Wednesday, November 16, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/63 by Stephen King is an imaginative and ambitious time travel story. This well-written science fiction novel should get nominated for a Hugo Award.

The story is about a man who goes back in time to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the date that titles this novel. The hero thinks that American history would be vastly better if JFK was not killed: RFK and MLK would not have been shot, the Vietnam war would not have escalated, there would have been no race riots and I suppose Americans would have danced with flowers in their hair as they sang "Kumbaya."

The "rules" of this fantasy world are for the most part well thought out and they provide excellent plot twists. I won't spoil the plot, but I'll say that King is a master of suspense, and he kept me turning the pages, despite a few slow patches. The action sequences are superb.

The characterization is strong throughout. Oswald is particularly good; he is a mediocrity, driven crazy by an overbearing mother, who wants to be a big shot. Socialist literature stokes his resentment and reassures him that his failure is not his fault, but capitalist-imperialist America's. As an Objectivist I loved the scene in which Oswald and an ideological comrade discuss Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. King's knowledge of the period is so deep and well researched that everything has the ring of truth.

The most exasperating thing in this book is Stephen King's politics. Like most liberals, King overstates the importance of race in America. He also forgets that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. The hero tells his girlfriend in the past that in the future America elects a black man as president. She asks if he is doing a good job. The hero says, "Opinions vary. If you want mine, he's doing as well as anyone could expect, given the complexities." Stephen King writes comedy!

Creepy is a trendy word, and I try not to use it for that reason, but when it comes to King, no other word fits. It's way creepy that when the hero gets close to changing the world, time fights back, because as King puts it throughout, time is obdurate. And time has teeth. This makes all of reality out to get the hero; it's existential horror. Did I say it was creepy?

David Farland tells a story of Algis Budrys saying to him that King would never be a great writer because he can't decide whether evil comes from human choices or from the outside. Is it a matter of free will or is the universe malevolent? Judging from the last 50 pages or so, King has still not made up his mind and wants to have it both ways.

Oh, on the conspiracy stuff, King is sane. He believes Oswald acted alone.


John J. Pierce said...

I'm just up to the point of Jake and Sadie getting a block away from the School Book Depository, and I've loved every page so far.

One of the most important thingsd about the book is that it has HEART -- I wept when I read the scene where Sadie has the courage to face her friends at the fund-raiser for her surgery.

And I think King has a keener sense of evil than any other popular fiction writer I know -- I think he's dead on about Oswald and the fictional Frank Dunning and George Clayton.

Another great thing about 11/22/63 is that he's wise to the sf genre -- that "obdurate" time is his take on the "law" of Conservation of Reality invented by Fritz Leiber (the Change War series) and recently tweaked by Connie Willis (Blackout/All Clear).

--John J. Pierce, author of Imagination and Evolution

Myrhaf said...

Thank you for that comment, John. As a longtime editor, your knowledge of SF is better than mine! I did not know about the Leiber connection.