Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Almost Coherent Time Travel: 11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 may be one of my favorite Stephen King novels now. It's almost a coherent time-travel story (I have a few nagging doubts I'll work through below), but there's also intrigue, adventure, and romance. It's like three or four novels in one, but running at the same time, harmonizing with each other at key points.
I'll get to the time travel business at the end (with spoilers), but first a few spoiler-free remarks about the novel overall.
The plot is pretty straightforward for such a long novel. In 2011 Maine English teacher Jake Epping learns that his friend Al (who owns a diner in town) has access to a closet through which one can travel back to 1958. You can go through it and change the past once, but if you try to do it again it "resets" to your original timeline. Al uses this mostly to get cheap meat and make sports bets, but like a lot of American baby boomers, he wonders what would have been if JFK had not been assassinated (Would America have spent so long in Vietnam? Would MLK have been assassinated?). For spoilery reasons, Jake gets roped into the mission and tests the "rabbit hole" by preventing a few local tragedies first (including one involving his GED student, Harry, who was a small boy in 1958). Jake eventually moves on to Texas, encountering the "obdurate" past (as he tells us every 40 pages or so), and ... I'll leave things there.
I admit I was a bit apprehensive about reading such a long book written in the first person, but Jake is sympathetic enough and basically decent (even when he's being annoying and withholding information from people he loves). The deeper reason it's written in the first person, though, is that this is the only way to tell this particular time travel story on a human scale. Limited third person narration would be slightly bewildering; omniscient third person would drive most readers into Lovecraftian madness. My only real complaint about Jake is that he often seems to have a baby boomer knowledge base of 50's and 60's American culture more befitting a person (like King) born in the late 1940's, but he's supposed to have been born in 1976. As someone Jake's age, most of what I know about the decades before my birth comes secondhand from history books, my parents, or listening to the oldies station.
As usual, King has great characters. From Al the time traveling diner owner to Harry the traumatized janitor to the somewhat quirky and fundamentally decent folk of Jodie, Texas, these are people I didn't mind spending 1,000 pages with. I can't be the only reader who got wrapped up in (and a little jealous of) Jake and Sadie's romance.
Before diving into the time travel issues, dear readers, let us pause and consider whether it really matters whether the time travel story is coherent. Much of King's greatness as a writer is that he can make you believe the premise of his stories and willingly go along for the ride. He got millions of people to go along with the idea that an interdimensional clown might terrorize a small town in Maine, so a few minor inconsistencies in time travel need not in any way detract from one's enjoyment of the story.
As far as I can tell there are only two ways to make a coherent time travel story. The first is to have everything occur on a single timeline where the past has objectively already happened before the present even if the past subjectively happens after the present for the time travelers. This is a rare breed because you can't really "change" the past after it has already happened, which for most people removes the fun of time travel narratives. One of the best examples of this type of coherent time travel story is Robert Heinlein's "--All You Zombies--", which involves zero zombies but boldly bites every bullet of alleged "paradoxes" of time travel and spits them back in your face (although in a way that's probably insensitive on gender issues from a contemporary perspective). I also recommend philosopher David Lewis's excellent paper, "The Paradoxes of Time Travel," for an interesting (and in my opinion, accurate) take on the Grandfather Paradox, causal loops, and so on. (There's an echo of Lewis's take on the Grandfather Paradox in 11/22/63 when Al shuts down Jake's question about killing his grandfather by asking him why he's want to do that in the first place!)
The second way to make coherent sense of time travel is to go full-on multiverse. You aren't traveling in time so much as between timelines, dimensions, or alternative universes. This allows "changing" the past in a sense, but really it's creating or visiting another timeline where the past happened differently. (More on time travel here).
Which of these comes closest to 11/22/63? I think it's the second.
To explain why I have to go into full spoiler mode. Sorry. If you don't want spoilers, skip to the end!
