How now, Stephen King?
When it comes to life sciences, the master storyteller asks more questions than he answers
There's no question that, with book sales of more than a quarter billion copies, Stephen King is one of the most popular authors of the modern era. Part of his astonishing success can be traced to his brilliant use of that old science fiction axiom about focusing on one subject and asking the question: "what if?" Along with spot-on characterization, King is an expert at imagining the worst possible consequences for scientific or pseudo-scientific events. The only problem with King's stories is he usually spends so much time answering "what if?" that he doesn't explain how
King seems to have a special affinity for life sciences. In his television mini-series The Golden Years
(Spelling Entertainment, 1991), King looks into the horrors of growing older and the attempts by modern scientists to reverse or prevent these changes. At the fictional Falco Plains Agricultural Testing Facility, a top-secret Department of Defense military operation is doing research into aging
, regeneration of lost limbs, and possibly more, all in an effort to keep soldiers on the front lines longer and longer. A particle accelerator explodes, mice squeal, people fight the blast with ordinary red fire extinguishers. In the end, the byproduct of the explosion is a chemical called K93 that heals wounds, regenerates tissue, makes gray hair white again, restores perfect vision to the elderly -- and, most importantly, reverses the entire aging process
The story's underlying theme is "what if?" What if a particle accelerator blew up and reversed the aging process in humans, or created a miracle chemical that regenerates damaged or lost tissue? King makes no attempt to explain how
a particle accelerator works, nor does he explain why
main characters near the site of the blast survive it, given that he describes it as more powerful "than a supernova." He does not explain how the K93 green glow makes Harlan become increasingly younger. The sciences of aging and tissue regeneration are never discussed.
Life sciences play an equally important role in King's most popular novel, The Stand
. At the beginning of the novel, security guard Charlie Campion flees with his family from a secret desert biological warfare lab where scientists have been working on a deadly plague virus. An accident has occurred at the lab and Charlie is the only person to escape alive. But he's been infected with the killer flu, and it's only a matter of time before it kills him and his family. Unfortunately, Charlie survives long enough to reach a gas station in Texas where he infects several more people.
One of the hapless victims passes the plague onto his cousin, a police officer. A highway patrolman, he infects a traveling salesman. By then, it's too late for the government to isolate the flu bug. Spreading with the rapidity of a geometric progression, the disease, nicknamed "Captain Tripps," wipes out 99.9% of humanity in a mere seventeen days. King describes the ravages of the disease in horrific detail, but again, there's no scientific explanation or background on the origin of the plague provided to the curious reader. "Captain Tripps" already exists when the story begins, and King is only interested in the devastation caused by its release.
It's the same with all of King's major novels that deal with life sciences. His stories revolve around the answer to "what if?" Here are some more: "What if" cell phones cause ordinary people to become flesh-eating maniacs? "What if" the daughter of a religious fanatic possesses incredible psionic powers? "What if" a young girl can start fires by just using her mind? These are questions born in the life sciences but that require only imagination to answer. It's formula writing, but done with style and flair. Hopefully, these novels will raise questions among some readers. And when they naturally look for answers to how and why, they'll discover the life sciences lurking just around the corner of King's most popular works.
Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg
Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg are the authors of
The Science of Stephen King from John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
Links within this article:
S.J. Olshansky et al, "The longevity dividend," The Scientist
, March 2006.
S.J. Olshansky et al, "What if humans were designed to last?" The Scientist
, March 2007.
Lois H. Gresh
Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Stephen King
, John Wiley & Sons, 2007.