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Monday, January 30, 2012

Reading List: 11/22/63

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-2728-2.
I gave up on Stephen King in the early 1990s. I had become weary of what seemed to me self-indulgent doorstops of novels which could have been improved by a sharp-pencilled editor cutting them by one third to one half, but weren't because what editor would dare strike words by such a celebrated (and profitable to the publisher) author? I never made it through either Gerald's Game or Insomnia and after that I stopped trying. Recently I heard good things from several sources I respect about the present work and, despite its formidable length (850 pages in hardcover), decided to give it a try (especially since I've always been a fan of time travel fiction and purported fact) to see if, a decade and a half later, King still “has it”.

The title is the date of the assassination of the U.S. president John F. Kennedy: November the 22nd of 1963 (written in the quaint American way). In the novel, Jake Epping, a school teacher in Maine, happens to come across a splice in time or wormhole or whatever you choose to call it which allows bidirectional travel between his world in 2011 and September of 1958. Persuaded by the person who discovered the inexplicable transtemporal portal and revealed it to him, Jake takes upon himself the mission of returning to the past and living there until November of 1963 with the goal of averting the assassination and preventing the pernicious sequelæ which he believed to have originated in that calamity.

Upon arrival in the past, he discovers from other lesser wrongs he seeks to right that while the past can be changed, it doesn't like to be changed and pushes back—it is mutable but “obdurate”. As he lives his life in that lost and largely forgotten country which was the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, he discovers how much has been lost compared to our times, and also how far we have come from commonplace and unperceived injustices and assaults upon the senses and health of that epoch. Still, with a few rare exceptions, King forgoes the smug “look at how much better we are than those rubes” tone that so many contemporary authors adopt when describing the 1950s; you get the sense that King has a deep affection for the era in which he (and I) grew up, and it's apparent here.

I'm going to go behind the curtain now to discuss some of the details of the novel and the (remarkably few) quibbles I have with it. I don't consider any of these “big spoilers”, but others may dissent, so I'd rather err on the side of caution lest some irritated time traveller come back and….

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
As I got into the novel, I was afraid I'd end up hurling it across the room (well, not actually, since I was reading the Kindle edition and I'm rather fond of my iPad) because the model of time travel employed just didn't make any sense. But before long, I began to have a deeper respect for what King was doing, and by the end of the book I came to appreciate that what he'd created was largely compatible with the past/future multiverse picture presented in David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and my own concept of conscious yet constrained multiverse navigation in “Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”.

If this gets made into a movie or miniseries (and that's the way to bet), I'll bet that scene on p. 178 where the playground roundy-round slowly spins with no kids in sight on a windless day makes the cut—brrrrr.

A few minutes' reflection will yield several ways that Jake, given access to the Internet in 2011 and the properties of the time portal, could have accumulated unlimited funds to use in the past without taking the risks he did. I'll avert my eyes here; removing the constraints he found himself under would torpedo a large part of the plot.

On p. 457 et seq. Jake refers to an “omnidirectional microphone” when what is meant is a “directional” or “parabolic” microphone.

On p. 506 the author states that during the Cuban missile crisis “American missile bases and the Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.” This makes the common error in popular fiction that a higher number indicates a greater alert condition or closeness to war. In fact, it goes the other way: DEFCON 5 corresponds to peacetime—the lowest state of readiness, while DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent. During the Cuban missile crisis, SAC was ordered to DEFCON 2 while the balance of the military was at DEFCON 3.

On p. 635, the righthand man of the dictator of Haiti is identified as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, boss of the tonton macoute. But Baby Doc was born in 1951, and at the time would have been twelve years old, unlikely to wield such powers.

If the ending doesn't make your eyes mist up, you're probably, like the protagonist, “not a crying [person]”.

Spoilers end here.  

There is a poignant sense of the momentum of events in the past here which I have not felt in any time travel fiction since Michael Moorcock's masterpiece Behold The Man.

Bottom line? King's still got it.

Posted at January 30, 2012 23:30