Since H.G. Wells built his famous Time Machine, time travel has been a staple of science fiction and SFR. The heroes and heroines of countless novels, television shows and movies good and bad have used any number of devices, from tunnels and portals of all kinds, to slingshots around the sun, Guardians of Forever, discs placed in library players, and machines and conveyances of every description to propel themselves to another time and place.
The rules governing these trips through time have been as varied as the means of transportation. Every author or screenwriter has a different grasp on the slippery eel of time travel and a different way around the paradoxes that threaten to derail every attempt to manipulate the past. And as difficult as it is to think through the ramifications of movement through time, time travel just seems an irresistible draw to SF/SFR writers.
Now even Stephen King has entered the fray with his latest novel, sending his hero back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 11/22/63. Not surprisingly, King has come up with an intriguing set of parameters for his time travel: the portal (found by accident in the back room of a diner soon to be replaced by an L.L. Bean outlet) opens up on the same location at the same hour of the morning of September 9, 1958. If his hero, Jake Epping, takes the same actions every time through the portal, the same actions will follow—the same conversations, the same people crossing his path, etc. But if he changes his actions, other reactions follow, in a chain which has far-reaching consequences, not all of which can be predicted. Every time he leaves the past to return to 2011, the changes remain in place, but if he goes through the portal to 1958 again, things reset to zero. That is, it is as if he had never been there the first time.
If he makes money and puts it in a bank account the first time through, or buys a car or makes a friend, those things are all gone if he goes back to 2011 and returns again to 1958 the next day. (He can spend as much “time” as he wants in the past; when he returns to 2011, only two minutes will have passed.) If he saves a life in 1958 and goes back to 2011, that person will live only as long as he doesn’t return to 1958. Once he returns to the past, everything is reset; he will have to save that life all over again.
And there’s another complication—the past itself seems to be setting up roadblocks, making it difficult for Jake to do what he has set about to do. Minor obstacles—cars breaking down, power outages—interfere with the test cases he’s set up to prove he can actually change the past. Then major problems begin appearing as he gets more serious about his task—run-ins with the bookie he’s been using to make money to finance his stay, the draw of community and connection at the school where he works, love with the librarian at that school, a horrific suicide attack by the librarian’s ex-husband.
Many times Jake is tempted to give up on his quest to murder Lee Harvey Oswald and alter the course of history, a quest he’s undertaking not so much for himself, but out of a sense of obligation to the dying man who began it all, the owner of the diner. The more he learns about Oswald, the more he wonders whether he has it in him to kill this pitiable creature. And yet he realizes how much is at stake.
As usual, King brings his gripping story-telling skills and marvelous characterization to this tale. He has us from the first sentence and doesn’t let go, with that wonderful, deceptively rambling voice of his giving Jake life and letting us see 1958 from his eyes. King chose wisely in making Jake around 35. Until he lives it, Kennedy and Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis (which happens while Jake is stalking Oswald), is all just a history lesson, and a vague one at that. He explains to someone that he’s just an English teacher; he doesn’t understand the politics. He, like the rest of us, learns the hard way when he walks into a bar on a night in October and sees that “everyone was watching the man I had come to save. He was pale and grave. There were dark circles under his eyes.”
That’s just the way I remember it, too, Steve. I was only nine, but even I didn’t miss the implications of that speech.
I can’t tell you how the book ends. Haven’t gotten that far. (And wouldn’t anyway—everyone hates a spoiler.) I just know that the thing that’s usually enough to give even James T. Kirk a headache is no more than another notch in the handle of the best gunslinger in the writing biz. Time travel? Yeah, that one’s easy for Stephen King. Just like all the rest.
Actions I've taken as a writer. Where am I? What am I doing?
January 15 is the deadline for the Washington Romance Writers 2012 Marlene Awards contest. This year’s Paranormal category finals judge will be Heather Osborn of Samhain Publishing. I’ll be entering both my manuscripts, Unchained Memory and Trouble in Mind in this one, in hopes of snagging a final and the attention of this editor at the well-respected e-publishing firm. I’ve never had much luck with the Marlene before, but I’ll put it down to the contest coming early in the season. Now I’ll be submitting two well-traveled and polished manuscripts, so maybe I’ll have a better chance. If you’re interested in giving me some competition (spitsnarl!) the link is www.wrwdc.com .