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Stephen King as Nerd's Best Friend : THE TOMMYKNOCKERS by Stephen King (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 558 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Arend Flick | Flick is lecturer in English at UC Santa Barbara.

We've been witnessing in this country recently a marked increase in the number of reported UFO sightings and contacts by humans with extra-terrestrials--on the best-seller lists, that is. While the physical geography has apparently been spared alien invasion so far, writers like Carl Sagan, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Whitley Strieber have produced stories lately of third-kind encounters (not all fictional) that have hovered near the peaks of the pop-literary landscape. Now comes Stephen King into this apparently inexhaustible field with a novel that, while breaking no fresh ground, manages nonetheless to entertain and instruct even as it pays homage to many of its best-known ancestors.

Hunting firewood near her house in rural Maine, a 37-year-old writer of Westerns named Roberta Anderson stumbles on a piece of metal protruding from the ground. It's not a discarded bean can, she soon discovers. For one thing, she's unable to wiggle it out of the soil; for another, it vibrates faintly to the touch. Unable to let well enough alone, Bobbi returns with digging equipment and starts an excavation that reveals the curved shell of an enormous space ship crashed to Earth millions of years ago.

Since this is a King novel, we hold out little hope that this communion with space visitors will lead to anything as pleasant as flying our bikes with them against the full moon. And we're right: By the time Bobbi's closest friend (and occasional lover) Jim Gardener looks in on her three weeks later--called to her by a telepathy King loves to use when friends are in trouble--Bobbi has lost 30 pounds and is nearly catatonic. And the house is a perverse advertisement for Better Living Through Technology: Her water is being heated by a mysterious energy source made up of batteries and egg cartons, her garden tractor has an "Up" gear now in addition to the conventional forward ones, and her typewriter taps out her novels as she daydreams them. Horrified, fascinated, Jim joins Bobbi in her effort to unearth the saucer's hatch and gain entrance.

Maybe we sometimes look too hard for allegory in science fiction novels and movies as a way of justifying our liking them. And sometimes when allegory is clearly intended, the freighter isn't substantial enough to bear the cargo. But you don't need the critical equivalent of a backhoe to uncover the moral of "The Tommyknockers." It's a blatant parable of technology run amok, an expression of King's mistrust of man's capacity to control machines to serve his nobler purposes.

King scorns one machine in particular here: the nuclear reactor. The Tommyknockers' ship becomes a metaphor for nuclear fuel; it's superficially a "dream of endless power," actually a demon of mass destruction. And the "becoming" itself results from the presence of "an alien and inimical atmosphere" around Haven--Gardener thinks "becoming" resembles getting "caught in a great big messy Atomic meltdown." King also wants us to draw parallels between the loss of individuality that is "becoming" and the collective lie that is "safe" unclear power.

I don't want to make "The Tommyknockers" sound dourer or more pretentious than it is. It's got politics in its hold and strapped all over its deck, but the ship still floats. Partly this is due, I think, to King's humor. Like Vonnegut, he seems to find our faith in machines less an evil to be feared than an idiocy to be laughed at. The novel's jokes often misfire, but the wacky colloquialisms (for which King has been criticized) usually made me laugh--as when a villager at the dig site is compared to "a rube Druid (on) his first trip from the boonies to see Stonehenge." There's also a great comic homage to "Dr. Strangelove" near the novel's end involving one of 20th-Century America's most ubiquitous technological icons.

King's fans will find familiar pleasures as well. The moments of intense horror are rarer here than earlier, but perhaps all the more effective for that. (Ruth's death in the tower is preceded by a gross-out encounter with bats that is vintage King, and something dreadful happens to Bobbi's basset hound.) The novel also effectively evokes the banality of small-town American life in ways that remind me of Flannery O'Connor.

Why has King been so popular? There probably isn't a single answer to this question, any more than there is a single explanation for why everybody got Rubik's Cubes as gifts in 1981. The appeal of horror in an age like ours is pretty obvious. But what seems to me to set King apart from some of his lesser colleagues is his credible exploration of power in his fiction--as something most of us don't have, secretly want, but could probably not use wisely if we were ever to get it.

Writing of Lee Harvey Oswald, King once expressed his fascination that "one nerd with a mail order gun was able to change the entire course of world history in just 14 seconds or so." In a sense, all King's protagonists tend to be latter-day Oswalds in their initial powerlessness. (Jim Gardener is a mediocre poet with a drinking problem before he gets the opportunity to save the world.) King's morality--and popularity--lies in the fact that his heroes often find better things to do with their sudden power than wipe chicken grease from their hands and take aim on a passing limousine.

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