sight: even once he embarks on the “adventure” that’s the focus of this story, he has moments when he seems unaware, or worse dismissive of other people’s feelings, when it appears as if he’s using them as convenient tools to fulfill his goal. And yet, where these moments should make us think less of him, they help instead to make him look far more approachable than he was in the past, as if, shedding that mantle of unshakable authority that made him one of the most celebrated Starfleet captains, he gained in humanity.

This less-than-flattering view of Picard is only the mirror for what happened with the Federation, which has turned into an insular entity, more concerned with its own problems than with the expansion of knowledge and the betterment of its members that were its founding principles. It’s often been one of the mandates of science fiction to examine our present and to reflect it back at us through some imaginary filter, so we could take a good look at what we are, and the image that we see in this mirror is far from flattering: the hope and optimism that were at the roots of the earlier incarnations of Star Trek are present in name only, replaced by an unprecedented wariness toward the other that denies those lofty ideals. The prequel novel The Last Best Hope does a good job of showing how this kind of mindset came to be, and it’s indeed a useful key to decipher the atmosphere we breathe in this first season of the series, to understand the kind of inner journey Picard has to take in the TV series to rise up again from the depths of disillusionment he had fallen in and regain the armor of moral authority that was the main component of his personality.

Back to the characters, there are some new faces here who end up forming the crew Picard needs for this unexpected mission, and while they are all interesting, they are not given sufficient space to really grow into fully-featured personalities: ten episodes and a story that needs to explain enough of the past to help us understand the present are hardly enough to show all the facets that would deepen our understanding of them. Still, it’s a good start and my hope is that they will be given room to expand with the second season: if I choose to see this first run of the series as a prologue, there might be a good chance they will be allowed to mature fully and to create a new “family” for the old captain.  On the other hand, the appearance of a few familiar faces from the past is more than welcome, either the cameo roles of Riker and Troi or the more substantial presence of Data and of 7of 9 from Voyager – and in this respect I look forward to her return in Season 2 because the metamorphosis from her former aloof personality to the present ass-kicking awesomeness represents one of the highlights of this series.  In this respect, I would like to address some of the accusations of “fan service” I read online, and while I admit that the show was at times guilty of it, I’m also aware that it needed to build on the ties of the past to better establish its footing in this “present” – and I’m also certain that no one, not even those detractors, was able to remain unmoved when Picard finally uttered his trademark “Engage!” at the end of a certain episode…

The first season of Picard, while promising, is not immune from some narrative issues, particularly in the pacing that feels too slow in some instances and far too swift in others, blithely skipping over some details that would have helped make sense of the progression of events –  and yet it all comes together in the final episode, one whose emotional content was enough to make me forget all previous doubts and criticisms. Not perfect, no, but promising enough to encourage me to wait for next season with great anticipation.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PICARD: THE LAST BEST HOPE, by Una McCormack

 

My record with tie-in novels has not been exactly stellar, so far: most of the stories I read gave me the impression that the authors were not overly familiar with the universe and the characters they were dealing with, or that they were doing a paint-by-the-numbers job with little motivation to deliver a gratifying story.  For this reason I approached this novel, that acts as a prequel to the new Trek series Picard, with some hesitation, but to my great relief and appreciation I encountered a solid story whose characters – especially the central one – felt both substantial, well-researched and consistent with their on-screen versions.

The core premise in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of his future was that of a utopian society where greed, bias and bigotry had been erased; a post-scarcity civilization that had relegated poverty and hunger to its remote past; a political association where dialogue and diplomacy could solve the most bitter conflicts.  As every utopian vision it was a worthy, inspiring one – even a model to strive for – but as such it did not take into account the darker side of our nature. The original Trek, and TNG, were the product of times when optimism made us think we could start reaching for that goal, but as society and politics changed over time, the following series started incorporating more and more or this transitioning reality into their background, showing a not-so-perfect Federation, one prone to very human (and I’m using this term broadly speaking) flaws.

This prequel novel moves from the discovery that the greater part of the Romulan Star Empire is destined to be obliterated by a supernova and that Starfleet launches a massive rescue mission to relocate the endangered population to safety. The huge effort is fraught with technical and political difficulties from the very start, and when an act of sabotage destroys the Mars shipyard, Starfleet choses to pull out of the mission, causing Picard to resign his commission in anger and frustration.   This less than flattering view of Starfleet and the Federation has been at the root of many objections moved by a number of fans, so I will start by addressing this narrative angle first.

