The Grid, by Nick Cook; and The Institute, by Stephen King

Anthony G Williams

The Grid, by Nick Cook; and The Institute, by Stephen King

The Grid has some things in common with King's The Institute, reviewed below. Both are set in the present day and concern conspiracies making use of psychic powers to alter government policy. Both books are also simply classified as "thrillers" even though they clearly qualify as SF. Is this expected to benefit sales, I wonder?

A different coincidence is that Nick Cook and myself both worked as editors for the Jane's defence and security intelligence publishers at around the same time, although as far as I can recall we never met.

The protagonist of The Grid is Josh Cain, a former combat medic who is now the medical adviser to the President of the USA. He has been called in because the President keeps suffering intense and agonising dreams of his own murder, which seem all too real to the sufferer. At the beginning of the story, Cain is called in to talk down a suicidal ex-Marine who is in a church tower close to the White House, and who has specifically asked for Cain. The Marine tells him of a threat to the President's life. When the Marine's hideout is located, it contains material which reveals that he knows more about Cain's past than anyone should. From then on, the investigation proceeds at several levels, into the nature of the assassination threat and Cain's own psychological problems, with the story becoming increasingly strange and metaphysical.

I should warn readers that the main revelations in The Grid do not come until late in the book so some spoilers are difficult to avoid. (like the one in the second sentence of this review!). Those who prefer not to know what's coming next had better stop here.

The core of the story concerns remote viewing: the ability of some psychics to see a given target, not just in the present day but in the past - or the future. This skill had been particularly developed in the USSR, where it was known as "instrumental psychotronics", but the US version was called The Grid; and the part of the US state which secretly controlled this research was using the results to push their own agenda. Research had also taken place into what happens when people die, with their consciousness passing through various levels, each being more remote than the last. This was of particular interest to Cain, who had never recovered from the death of his wife fifteen years earlier. The conclusion of the story is literally world-changing as the conspiracy is exposed.

This is not the easiest of reads, as there is a large cast of characters and a lot going on. I found myself continually referring to the Dramatis Personae helpfully provided at the beginning, as well as re-reading the last few pages at the start of each reading session. Nonetheless this intriguing story held my attention through to the end.


The Institute, by Stephen King

I have of course been aware of Stephen King's existence for decades, but I can't recall reading anything by him - the horror genre is not one which has ever appealed to me. However, the reviews of The Institute were not just very good, they also made it sound more SF-like, so I thought it was worth a try.

The focus of the plot, set in the present day, is the existence of a secret Institute in a remote part of the USA which is set up ostensibly to meet the needs of children with special talents (generally, Telekinesis or Telepathy). However, this is no benevolent organisation - the children are kidnapped and held against their will, their parents disposed of. The children are put through a range of unpleasant tests apparently aimed at strengthening their talents, before they are transferred to the "Back Half" - a separate part of the Institute - and never seen again.

The story starts on a very different note, with a chapter following the life of an ex-policeman who is travelling rather aimlessly, looking for suitable work to do. He ends up in a small town called Dupray and we leave him settling in there and getting to know a lot about the town's principal characters. Dupray comes back into the story a few months later, when its sleepy existence collides with the extreme violence of the Institute. In the meantime, the focus switches to a new arrival at the Institute, Luke Ellis - a twelve-year old with only weak talents but an intelligence which is off the chart. Most of the book is concerned with the battle of wits between the children led by Luke and the staff of the Institute, as the children plot their escape.

This book is not really what I expected. It is mostly slow-paced and thoughtful, spending a lot of time in establishing the characters in their environments, before a change of gear leads up to the tense finale. I was totally gripped by it and fully understand why Stephen King is such a wildly successful author.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)