When Stephen King embarked on his magnum opus, The Dark Tower, he dipped heavily into a variety of genres, including horror, science fiction, fantasy, and Westerns. Gunslingers, wizards, robots, psychics, and outlaws intermingle in a world that is unraveling at the seams. The landscape of Mid-World, home to Roland Deschain and the Tower he obsessives over, is a swirling mix of monsters, magic, and the terrifying feats of human ingenuity. It is a world where the laws of physics are increasingly unreliable. Time and direction are no longer the invariable standards they should be. The barriers between worlds are eroding away.
Mid-World is - at first glance - a simple, pre-technological society. Its inhabitants get around on foot, or if they’re somewhat well off, by horse, mule, or wagon. There are no computers, no cell phones, no social media. Communication is achieved via trained carrier bird or human messenger. Weaponry is limited to simpler tools such as the bolt, crossbow, knife, or slingshot. Guns are a rare luxury. All of this might lead the reader to assume Mid-World is simply a run-down version of Dodge City in the 1800s. But we quickly realize that just beneath the surface there is an extensive network of highly advanced and decaying technology left over from a long-extinct society.
In Roland’s Mid-World that has “moved on,” the remnants of advanced technologies are far from conveniences or luxuries. They are the out-of-control, long-neglected legacy of over-reaching scientists who gave no mind to the consequences of their actions. Tinkering about with forces far beyond their control, they doomed themselves and the generations that follow them.
The Old Ones occupied Mid-World thousands of years before the age of Roland Deschain and the kingdom of Gilead from which he hails. They were clearly an extremely advanced society, with mind-boggling achievements in transportation, robotics, weaponry, computing, and communication. Merging the magics of Maerlyn with science, they tinkered with nuclear physics, manipulating the multi-verse, and even with The Dark Tower itself and the reality it props up. As is the fate of so many civilizations that reach too far to the heavens, The Old Ones ultimately brought about their own extinction through a massive nuclear and chemical apocalypse, the effects of which are still detected in all corners of the world they left behind.
Their technology, however, proved to be quite efficiently designed to outlast its creators. The remnants of The Old One’s accomplishments have survived the passing millennia like time-bomb-carrying cockroaches to haunt the surviving occupants of Mid-World. As Roland and his Ka-tet travel through Mid-World along the path to The Dark Tower, they encounter a complex obstacle course of deadly artifacts that range from benignly dangerous detritus to psychotically self-aware artificial intelligence.
We find two perfect examples of these terrors in the opening and closing sections of The Wastelands, the third book in The Dark Tower saga. As Roland and his newly gathered Ka-tet members, Eddie Dean and Susannah Odetta Holmes, trek through a wooded wilderness, they encounter the monster Shardik. A bear of formidable size and strength, Shardik is the neglected cyborg sentry of one of the twelve Beams of The Tower. Picture the son of Cujo and The Terminator, multiplied in size by a hundred. Shardik has ruled this wilderness for hundreds of years, but now suffers from severe deterioration, both biologically and mechanically. An infestation of worms in its brain has driven the creature to rabid madness, and failing circuits threaten a system collapse that, frankly, can’t come soon enough.
Shardik is accompanied by a petting zoo of smaller robotic killing machines loaded with deadly weaponry and intent on fulfilling their long-designed purpose…killing anything that crosses their path. The battle that ensues between them and the Ka-tet serves as Eddie and Susannah’s introduction to the booby-trapped world they have been drawn into.
As looming a menace as he is, Shardik is just a foreshadowing for the real technological terror laying in wait for Roland and team at the end of The Wastelands. After surviving a Mad Max labyrinth of warring tribes in the Manhattan-esque city of Lud, the Ka-tet finds themselves on literally the only ride out of town…the sadistic, insane, suicidal, mass-murdering, sentient jewel of public transportation, Blaine the Mono.
“Blaine is a pain and that is the truth.” Blaine is much more than a mere mechanical sentry, simply carrying out his programming. On the surface, he is a wonder of technology. Capable of speeds in excess of 900 miles per hour, Blaine operates wirelessly from a computer housed in Lud. Passengers aboard Blaine are treated (somewhat startlingly) to his ability to make his exterior walls completely transparent, offering a 360-degree view of the landscape whizzing by. And Blaine knows exactly how to use all of these attributes to threaten and terrify his captive audience.
We learn that Blaine, in his self-aware insanity, has already assisted his sister bullet-train to commit suicide. As he ferries Roland and company out of Lud, he sets off biological weapons to wipe out the remaining citizens of the city. He then challenges his captives to a riddle contest. Supremely confident that no human can outwit him, he announces that unless someone defeats him in this game of logic, he will commit murder-suicide by crashing into the final station on his route. (See my note about his top speed above.)
The story of our Ka-tet’s encounter with Blaine carries the reader from the end of The Wastelands over to the beginning of the next book in the series, Wizard and Glass (a cliffhanger for which I still haven’t forgiven, Mr. King). We’ve learned, though, that nothing mechanical in Mid-World can be trusted, even when our heroes have no choice but to utilize it. These remnants of a world far gone are, at best, dependable only in their impending failure. In their state of psychotic deterioration, they foreshadow the falling of The Dark Tower itself and remind our heroes of the hubris that leads them to dare seek it out in the first place.