Roddenberry’s perception of the Federation as a cohesive whole in which everyone worked for the common good always looked more like wishful thinking, and while remaining as a basic guideline for the shaping of mankind’s future society it was not free from exceptions even in the original series, so that we saw several examples of humanity’s worst at play. In this novel, this kind of reality check is brought to the fore on several levels: the widespread reaction at the announcement of the rescue mission for example, with people wondering why so many resources need to be employed to the benefit of a long-standing adversary; scientists dragging their feet at having to put their projects on hold to work on new and more efficient ways to relocate, house and feed so many refugees; politicians using the emergency as a leverage for their own agendas, and so forth.  Does all of this sound quite familiar? Of course it does, because science fiction is often – if not always – a mirror of our present times and issues and it reflects them back at us through the lens of an imagined future. This might not look like the Federation his creator envisioned, but it’s a possible look into what we might become one day, and a prediction that our present “baggages” might still follow us into the centuries to come.

In this rude awakening from the dream of a perfect future, the most excellent victim is Jean-Luc Picard, the very symbol of Roddenberry’s vision: from the very start he’s forced to walk an uphill road, battling against short-sightedness, reluctance to fully commit to the task and political expediency, and despite these difficulties, added to the monumental task of moving 900 million people out of harm’s way, he struggles to keep the optimistic outlook that drove his past missions so far, although day by day that optimism is corroded by the mounting awareness of the hopelessness of it all. Many chapters of this novel start with excerpts from his log, and we can see the slow, inexorable way in which that hope keeps dwindling and is ultimately ground into dust by what he perceives as the ultimate betrayal from the organization he gave his life to.  The ominous quality of the storytelling goes hand in hand with the deconstruction of Picard’s noble, dignified figure as he comes face to face with his powerlessness and starts to turn into the bitter, discouraged person we meet at the start of the TV series, someone whose gaze has turned inward where once he used to look out to the stars.

Picard’s second in command, Raffi Musiker, suffers a similar fate even though she comes from a different outlook: she holds little faith in humanity’s virtue and yet her cynical approach to the obstacles on their path does not save her from the crushing disillusionment they are destined to endure. More than that, she pays a terrible personal price for her dedication to the mission (something we see more clearly on screen), and what we see of her in this novel explains a great deal her attitude in the TV series, because she is forsaken both by Starfleet and by a commanding officer who choses to sever all ties with his past in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Picard: The Last Best Hope is not an easy read, because it will subvert many of the beliefs we held about Starfleet and the Federation; it will lead us to confront some unpleasant realities under the utopian surface we thought we knew; and it will force us to see how complete failure can affect even the most steadfast of personalities. There is a grimness of perspective in this novel that we are not used to seeing in Star Trek, and yet this story is a compelling one – not just because of the background it builds for the TV series, but because it makes us understand that sometimes we need to reach bottom before starting to swim back up to the surface.  Grimdark might have reached its proverbial tentacles into one of the most optimistic franchises in speculative fiction, but I am convinced that redemption will not be out of the characters’ grasp, and I’m waiting to see if I’m right.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story: HELLO, HELLO, by Seanan Mcguire

 

Click on the link to read the story online

 

I never know what to expect from a Seanan McGuire’s short story: the examples I found until now touched such a wide range of subjects that each time it’s like opening a surprise package. The only constant is that the package’s contents are always intriguing.

In this case we follow the story of a neuro-linguist who designed a computer program able to turn spoken words into sign language and vice-versa, its first goal to keep an open communication channel with her deaf sister. This way anyone can talk with Tasha, the sister, through a computer-generated avatar and the persons on the other end might never know their counterpart has a speech and hearing impairment, and one of the benefits of the system – besides ease of communication between the sisters – is that the scientists’ children are growing up quite fluent in both regular speech and in ASL.

One day though, the woman finds her older child Billie talking to an unknown woman on the computer – a randomly generated avatar talking from Tasha’s home and apparently able to say only “Hello” over and over again. At first everyone is convinced that one of Tasha’s guests might have used the system without permission, and then they worry that something might have happened to Tasha herself – that is, until they finally speak with her and she says that nothing untoward happened in her home.  Meanwhile, the mystery calls keep happening at random, and each time the strange woman’s speech seems to improve – but the family’s puzzlement and worry reaches new levels, making them think about hackers or worse.

The truth comes out in the end and it’s an incredible, marvelous revelation – and a very unexpected one. I will leave you to discover it on your own….

McGuire did it again!

