Just finished Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63. The story is about Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who traveled back in time to prevent the assasination of President Kennedy (hence the title, the date of Kennedy’s assasination). The time-travel is a bit quirky, apparently it’s not the type of time travel where you can choose any specific date; every trip to the past takes you back to the same place in 1958, and every time you make a trip to the past, anything you’ve done to change history during your previous trip is erased (“reset”). It’s a nifty idea, and leads to Groundhog Day-like moments – Epping saved a family from being murdered during one trip to the past, but when he had to make another trip (the one to prevent JFK’s assasination), he had to save the family all over again because his previous “saving” has been erased.
His chosen method to prevent the assasination is a spoiler, but I think most of us can guess what it is (Hint: He didn’t do it by throwing his body over Kennedy’s and taking the bullet intended for Kennedy, he chose a less self-sacrificing method). I’m more interested in what happens when Epping returns to 2011. So what does the world where JFK didn’t die in Dallas in 1963 look like? In this version of reality, Kennedy was reelected in 1964, but only by the skin of his teeth (winning by less than forty electoral votes, compared to Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win against Barry Goldwater in the real world).
One of the main reasons Epping wanted to prevent Kennedy’s assasination is to prevent the escalation of Vietnam War, which happened after Johnson took over as president. In the Kennedy-didn’t-die-in-1963 world, Kennedy indeed did not send more troops to Vietnam, restricting the troops already there to Saigon, in an area called, hey, what do you know, the Green Zone. So far so good, right? Thousands of American lives saved? Nope, wrong, since the North Vietnam Army attacked Saigon and overran the American soldiers. This turned the country against Kennedy. Also, Civil Rights Act and Voting Right Act were never passed, since in King’s words, “Kennedy was no LBJ”. After those acts failed to pass Congress, Kennedy apparently caused race riots all over the country by making this remark – “White America has filled its house with kindlings; now it will burn”. By now, Americans were completely disgusted by Kennedy and the Democratic party, they decided to elect George-“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”-Wallace as President in 1968. President Wallace promptly went into action, firebombing Chicago to stop the riots, and dropping nuclear bomb on Hanoi. So in summary, Kennedy surviving the assasination attempt in 1963 resulted in Johnson never becoming president, George Wallace becoming president, and the deaths of possibly millions of people. Good job, Epping!
Okay, here’s my problem with King’s alternate history – a lot of it doesn’t pass the smell test. For alternate history to be effective, it has to have at least some basis in reality, some nuggets or kernels of truth we recognize. King is not writing a fantasy or science fiction novel, with its world-building and its own sets of rules on how the universe operates, he’s writing about the history of the United States of America, in a world where people are described doing normal things we recognize in the 20th and 21st century world; eat in a restaurant, go to work in a car, attend football games, wear a suit, not a world where dragon babies are hatched from thousand-year-old eggs and people go around saying things like “winter is coming” or “the cold winds are rising”. In that world, I can accept almost anything happening as plausible.
I don’t believe for a second that in any alternate universe that Kennedy would say “White America has filled its house with kindling; now it will burn”. He might be a lot of things, good and bad, but one thing he wasn’t is a stupid politician. Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act not passing under Kennedy’s presidency is slightly more plausible – Kennedy has been criticized for being lukewarm about the civil rights movement early in his presidency, we could argue that the passing of CRA and VRA is one of those Nixon-goes-to-China moment and so Johnson is more perfectly placed to shepherd it because he’s from the South. But even so, the notion that the failure to pass CRA and VRA would lead to President Kennedy threatening white Americans and inciting black Americans to riot – sorry, Stephen King, I’m not buying that for a second.
I notice a lot of the counterfactuals end up, either by accident or by design, redeeming LBJ’s presidency. Of course the passing of CRA and VRA is an unquestionably great thing, but for the book to explain why CRA and VRA didn’t pass under Kennedy with a one-sentence “Kennedy was no LBJ, and as vice-president, Johnson was uniquely powerless to help him” seems to reduce the complexity of the issue too much. If only Johnson was president! He wouldn’t have incited race riots, he would have been a hard-liner in Vietnam, America wouldn’t have elected a known racist who ended up killing millions as President because they were so frustrated with weak Democrats! Ehhh, that’s a bridge too far for me, even for counterfactuals and alternate history.
Part of me thinks it’s unfair to nit-pick the book too much for the implausibility of its alternate history, because King is obviously more interested in Epping’s journey to the past and the actions he took to prevent the assasination. In a 700+ page book, the chapter explaining what happened to the US after Epping succeeded in preventing the assasination is only a few pages long. This is not a novel like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where the entire focus is describing the world after the event that changes history from the way we know it has happened. Chabon is interested in what happened after the break from reality occured; King wants to explore Epping’s journey to cause that break from reality. But darn it, I’m sorry, after trudging through more than 700 pages, I needed more pay-off than a few pages about how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket.
There’s also a suggestion that the reason everything went haywire after Epping prevented Kennedy’s assasination is because some sort of disturbance to the universe after Epping changed something so huge from the past. Major earthquakes happening, people driven to suicide, nations going to war. I think that’s a bit of a cop-out, the book doesn’t want to flat-out say that the world would have been better off if Lee Harvey Oswald had assasinated Kennedy, it leaves some wiggle room for another interpretation – things went to hell because YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE MESSED WITH THE PAST.