I’m currently listening to the audiobook version of Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. It’s a really interesting book about how we think we think versus how we actually think. I highly recommend it! Also, it’s preparing my brain to think about time travel.
I recently binged-watched 11.22.63, which is a mini-series based on Stephen King’s book of the same name. Now, the book is still on my TBR shelf, but I couldn’t resist watching the show. Thank you for the immediate gratification, Hulu!
The premise of the story is that there is a doorway which dumps a person out in Texas in October 1960. The main character, Jake Epping (aka James Amberson), is drafted by his friend, who is dying of cancer, to go back and keep President Kennedy from being assassinated.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book or seen the series, don’t scroll past the image unless you’re okay with spoilers!
Even though a lot of our popular media has time travel elements, it’s a genre that can be tricky to write. There are ample and varied opportunities to mess up.
There are generally three different ways Time Travel can be organized. There may be more; these are the three that makes sense to me as encompassing most Time Travel stories.
1. The Fixed Timeline
In this style of Time Travel, nothing the traveler can do will change the future. The traveler can try as s/he might, but nothing that is done will have any major impact in how the future unfolds. In this style, Jake Epping can keep Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting President Kennedy… but then the shot would have went wide, hit the car tire, and the car would have careened headlong into the grassy knoll, killing the President. We had echoes of this style during the story when “time pushes back.” But while there is some pressure of a Fixed Timeline, it’s not actually a Fixed Timeline story because time actually can be (and is) changed in 11.22.63.
2. The Multiverse
We’ve seen this in reboots (Star Trek) as a way to keep the original canon of a series, while creating a new reality in which to tell new stories. In this style of Time Travel, the traveler can go back in time and any changes that s/he makes which would change the future would instead create an additional pathway — an alternate timeline or universe. In this style, Jake Epping could save Kennedy and the world would progress differently. But when he went back to his own “now,” his world would be exactly the same. The saved Kennedy would exist in a different timeline/universe than Jake’s own life’s timeline. I suppose then he’d have the choice of going back and living in his own world again or staying in the alternate timeline and living out the future that his changes created.
3. The Dynamic Timeline
This is the style of Time Travel that is utilized in 11.22.63. When Jake does eventually save President Kennedy, he takes the portal back to his own time and everything has changed. Kennedy had served two terms, but then George Wallace was elected president and war ravaged the country. Kennedy managed to create a number of refugee camps (for Americans) after his presidency, but the entire feel of that time was one of a post-apocalyptic nature. So Jake goes back to 1960 again and this time, he doesn’t save Kennedy and things progress in his time as they did before (only this time, Sadie doesn’t die).
Unfortunately, this is where 11.22.63 runs into a problem — and one of the most difficult problems to avoid in Time Travel.
Jake should never have been able to go back and fix what he’d changed.
Why? Because it wasn’t a matter of just not stopping Oswald. Once he had stopped Oswald, going back again to fix it would mean he would have to stop himself from stopping Oswald. Because now the “current” timeline is no longer Oswald assassinating Kennedy. Now the current timeline is Jake keeping Oswald from assassinating Kennedy.
But that’s not even the biggest issue, which is two-pronged. Consider this: if Kennedy were never assassinated, what would have prompted Jake’s friend (the one with cancer) to send him through the wormhole in the first place? This means that, suddenly, in the new “current” timeline, Jake never went back. Shouldn’t Jake have disappeared from the timeline altogether as soon as he changed it? Hello, paradox!
And the second prong: When Jake went to the future again, to his own time, to see how Kennedy surviving had affected the world, he had to ask about what happened, about why the world was the way it was. He didn’t know about Kennedy’s refugee camps or the war. But when Jake changed the timeline, his own memories should have changed. Because he would have experienced all the things he had had to ask about. He should have already known. And, as his history had changed, it can be argued that he should have forgotten that Kennedy had been assassinated altogether.
It leads to the question of whether the traveler is a self-contained entity who exists outside of time, now that he has stepped out of his personal timeline.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I really liked 11.22.63. And the ending… well, let’s just say that I’m a sucker for a sappy ending. As I said, Time Travel stories are hard and, unfortunately, 11.22.63 didn’t manage to navigate around some of the land mines particularly efficiently. But the story itself (not to mention the acting and directing) is a good one.
Sometimes, you just suspend disbelief.
Did you watch/read 11.22.63? What did you think? Did you notice the issues outlined above? If so, did they bother you? Let me know in the comments below!