Thursday, November 24, 2011

Visiting the Land of Ago

Happy Thanksgiving (in the U.S.)!

I’ve just read Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63. The narrator, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, goes back in time to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. The time portal to which Jake is introduced by the dying man who first discovered it, who had to return to the present when his cancer became too advanced, leads to only one point, a particular day in September 1958. No matter how long you spend in the past, only two minutes elapse in 2011. Furthermore, each use of the portal creates a “reset,” a concept I hadn’t encountered in time travel fiction before. Doesn’t matter whether the same person or a different one makes the trip; every trip erases any previous changes. (Or so they believe until the end; the truth turns out to be a little more complicated.) So when Jake travels to 1958 to spend five years preparing to fulfill his friend’s aspiration to save Kennedy, he has to start over from scratch. It’s interesting to watch King work within these conditions he has set up.

Naturally, Jake tries to blend into the past and draw as little attention to himself as possible. He fears stirring up butterfly effects that might derail Lee Harvey Oswald’s destiny in unpredictable ways. Over the years, though, Jake gradually finds himself putting down roots in the “Land of Ago” and falls in love with a woman. The only way, finally, he can preserve their relationship in the face of her suspicions about him, after she finds out he has lied about his background, is to admit the truth.

But how do you tell someone you come from the future without having her think you’re either a con man or a lunatic?

If you traveled into the past and WANTED to reveal your origin to somebody, maybe to avert a disaster by warning people, how could you prove you’re from the future?

Your first thought might be to show off a piece of futuristic technology you’ve brought along. Jake deliberately avoided bringing anything that would arouse suspicion, so he couldn’t do that. Besides, flashy tech wouldn’t necessarily prove you’re a time traveler. You might be an alien or a mad genius pulling some kind of con. Spider Robinson uses that premise in one of his novels (LIFEHOUSE, I think); the supposed time traveler isn’t, and he’s tricking a pair of SF fans who are too eager to believe his story.

Documents reporting future events wouldn’t do much good. People in the past might reasonably suspect them of being faked.

You might make short-term predictions that astonishingly come true. That method would work if you’d prepared by memorizing lots of events from the historical record. Jake didn’t have time to prepare in that way. He has his friend’s exhaustive notes about Oswald but has to rely on his own sketchy memories for everything else, and he’s an English teacher, not a specialist in mid-20th-century history. He does have notes on sporting events, for use in gambling to replenish his financial cushion, and an uncannily accurate bet on a boxing long shot impresses his lady friend so that she’s prepared to believe the truth.

But what if the butterfly effect of your own presence in the past caused your predictions to come out wrong? Then nobody would have reason to believe you, and when it came to navigating the tides of history, you wouldn’t have much advantage over anybody else.

Jake mostly has the opposite problem. One of the novel’s themes is that “the past is obdurate.” It doesn’t want to be changed. The closer he gets to the major events of the era, the harder he’s swimming against the tide.

As far as bittersweet endings are concerned, this story is emotion-wringing. And the culmination of the time travel plotline wasn’t anything I expected.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Hi Margaret! You know, some of the TT ideas here are familiar, even from old Twilight Zone episodes. But I don't know how this one ends. It reminds me of the many TT's out there combined into King's idea. (Timeline, for instance) Though, like I said, I haven't read his book so I can't review it.

    I do love Time Travel and am working on stories with lots of SF and quantum theory involved. I do have an historical setting too, but way far into the past.

    Anyway, thanks for the review and update on King's book.

  2. QUANTUM LEAP had an episode in which Sam leaps to the time of Kennedy's assassination. The show solved the problem of "how can you surprise the audience" (without changing history as we know it, which that series never did) by postulating that Sam DID change the outcome: In the original history as Sam and his contemporaries knew it, Jackie Kennedy died, too. So Sam changes history by saving her.