Time Travel, that continuing, evolving genre in "11/22/63"

If you haven't read "11/22/63" by Stephen King yet, check it out. It's a long novel, but a quick read, and worth the effort.  

It's not horror or gore, but about time travel. The central character travels back in time to attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on that date.

The reason it's a worthwhile read is not only because its nostalgic about early 1960s music or a great romance, but because it says a few thoughtful things about time and the Fourth Dimension in the theoretical physics sense.

I've covered a few conferences over the past 15 years for Computerworld where there was inevitably a long-haired futurist who conducted a lecture mentioning time travel in a tiny meeting room down a darkened hallway. With few tired people in attendance barefly paying attention, these futurists inevitably agreed that time travel will happen someday, although I can't begin to repeat their basis for saying so.

Whether people will move forward or backward in time in the next 1,000 years is not as interesting as reflecting on what Einstein said:  Time is like a narrow river that we travel down. We move along the river with others in our boat and pass the river's twists and turns seeing what's immediately ahead and to the sides and rear.  Way back behind us, out of our site and hearing, the river still moves, just as it does way ahead, carrying boats and people in parallel fashion to us.

So King's novel builds on this premise about time, and his work follows in a great tradition of time travel science fiction that H.G. Wells ("The Time Machine," written in 1895) and Jack Finney, more recently, explored.  King said the time travel novel which inspired his "11/22/63" was Finney's "Time and Again," written in 1970, which I quickly checkout out along with its sequel, "From Time to Time," written in 1995.

Finney won fame for "The Body Snatchers," but his time travel novels are quite different.  They are filled with long descriptive passages of 1880s New York City, comparing some of its old buildings to what was still in place in the late 20th Century.  Even reading his book from 1970 turned out to be a kind of time travel for me, as Finney's characters refer to the women in the 1970s workplace as "girls" and deploy other anachronisms.  

One of Finney's greatest insights is how time travel and reflecting on other time periods affects us emotionally and spiritually.  One character in "From Time to Time" accuses another of being a Time Patriot, by regarding one's time and place as the best over all others, which is a kind of conceit and a foolish optimism. King picks up this theme as well in his work.

The biggest theme of all time travel books is whether we alter our present by going back. Even by merely innocently emerging into an earlier period, much less interacting with the residents of that time, could make a difference later on.  It's a kind of butterfly effect. 

I am not sure what the theoretical physicists would say on that notion, but on reflection believe that if any physics professor had the chance to find a gateway to another time or created a time machine to reach into a future time, he would skip dinner to get there quickly and not worry too much about getting back home or even telling the residents of his native time what time travel was like.

Probably the best way to view these time travel novels is an escape, I realize, but they also serve as a glimpse into how history matters to all of us individually, even deeply.  If JFK hadn't been killed at the time he was, would so many young Americans have committed to political groups, protested during the Vietnam War, or joined the Peace Corps?

It makes me wonder as well what technology we might have seen in 10 more years had Steve Jobs survived cancer and thrived? And the same goes for so many theoretical physicists who toil away anonomously, some of them wondering whether anything they write will matter in 1,000 years.

In the same vein, we all probably wonder from time to time how our modest daily tasks can change the future.  Is staying on a computer game or answering emails another hour going to matter as much as interacting with another person in real time, in real life? Dropping off a wrapped holiday gift of a doll for a 5-year-old girl you will never meet--will that matter perceptably?

We can't track many of our actions in this world very precisely, but if you read these time travel novels, you start to think everything we do, or elect not to do, matters in some way. Maybe that insight is obvious enough, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded of it from time to time.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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