Reviews

RECURSION, by Blake Crouch

 

Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter was one of the most interesting and engrossing recent discoveries I made, so that once I started seeing Recursion mentioned on the blogosphere, I was eager to learn where the author would narratively lead me this time. Much as that earlier book proved to be an enjoyable read, Recursion stands several notches above it, and even though it requires a very intense focus and some suspension of disbelief, it kept me enthralled for the whole journey and indeed deserved the often-misused term of “unputdownable”.

I have long debated with myself about how to review this book, because it presents the tough challenge of talking about it without venturing into spoiler territory – and believe me, you don’t want to be spoiled about the twists and surprises of this story. So forgive me if I will end up sounding enigmatic or, worse, unclear about the plot, but this novel is best appreciated when you go into it sight unseen…

One of the two main points of view in Recursion is that of Barry Sutton, a troubled New York cop: recently divorced from his wife, he’s burdened with the pain for the death of his teenaged daughter Meghan, who eleven years prior was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. The anguish for the girl’s death proved to be the last blow to an already faltering marriage, and now all Barry has to cling to are his work and the alcohol he consumes in worrisome quantities. As the novel opens he’s been called to assist the patrolmen dealing with an attempted suicide: a woman sitting on the ledge of a tall building wants to end her life because she fell prey to False Memory Syndrome. FMS is an affliction that causes the victims to suddenly get a whole range of memories, described as “grey and flat” but still feeling very real, that point to a very different path to one’s life. The dichotomy between the two sets of memories is cause for such distress, in the afflicted individuals, that they often choose to end their life: Barry is unable to stop the woman from jumping, but the connection with FMS compels him to look deeper into the issue, finding much more than he bargained for.

The other player is Helena Smith, a scientist studying the neurological processes of the brain: her goal is to map human memories so that they can be implanted in the brain in case of memory loss. Helena is strongly motivated by her mother’s battle with Alzheimer, and has developed the basis for such a recording process, but funding and time are running out and she despairs of ever being able to fulfill her dream – that is, until billionaire Marcus Slade offers her the chance of turning it into reality. Unfortunately, where money and profit come into play, the “purity” of science suffers, and Helena finds out that her brilliant discovery is being used in a way she would never have predicted.

What I feel comfortable in sharing of the plot, at this point, is that Helena’s breakthrough and the spread of FMS are linked and that the unforeseen application of her technology ends up having profound effects on time and reality, with the world headed toward a massive catastrophe that Helena and Barry – once they team up – are deadly set on trying to avert.

Recursion is a successful blend of science fiction and thriller, and as such – not unlike Crouch’s Dark Matter – offers the readers a breathless journey with mounting stakes and devastating scenarios ranging from mass suicides to nuclear holocaust, with apparently little space dedicated to character development, which is hardly surprising since it’s more plot-oriented than character driven. And yet, on careful consideration, there is a clearly identifiable focus on human traits as personality and memory, which are viewed as interconnected sides of what makes us what we are: if memory is one of the facets that defines us – and we see this in the progressive loss of self suffered by Alzheimer victims – the altering of our memories, the erasure of the experiences that forge human beings as they live their life, is exposed as the ultimate violation, whose extreme consequences are portrayed with the same dramatic impact of an unstoppable avalanche.

Both Helena and Barry are flawed individuals whose actions stem from the need of righting the wrongness in their lives – Helena losing her mother to Alzheimer, Barry feeling the guilt for not protecting her daughter – and for this reason it’s easy to forgive their mistakes, and the way they are doomed to repeat them. The second half of the book sees them desperately trying to correct those mistakes, leading toward some emotionally charged pages that made me forget I was dealing with fictional characters, to care deeply for their success and to feel devastated in observing their failures. Their relationship, and its various iterations in the course of the story (apologies for the obscure reference…) looks like one of the few fixed points in the narrative, and one that even I, despite my wariness for romantic subplots, found unobjectionable.

If I have to find a flaw in this novel – and it’s the reason it’s not getting a full rating – is my puzzlement about one of the plot points, an action (again, apologies for the muddy wording) that’s first indicated as impossible, a choice of path that can only end in the death of the performer and does so with the first and only subject who attempts it. Toward the end of the book, however, it’s indicated as the only way to avoid entropy, and I’m still not clear how it works for the main character… Still, it’s a minor nitpick and it certainly did nothing to spoil my overall enjoyment of Recursion, or to lessen my enthusiasm and curiosity in learning that this novel is going to be turned into a TV series soon.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

HOW RORY THORNE DESTROYED THE MULTIVERSE (The Thorne Chronicles #1), by K. Eason

 

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book is ‘surprising’: any kind of expectation I might have harbored from reading its synopsis and the reviews published by some of my fellow bloggers was subverted by what I found in the story itself. And those surprises were quite delightful.

