Hodder & Stoughton £19.99 (881pp) £17.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Under the Dome, By Stephen King

An alien force field that hails from Planet Bush

Just as Dickens saw Victorian England as a family with the wrong members in control, so the US, in Stephen King's vast new state-of-the-nation novel, is a town with the wrong family in control. Obama may be in the White House, but for a lot of the voters in Chester's Mill, he isn't really their President. Real power is local, and rests in the three Selectmen, of whom one is an ineffectual yes-man, one addicted to pain-killers and the third Big Jim Rennie.

Rennie is an all-American hypocrite whose methamphetamine factory funds, and is excused by, his donations to an ultra-Evangelical church. He starves or funds civic amenities according to who sucked up to him last. When he tells one of his less egregiously incompetent aides that "you're doing one hell of a job", King's not especially subtle reference to the Bush/Cheney years becomes overt.

This is King's Hurricane Katrina novel, but the disaster that strikes Chester's Mill is not the sort of flood or storm that gets classed as an Act of God. The town is suddenly surrounded by an alien force field that lets in some air, some water and radio waves, and not much else. Pacemakers and iPods blow up near it, birds break their necks on it. Chester's Mill is on its own, with limited supplies of food and fuel and the clock ticking on everyone's survival. Stupidity, though, is a far quicker killer than starvation or cold.

Everything that happens is seen by Rennie in terms of its effect on his personal power. When the Pentagon reconscripts an Iraq veteran currently working as a short-order cook to be its man on the spot, Rennie kills people who know too much about him, then frames Captain Barbara, throwing a couple of dead women provided by his son, the local serial killer, in for good measure. He burns down the local newspaper, instigates a riot at the supermarket; it would be textbook Machiavellian rule were Rennie not so staggeringly incapable of coming to grips with the town's real problems.

King's problems with the subtle, and his love of big melodramatic set-pieces, work for him here. This is a book about how easily irrationality takes over and how hard it is for intelligent and competent people to realise their enemies' stupidity. For much of its length, Under the Dome talks quite specifically about the American polity and its problems - cronyism, the condoning of brutality, voters who want a candidate they could have a beer with even if he despises them. But when the bills come due in Chester's Mill, they come for all of us. Air grows stale; water pools and grows stagnant; particulates clog the air. Even without the crowning idiocy that brings about the book's apocalyptic climax, Chester's Mill is going to choke and fry like the whole world will, quite soon.

Captain Barbara and his ineffectual liberal aallies have flaws of their own, aside from lack of imagination. Barbara has a dark past, and the middle- aged editor has spent her life being too comfortable about other people's corruption. If Under the Dome has a weakness, it is that King's sentimental fondness for his inadequate good people undercuts the driving scorn with which he treats everyone else. In this book some survive through the kindness of strangers. Faced with environmental collapse and political tyranny, this is a prescription of doubtful utility.

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