Wednesday, October 17, 2007

And you thought his Fiction was horrifying

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, commentary

I find a certain resemblance between Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Much of their writing is of technology gone horribly wrong. The emphasis for Crichton is on the technology and the escape therefrom; for King it is the horror and the lack of escape. Secondarily, King relies in various amounts on the supernatural, something Crichton avoids.

You could put King's genre in a 20-80 range. The terror in some of his books is 80% technological and only 20% supernatural, in others it's the other way 'round. This alone makes it tough to write about his "science", but Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg have done just that, in The Science of Stephen King: from 'Carrie' to 'Cell', the Terrifying Truth Behind the Horror Master's Fiction.

I confess I have read not one word of King. After a youthful brush with Lovecraft and his early 20th Century imitators, I foreswore supernatural horror. The reviews of Carrie in the 1970s made it clear that the title character was (or hosted) a malicious poltergeist. However, I was sufficiently intrigued by this book's title and cover to read through it.

In its nine chapters the authors discuss King's reliance on ESP, AI, Aliens, Plague, Higher Dimensions, Time Travel, Parallel Worlds, and Longevity, and finally discuss the philosophy of Evil, Obsession, and Fear, particularly as King uses them.

In particular, it became clear as I read that the vague, ending-without-really-ending nature of many of King's books simply multiplies their impact. Horror is, after all, a way of getting a reader to ask, "If I had the power to do that, would I do it better?" The evil and obsession are a part of all of us, and the fear is a fear of ourselves, if we have any trace of conscience.

The authors rely primarily on science fiction and its tropes to "explain" the science (loosely so-called) used by King. Stephen King was, after all, an English major. Science has provided him useful material for versimilitude (among scientifically illiterate readers, at least). The SciFi writers mentioned by Gresh and Weinberg frequently had less grounding in science than either King or themselves.

The authors were both Science majors, and they do a good job of outlining the science, as it is known—or not—about each chapter's topic. I reckon that King is less than impressed; he is a story teller, and clearly a superb one. You can't let facts get in the way of a good story.

The rule propounded by John Campbell, king of the Golden Age of SciFi Editors, was "Pose a thorny problem, then solve it." King is a master of its opposite: "Show why this problem will not be solved."

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