Rory Thorne starts as a fairy-tale retelling: the first girl child born after generations of male heirs to the Thorne dynasty, Rory becomes the center of a christening ceremony involving the blessing of fairies, which is sort of unheard-of because no one believes in the existence of fairies any more and because the story is set in the distant future and the Thorne Consortium is an alliance of planets “in a galaxy far, far away”. The fairies do come to the ceremony however, present the child with many gifts and even cause some intriguing ripples when the uninvited thirteenth fairy crashes the party and lays her own gift on Rory: not a proper curse, no, but the ability to see through lies – which turns out to be a mixed but useful blessing.  After that, the fairies disappear and are never seen again, having fulfilled their role in the economy of the story, that becomes some kind of space opera intrigue, finely balanced between drama and tongue-in-cheek humor.

As Rory grows, and a male heir is born to the Thorne dynasty, all that is expected of her is a politically advantageous marriage and conformity to the rules, but events and Rory’s own determination defy those assumptions in more ways than one: a terrorist attack changes the balance of power, so that the young princess finds herself a pawn to a power-hungry villain’s plots and to political expediency, but things will not exactly go as planned…  I don’t want to share more of the story since I believe it’s best enjoyed if approached with no preconceived notions, especially because you will discover that nothing follows expected parameters here – which is one of the novel’s best strengths.

Rory Thorne’s world-building is quite interesting, being a mix between science fiction and fairy tale material: we have galaxy-spanning coalitions of planets, inhabited both by humans and aliens, and interstellar travel and space stations on one side; we also get fairies, and the intriguing concepts of arithmancy and hexes. In this universe, science and magic combine in the form of arithmancy, which allows its practitioners to influence the laws of nature, or the functioning of technological items, through the application of specific hexes, whose complexity varies according to the wielder’s abilities and training. Not much is explained (thankfully, from my point of view) and the concept is filtered and elaborated through the reader’s imagination and (at least for me) with the assistance of the famous Arthur Clarke’s sentence about sufficiently advanced science being indistinguishable from magic. Rory is of course quite apt in arithmancy, which proves very useful in her experiences.

Where the world is engaging, the characters are what make it work: Rory herself is young, barely sixteen when she’s sent to Urse station in preparation for the political marriage she’s being groomed for, but she’s very far from the usual YA characters we often encounter, another important point in favor of this story. She is clever, but never annoyingly so; she’s determined and sometimes stubborn, and yet she balances that with a thoughtfulness that belies her years; more important, she knows when to follow her own instincts, when to listen to her advisors and when to walk the fine line between these two directions. It was easy for me to feel sympathy for Rory, because despite being a prisoner of her role she never complains about it, never falls prey to the usual angst that seems the prerogative of YA characters, but rather accepts it as fact of life and moves on, doing her best to carve her path with what she has:

… [a princess] did not take casual strolls with her friends, because a princess did not have friends. She had body-maids, guards, teachers, viziers. She had never thought of herself as alone, until now. It was a revelation.

And yet, if not exactly friends, the people closest to her become allies and co-conspirators through the sheer force of her conviction, her self-confidence and her hard-earned wisdom. Speaking of Rory’s closest associates, they are very enjoyable creations: Vizier Rupert and Deme Grytt could not be more different persons – the former is Rory’s steadfast advisor, a man of controlled emotions and careful thoughts, the latter a former soldier sporting cyborg implants and a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude, but they are united in their affection for their young charge and offer many entertaining interludes when debating from opposing points of view about how to best take care of her.  Similarly different are the two female bodyguards assigned to Rory, Thorsdottir and Zhang: one composed and reserved, the other more exuberant, but both equally dedicated to the mission of protecting the princess and – though unexpressed – of being the friends she needs.