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Jake and Al seem to think they're on one timeline that they are changing (with insufficient philosophical investigation if you ask me, but King isn't writing a philosophy treatise, so that's okay). But toward the end of the novel Jake comes to learn from the Yellow Card Man that he and Al have actually been creating new timelines and somehow the Yellow Card Men have to keep this all in mind to keep it all from collapsing (Or something? I was a bit lost there, but it sounded a lot like Dark Tower territory, which wouldn't surprise me at all). Okay, so I guess every time Al or Jake go through the "rabbit hole" they create a new timeline, but one that can "reset" and send them back to their original timeline, or one that seems very similar.
But here's exactly where things get paradoxical: When Al shows Jake how it works and Al leaves for two minutes, makes some minor change, and returns exactly two minutes later in 2011, what happened to that original timeline? Is timeline 1 Al going back to a different Jake in timeline 2? What happened to the original Jake in timeline 1? Who is this Al that comes back to what Jake experiences as a two minute wait? Shouldn't Al (timeline 1) only come back to timeline 1 when the "reset" occurs? Shouldn't Al or Jake be going into these numerous other timelines mentioned by the Yellow Card Men instead of returning to their original timeline?
That's confusing, so here's a specific example. When Jake goes back in time on his mission to save young Harry's family, he creates timeline 2. But where does Jake return to after he goes through the rabbit hole in 1958, having saved Harry's family? Apparently to timeline 2 in 2011, the one where Harry's family is saved. But then what happened to timeline 1, where Harry's family was not saved? Does it wait until the "reset" occurs? Or does the "reset" create timeline 3? And when the reset happens, what happens to timeline 2? And it gets even worse: why is Al waiting back in timeline 1 not waiting all the way until the reset happens, or why does Jake not disappear forever from timeline 1 if the resets spawn new timelines? Where is Al waiting and which Al is he?
And even worse in terms of the plot: what sense does it make to talk of saving someone when you're only saving them in one timeline, but they remain unsaved in the original timeline? Is it enough to save Harry, JFK, or Sadie in one timeline but not others?
My guess is that Stephen King is working with something closer to the tradition of Ray Bradbury's famous story "A Sound of Thunder," which also talks a lot about the Butterfly Effect (I think the story is even mentioned in the novel somewhere). The incoherence there is one I first thought of as a teenager: if the past already happened then it already happened before you go back to it, and everything you do in the past happened before you left for the past. You just can't kill your grandfather in the past no matter how hard you try because you exist in the present. If you talk to yourself as a kid in the past, you would already remember being a kid talking to an adult who looks suspiciously familiar before you traveled in time as an adult; that is, if 40-year-old you goes back to visit 13-year-old you, 40-year-old you would already remember the meeting as a 13-year-old 27 years ago. While King's way of making the past a type of obdurate character works in the novel, philosophically speaking I think the past is obdurate just because of the good old laws of cause and effect.
I think King was trying for some kind of mashup of the multiverse version and the Bradbury version: there are multiple timelines, but you get one shot to change each one. I don't think it quite works, but I appreciate King's explorations on the matter. King is neither a philosopher nor a hard science fiction author, so I'll give him a pass here. This stuff is maybe just too hard. Time travel is a cruel master for beings such as we whose cognitive apparatus is wedded to our experience of linear time.
But whether the time travel stuff is ultimately coherent or not, the real point of time travel stories is to encourage us to think about the ways seemingly small things can have big consequences or at least small or medium ones. Or as Jake put it, life can turn on a dime. The Butterfly Effect is real enough, but you don't have to engage in paradoxes about "changing the past" to see it (although I maybe would've liked a little more alternate timeline exploration... maybe there will be a sequel for that).
King's major success in 11/22/63 is that he humanizes the time travel aspect so we can more deeply appreciate the philosophical illumination of the fact that both the major arc of history and our individual lives move within a complex web of interconnected causes and effects. This is true even for those of us who travel into the future at the rate of one second per second.
See also my Goodreads review.
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