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Posts Tagged ‘11.22.63’

When it comes to stories about time travel, there are two main varieties: ones which are about the destination, and ones which are about the means of travel. The first type includes HG Wells’ original The Time Machine, most Doctor Who worthy of the name, that Star Trek film with the whales, and every other story where time travel is just a convenient method of getting the characters to an interesting venue for a story. The second type includes all those stories where the characters find themselves on the wrong end of a time paradox, whether intentionally or not, due to the fact they have – for whatever reason – interfered with history.

It’s very easy to write a bad Type II time travel story, and many people have done so over the years: ones that don’t make sense even on their own terms, or have to resort to outrageous and unsatisfactory plot devices just to reach some semblance of a conclusion (recently there’s been a displeasing tendency to assume that as long as the – excuse me while I clear my sinuses – ’emotional arc’ of a story hangs together, the actual coherency of the plot can go hang).

Nevertheless, people keep writing them, because the appeal of this kind of story is obvious: everyone has regrets, wishes for second chances, ponders the road untaken. Time travel stories offer a chance to amend the unhappy past, even if only fictitiously. And if you really want to write something with wide appeal, what about writing about – and fixing – a tragedy that colours everyone’s past?

European writers indulging in this kind of thing usually plump for doing a story in which the central idea is the prevention of the Second World War and/or the Holocaust. Americans aren’t averse to this sort of thing either, but they have a few other, more recent possibilities to toy with. September 11th and all that followed are still a bit too raw to be fooling around with in genre fiction, but that still leaves them with the Kennedy assassination, which is packed with potential. There have been lots of save-Kennedy time travel stories, admittedly of varying quality, and of them Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is probably towards the top of the stack.

11-22-63_uk_cover_hdThis being an orchard-massacring King doorstop of a book, the great man enjoys himself in the telling of the tale. The protagonist is a nice enough 21st century guy who stumbles upon a fissure in the space-time continuum connecting the present day to one moment in the late 1950s: you can go back as often as you like, but you always arrive at the same time and place, and each visit basically erases all trace of your previous journeys. King does a pretty good job of selling you this idea, but it remains a fairly outrageous piece of physics (there are severe conservation of energy issues, as when the lead ends up owning multiple versions of the same shirt bought on separate visits to the past) and it’s basically just there as a very specific plot device.

To cut a very long story fairly short, our hero decides to go back, live through the late 50s and early 60s and – assuming he can prove to his own satisfaction that the Kennedy assassination was indeed the work of a Lone Gunman – kill Lee Harvey Oswald long before the fateful day in November 1963.

There is, of course, much more to the story than that, as the protagonist carries out a test case in altering the past, discovers that history is resistant to being changed, finds himself going native in the 1960s, and so on. And, to King’s credit, while I’m dead certain that 700 pages is more than a story like this one really requires, I’m stumped if I can offer suggestions as to what could be cut that wouldn’t entail a major rewrite of the whole thing. There are some parts of the book I liked less than others – there’s a slightly cutesy romance that made me grimace somewhat, and a slightly self-indulgent crossover with the events of It that I could’ve done without – but very little that actually screams filler.

And, this being Stephen King, the story grabs you from the start and doesn’t really let go, even when the pace slows down (as it does for quite a long section in the middle). And when the story gets to the business end, it is properly electric, page-turning stuff, as you find yourself wondering: what’s the But… going to be?

Because there is always going to be a But… in this kind of story. Permit me to explain. Stories of this kind have at their heart the hero trying to change history in a fairly major way. You would have thought, with a good degree of rightness, that there are only two possible outcomes – Hero Succeeds and Hero Fails. Now, the problem with the history-changing story is that both of these outcomes are beset with difficulties. Hero Fails is simply not an option: nobody would want to read a 700 page book about someone who, in the end, simply doesn’t manage to do what they set out to do in the first place (what a downer!).

However, Hero Succeeds isn’t much better, but for subtler reasons to do with things like suspension of disbelief and reader identification. I’ll happily believe in a story about someone who goes back to 1920 and has various adventures before coming back to the present day, but my goodwill towards a story about someone who goes back to 1920, kills Hitler, prevents the Second World War and returns to a utopian 21st century is considerably more limited. It’s quite difficult to say why: maybe because it smacks in some way of wish fulfilment, maybe because it’s palpably not real, maybe because it’s arguably in quite poor taste.

Interestingly, when the makers of Quantum Leap did their Kennedy assassination episode, they tried to get round these problems. At the end, the hero (having failed to stop JFK being killed) is bemoaning his failure to his sidekick, distraught at his inability to change anything. But you did change something, the sidekick reveals. In the original timeline, Jackie Kennedy was murdered too.

Now, I instinctively didn’t like this plot twist, and it took me a little while to figure out why. In the end I realised that the appeal of a changing-history story is the suggestion that one can make a better world, which is a subtly different thing from a less-bad one. The ending of the JFK episode suggested that by changing history, the Quantum Leap guys were not making our world better, just making it. And I looked around me and thought, is this the best they could do?

However, their Hero Fails, But… conclusion worked better than a straight Hero Fails or Hero Succeeds ending, even if it was still flawed. To go with the Hero Fails, But… twist, there is of course the Hero Succeeds, But… twist – a formulation which is probably more common both in SF about the Kennedy assassination (popping up in the Profile in Silver episode of The Twilight Zone and the Tikka to Ride episode of Red Dwarf) and that about the Second World war (for example, Stephen Fry’s Making History).

So, as I say, there’s always a But… in this kind of story – at least, there is when it’s written by someone halfway competent. When it’s written by someone of the calibre of Stephen King, what you get is actually a whole series of Buts, nested very elegantly inside one another. We’re getting quite close to the point where I can’t say more without spoiling the ending of 11.22.63, so I must be careful.

In the end, King’s resolution isn’t as original as you might hope for, in plot terms at least – but in the context of this particular book it is fit for purpose, and does a decent job of explaining some of the more way-out elements of the story (the protagonist finds himself bedevilled by a sort of hostile synchronicity at several points, which makes for convenient plotting, and which I thought King was just going to dodge explaining or pass off as something usefully abstract like Destiny). Not all of it completely worked for me, but enough did.

As I said, it’s very difficult to talk in even general terms about the ending of 11.22.63 without spoiling it, for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that I found the conclusion surprising and quietly rather moving, and somehow not at all what I would’ve expected. This isn’t my favourite King book, but it’s a good one, more disciplined than Under the Dome and less cheerfully lurid than many of his earlier works – the work of a master still in prime condition. I’m not sure if this quite qualifies as a classic treatment of a classic genre trope, but it’s a very effective piece of entertainment.

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