The main villain, Regent Moss, might look stereotyped – all he lacks is a mustache to be twirled – but he feels perfect for the role and the right foil for Rory’s cat-and-mouse games where she does her best to outwit an opponent who seems to hold all the winning cards. One of the best parts of the overall story is the subversion of the traditional tale of the princess in danger who needs to be rescued by the handsome prince, because here Rory is the one doing the saving, and the prince she is slated to marry the one who needs to be saved. Please allow me to spend a few words on Prince Ivar, because – apart from the role reversal – he offers one of the amusing angles of the story, at least for me: you might be aware that “Ivar” is the name of an IKEA line of furniture, and the prince’s constantly wooden disposition always made me think that there was a tongue-in-cheek joke from the author’s part. If the young man is depicted as ineffective and weak, all his mentions never failed to elicit a smile from me when I thought his name could not be a coincidence, an impression strengthened by the way the tale is relayed though an omniscient narrator who enjoys offering humorous asides and somehow making a joke of its own reliability.

How Rory Thorne destroyed the Multiverse turned out to be a swift, compelling read in a weird, but intriguing, mashup of genres: it is my understanding this is the first half of a duology, so that I’m quite looking forward to the second book and the discovery of the rest of Rory’s adventures.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

AUBERON (an Expanse Novella), by James S.A. Corey

 

Getting a new Expanse novella while I wait for the next (and last…) book in line feels like a way of shortening that waiting time, and going back to that universe is always a joy, even when the main characters I’ve come to know and love are not part of the story.

Auberon’s time-line is set somewhere between the last two published books, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath, as the Laconian forces are tightening their hold on the occupied planets: governor Biryar Rittenaur and his wife Mona have been charged with the running of Auberon, one of the most Earth-like colony worlds behind the Ring gate, and like all Laconians Rittenaur is very focused on his mission, on the ideals of order and civilization that High Consul Duarte uses to advertise his merciless military conquest.

While Rittenaur and his staff expect the usual resistance – more or less overt – against what is in truth an occupation force, no matter the mask it wears, they are not ready to face the deeply rooted system of criminal corruption headed by a man named Erich whose reach into Auberon’s society goes quite far, and who is not ready to give in to the self-styled new masters of humanity. The new governor will soon discover that it’s not easy to keep faith with one’s ideals when they are in direct conflict with what he holds most dear – or as Erich tells him at some point: “Ideological purity never survives contact with the enemy.

The description of “old man” Erich, with his prosthetic arm covering for a malformed one, is a very intriguing one because it connects with a character I already encountered first in the novella The Churn (the one about Amos’ past) and then in the full novel Nemesis Games, where again Amos and Erich’s shared past came to the surface. If you read both of them, you will find that the present story gains even more depth, but even without this kind of information, Auberon remains an intriguing snippet in the overall Expanse background, because as usual the characters and their journey are at the core of it all.

What makes the two main characters in this novella interesting is that neither of them is likable, and at the same time neither of them is utterly despicable: we are made privy to their motivations, and from their point of view they are acting for the good of the people under their authority. Erich is a crime lord, and there is no measure of white-washing that can make us forget he’s a gangster ruling his territory with a blood-drenched iron fist (no pun intended here…), but he’s also fighting – in his own way and for his own purposes – against an invader bent on ruling the galaxy, so it’s difficult not to root for him, at least a little bit.  Rittenaur is the voice and arm of the conquerors, people who use other humans as guinea pigs for protomolecule alterations, people who execute their own as an example against mistakes, but he’s also a man with a deep love for integrity and a sincere belief in the good of the “Laconian dream” – he’s a decent man, very unlike Medina Station’s Governor Singh, and therefore worthy of some sympathy.

In the tried and tested tradition of the Expanse series, Auberon gives us much food for thought and sheds some interesting light on the latter part of the overall story, while we wait for the conclusion of this sweeping space opera saga that for me represents one of the best in the genre.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE INSTITUTE, by Stephen King

 

As a long-time fan of Stephen King’s works I suffered a few disappointments in the past handful of years, at times wondering if he had lost some of the… special powers that made his books so compelling in the past. Something of the old vigor seemed to have returned with the previously published book, The Outsider, although that too fell a little short of the mark, at least for me, but reading his latest creation, The Institute, I realized I was witnessing the long awaited… Return of the King  🙂        The main reason, from my point of view, is that once again Stephen King chose not to delve into supernatural horror, although he does that quite well, but to explore the kind that comes from the darkest corners of the human soul: what we, as humans, are capable of once compassion and empathy are removed, is indeed much more terrifying than any fictional vampire or clown-shaped evil entity.

