The Institute is one of those books that make me think, “wow, this would make a good movie.” I don’t think I do that too often — I’m more of a book person and these days also an “I’d like to see a TV series adaptation” person — but this one lends itself to a movie screen, I think. A bunch of kidnapped kids in a secret facility operated by a global cabal… with sort of a “who are the real bad guys here, actually?” moment in the end? I mean, that sounds like a movie. I looked it up, and this book was picked up for development as a miniseries. When it was published. In 2019. I’m writing this post from October of 2022, so… I really don’t understand why these things get picked up so fast and reported on urgently when it happens, then nothing gets done (although, to be fair, there’s been a whole COVID thing since 2019 and lots of things got pushed or scrapped, I get it) but that’s a whole other post.
I like this book — it’s hard not to. The main character and his friends are as likable as King kids ever are. Given that he tends to give them adult-level intelligence and vocabulary, they are pretty likable to an adult reader most of the time. The plot is definitely interesting — like I said, kids kidnapped by a global cabal of sorts are hidden in a facility where they’re drugged and treated like lab rats and then used as a weapon for reasons that are kind of shadowy. Somehow it doesn’t feel as heavy as that makes it sound like it should, though. It’s as if he kind of gathered up his kids with shine, The Shop, much of the conceit of Firestarter and bound it all up with some modern technology and a little bit of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. There’s a bit of a YA feel to it to me. That’s not a bad thing! Just a noticeable thing.
It also feels very of its time, although I suppose I’d have to be farther removed from that time to know for sure. Maybe every time feels like this to the people living in it. I mentioned The Shop, but it becomes fairly clear that this is not a shadowy US government agency behind the scenes — or if it is, it’s in combination with shadowy agencies from other governments. It sounds as if they’re a group outside the government, though. Possibly one that’s not even known about or sanctioned by our government, though your mileage may vary on that. I tend to think that if something like this were to happen, our government might keep its fingerprints (and budget) out of it — or bury any involvement so deep that it couldn’t be found and only a few people knew — but it seems like something a few people at the highest levels would know about and tacitly sanction even if they were officially not connected. Maybe I’m just cynical, though.
Anyway, it feels like awful people who aren’t really escapable doing awful things for fun and profit for most of the book, which is sort of what living through the Trump presidency felt like, too. Honestly still kind of feels like that, maybe especially for people like me living in heavily pro-Trump states run by pro-Trump politicians (sorry, not sorry, Trumpers, your guy in charge just felt like nonstop chaotic evil. If you’re bothered, go read something else. Not even sure why Trump fans would read King, let alone me writing about King. This is not your place. There are other worlds than these, so go check them out.)
But at the end, there is a bit of a twist. We’re told — by someone from The Institute, so we have to take it with several grains of salt because he could just be lying — that the point of The Institute was to go after people that their pet clairvoyants told them could disrupt things badly enough to cause a nuclear war or other catastrophic events. According to him, sacrificing children is bad, yes, but using those special children’s abilities this way, even though it resulted in sacrificing children, saved the world multiple times. Now, our protagonists absolutely dispute this with The Institute guy. They claim the stats indicate that there’s no way the clairvoyants mentioned can predict these things with any accuracy and that it doesn’t matter anyway. What they’ve been doing is an absolute wrong. But you can tell there’s some doubt there. Is it possibly worth the lives of hundreds or thousands of children if they save millions or billions — the entire world? Perhaps not just once, but many times?
Pretty sure the book’s stance is no, there’s never a reason to do this. However, I think it leaves just enough doubt for you to wonder… but is there? Readers will just have to make up their own minds. Personally, though, I think about the aspect of this that just seems awful and evil in a scattershot kind of way — it’s all carried out by people who don’t care, people who actually enjoy hurting children, people who are desperate, people who are kind of brainwashed, and people believe they’re following some grand plan. If a heroic sacrifice is ever really a necessary thing to save the world, I just can’t believe it looks like this. I can’t believe it would be facilitated by indifferent people and people who like hurting children and people who are either desperate for money or just craven and people who are following some nebulous Big Idea, all working hand-in-hand. That sounds more like the combination of people who get you gas chambers than the combination that saves the world. I think the true believers in The Institute structure are lying or deluded. And I feel like you can see these things — from true believers to liars to cruel people to indifferent people to greedy and desperate people all forming around a common cause — on display in public right now in several aspects of public life, and it never looks like they’re an agent for the betterment of anything.