11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)
There’s nothing like time-travel stories that fuel my imagination. I love the whole concept of it, whether it being a trip to the past or the future. Perhaps that is where my love of Doctor Who comes from, the potential idea that somehow a trip to the past can be easily done as a trip to the grocery store.
Of course, beyond Einstein’s theory that states time-travel is not possible –and even with people like Stephen Hawking sort of agreeing with it – it has never stopped science fiction writers from writing books about, or Hollywood cranking out TV and movies about the ability to change your past or future.
It’s also created a college industry on how to handle the rules of time-travel. Up until the idea of quantum mechanics –the idea that there really in a finite number of universes than one single lane- most writes explored time travel just that way, time was a one-lane highway that stretched into the past and the future. How they dealt with paradoxes and the rather unique idea of the butterfly effect (which, according to Wikipedia is an element of science called chaos theory: the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state) was a fun part of their story. One the other tropes of science fiction has been the watershed moments in history, events that would be described as a point in history where the world turned on a dime. The best example was the Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, where one person, Edith Keeler, was the junction point between two different time-lines, one where Hitler succeed in his campaign and the one we all have lived with (or, in Doctor Who terms, a fixed point in history).
One of the biggest watershed moments of the last 50 years –not including the events of 9/11- was the assassination of JKF. Since his murder in 1963, many science fiction authors along with a boat load of historians, has pondered what might have happened to the world had JFK survived beyond that November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
In 11/22/63, Stephen King –not a science fiction author per se- takes on one fictions greatest “What if’s,” along with the many conspiracy theories that have unwound like spinning top since that sunny day in Texas. The crux of the Kennedy Assassination conspiracy is that a person like Lee Harvey Oswald was too insignificant and not clever enough to do it alone (and King makes this part of his novel). But here is where Occam’s Razor comes into play. The theory goes “that when two competing ideas seem to explain the facts, the simpler is likely to be the true idea” (or, as Arthur Conan Dolye wrote for his Sherlock Holmes character: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”).
Such issues motivate 11/22/63, which deals with a man named Jake Epping, who goes back in time to derail Kennedy’s date with death. So King invokes the butterfly effect for this long novel. Every action taken in the past has an effect on the future, which means even the best intentions often have unintended consequences. Jake discovers that early in the novel, when he tries to save a man he knows from a childhood catastrophe, only to learn, upon returning to the present, that in the new world he’s created, his acquaintance was killed in Vietnam.
Fortunately, the past resets each time he visits it, which means Jake can make things right simply by taking another journey in time.
What makes this book so long –and some may argue at 842 its four hundred too long, especially on the heels of his 2009 1,000 plus tome Under the Dome- is the “rabbit hole” to the past lands him in September 1958, five years before the assassination. This forces Jake to live in the “Land of Ago” as King puts it, until he can prevent Kennedy’s murder. But long-time fans of King (those “constant readers” he calls them) will understand King’s fascination with the past. Like author Peter Straub, King remembers the 1950s and Sixties with great love. He takes great detail and pains to explain the “Land of Ago,” and some may find that boring.
Back in 2001 when Stephen King and Peter Straub wrote their follow-up to 1984’s The Talisman, that book was more of a stop-off to King’s long Dark Tower series than a true sequel to the first book. King never intended The Talisman ever to be connected to that seven volume series, but somewhere along the way Black House got folded into it. In 11/22/63, King gives us a sort-of follow-up to his 1986 novel It, as Jake Epping spends a good portion of the first 300 hundred pages hanging around Derry, Maine (the town featured in that novel, which has also popped up in other stories) in the present and 1958 –where he meets Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier of that novel, just after the events of the First Ritual of Chud. So for fans, this little diversion from the theme of the novel is fun. But I can assume some detractors will wonder why he stops off in Derry for so long. But Dallas is a character as much as the people, and to me, for anyone to truly understand that city of 1963, King had to use his fictional town of Derry –an extra place of ugliness where horrible things happen, yet the people who live there seem to exist in the ether of indifference- as a mirror to explain what happened that Friday before Thanksgiving in 1963.
The last half of the book is about Jake’s life in the past, as he settles down and falls in love with a woman who makes him question where he truly sits in time. We get a detailed history –some true, some made up- about Oswald’s role before he shot the president from the School House Book Depository. And while there have been tons a books published on the assassination, King tries (somewhat) to humanize Oswald. He’s portrayed still as bitter man, derisive, and a wife-beater. But there was, at times, where history and fantasy sort intermixed and you a sense –maybe- that all Oswald ever wanted in his sad little life was to leave a mark.