Warning: This article contains spoilers from The Institute, by Stephen King.
“I hope the world doesn’t end because of us,” a character says near the end of Stephen King’s latest novel, The Institute. It’s the kind of sentiment we’re seeing more from the best-selling author these days. Indeed, while King’s most recent fiction is still keeping readers on the edge of their seat, it’s also leaving us with something deeper to think about.
The Institute centers on Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old kid who has small but potent telekinetic powers. (As he frequently reminds, he can at least make pizza pans shake in times of high emotion.) He also happens to be a genius: He’s about to head for Boston to take classes at MIT and Emerson, even though he’s six years shy of standard college age. Everyone is focused on his intelligence — except the Institute, a secret organization that specializes in kidnapping children. They’re more concerned about Luke’s powers, and they’re not messing around. In the book’s beginning stages, they kidap him and murder his parents.
Luke is brought to the Front Half of the Institute, where children are subjected to tests, nearly drowned in tanks of water as a torture method, and interrogated about their abilities. He meets young people just like him: Avery, Kalisha, Nicky, George. But new kids keep coming as old friends disappear into the terrifyingly mysterious Back Half. Luke knows he has to escape before he’s taken to the Back Half; the only question is how.
This main plot makes for as riveting a page-turner as any King novel, but what makes The Institute special are the questions raised in the final 10 or so pages. In the end, the Institute’s management reveals that the organization truly believes its ill treatment of telepathic and telekinetic children is for the greater good of the world: taking out possible terrorists and neutralizing those who have the potential to start wars with their precognitive flashes. “Thousands of children have died in this process, but billions of children have been saved,” claims Mr. Smith, the Institute’s boss.
Luke posits that there are too many factors that come into play, making it nearly impossible for these precognitive flashes (years and even decades before the events actually happen) to be that accurate. Readers are left to wonder: Are these flashes to the future enough to warrant killing possible threats in cold blood, years before they commit a crime?
It’s an eternal ethical question King is playing with. (As Vox nicely put it: “The philosophical problem of killing baby Hitler.”) At its core, The Institute asks at what cost we as a society are willing to shield ourselves from possible danger — and, perhaps more importantly, what we should be classifying as dangerous to begin with.
These questions don’t merely exist within a King horror-world of secret institutions and children with the power to see the future. They can be asked of a country with a mass shooting epidemic, or a humanitarian crisis at the border. It’s only natural for someone as outspoken as King — check his Twitter feed at any given moment and you’re likely to see his dissatisfaction with the current presidential administration — to speak to some of today’s more urgent political problems in his work. (“Trump’s immigration policies didn’t impact the book, because it was written before that incompetent dumbbell became president,” King recently told The Guardian. “Children are imprisoned and enslaved all over the world. Hopefully, people who read The Institute will find a resonant chord with this administration’s cruel and racial policies.”)
That’s not to say King veers toward speechifying. Although the Institute is framed as the villain for the entirety of the novel, Mr. Smith is given a platform in the final chapters to explain his reasoning to the children for every horrific action he’s sanctioned or committed. And although in the moment Luke seems to have all the answers and refuses to be persuaded that the Institute was right, in the aftermath, he and the rest of the surviving children have their doubts. In the final pages, King introduces enough ambiguity to leave his characters — and readers — wondering: Will the world end because they didn’t sacrifice themselves? The kids hope not. But the story stops there.