The Institute starts with one of those themes King does so well, a small town background in which former cop Tim Jamieson lands after leaving his old job and starting an aimless peregrination through the country: the city of DuPray is one of those creations we often encountered – with different names – in many of Stephen King’s stories, a small community where everyone knows everyone else and the interpersonal dynamics are built on equally well-known figures like an older, world-wise sheriff; a shifty motel manager; a possibly crazy old lady who hides unexpected depths; and so on.  Despite this stagnant, somnolent tableau, one can feel the mounting dread, almost like the sound of approaching thunder, and it would be easy to imagine that whatever is going to happen, will happen here, shattering DuPray’s day-by-day sameness.

Instead we are surprised by an abrupt change of perspective (at least for a good portion of the book) as the focus moves toward twelve-year old Luke Ellis, a boy gifted with extraordinary intelligence and such a balanced disposition that he’s not isolated as many geniuses are, but rather knows how to successfully integrate his cleverness with any kind of social situation. But Luke is special in another way: he possesses some telekinetic powers – not much, just enough to move a pizza pan or to ruffle a book’s pages, but evidently enough to catch the attention of a shady governmental agency. One night a team infiltrates Luke’s house, kills both his parents and kidnaps him. When Luke wakes up from his drugged sleep he finds himself in a room that mirrors his own, apart from the missing window and the fact that the door opens on a corridor with many other similar doors and a few motivational posters depicting happy children at play.

The Institute, located in a remote area of Maine, has been in operation since the mid-fifties, acquiring gifted children in the same, merciless way as Luke was: the prisoners’ talents in telepathy or telekinesis are enhanced through injections with often unpredictable after-effects or sheer torture – like the near-drowning in the dreaded tank – and the new arrivals placed in the first section of the compound, called Front Half, are then moved to the Back Half, from which they never return.  Children are told they are serving their country and that once their stint at the Institute is over they will be returned to their families after a mind-wipe that will erase all memories of their experience – and if we readers know what bare-faced lie this is, many of the kids have already learned not to trust these adults who treat them so callously and to doubt anything they are told, despite their desperate need to believe it.

This novel offers a story in which tension builds with each new chapter, leading with page-turning intensity toward a massive showdown, and as such it’s a very satisfying read that to me brought back the excitement I used to find in older King works, but where it truly excels is in the exploration of the human soul in both its brightest and darkest sides.  The former comes from the children, who are forced to grow up very quickly in the face of the situation they find themselves in, creating bonds with each other that go beyond any consideration of gender, race or temperament: they are all victims here, aware that a ruthless machine they have no control over is using them, chewing them up and then discarding whatever remains. Deprived of their freedom and their dignity (at some point one of their captors uses the word property) they try to cling to whatever form of defiance is allowed them, while dealing with the incredible, often terrifying powers that have been wakened in them.  I admired the way Stephen King never resorts to easy sentimentalism when portraying these kids, even when they are faced with heart-wrenching circumstances or unbearable losses, which lends an incredibly powerful intensity to a key moment when one of those children chooses sacrifice for the good of others, the last thought in that young mind being “I loved having friends”.  I am not ashamed to say that the sentence made me cry, such was my connection with these wonderful characters.

On the other side of the equation, the adults managing the Institute are a case in point for what happens to one’s conscience when the perception of a supposedly worthy goal makes them stop caring for collateral damage: the abducted children are seen as a means to an end – preventing the annihilation of the human race – and as such they must be driven to serve, whether they want it or not.  If the people in the top echelon of the Institute are imbued with such blind zealotry and deal with the children with dispassionate practicality, the lower ranks are another matter: many of them actually enjoy hurting their young charges when they don’t obey orders or refuse to submit to painful and dangerous procedures. Even though it’s never expressed openly, the parallel with concentration camps guards is there for everyone to see, the dehumanizing of the victims and the unwillingness to see them as people – there is a painfully lucid reflection from Luke Ellis that paints this divide in no uncertain terms:

Luke realized he wasn’t a child at all to her. She had made some crucial separation in her mind. He was a test subject. You made it do what you wanted, and if it didn’t, you administered what the psychologists called negative reinforcement. And when the tests were over? You went down to the break room for coffee and danish and talked about your own kids (who were real kids) or bitched about politics, sports, whatever.

Once again, King paints children as both victims and heroes, and this time they don’t battle with supernatural evil but with an earthly kind of wickedness that’s even more terrifying because it’s a part of the human mindset, one that might lie dormant but can be all too easily reawakened given the right input.  The Institute is at times a hard book to read, but it’s one that compels you to think, and to think hard about what makes us human and what can rob us of that oh-so-thin veneer of compassion toward our own kind. And it’s also a story that made me delight in the return of the narrative strength I so enjoyed in the past from this author.

 

 

My Rating: