I like Stephen King.
I keep reading his books even though they frequently take on weird turns. He has his strengths. His dialogue seems a little hokey until you realize that he tries to mirror actual human dialogue and most of what we say on a daily basis is piffle. I greeted someone the other day with “What up, Sasquatch.” Stephen King’s dialogue is not outside of the realm of possibility.
His characterization is usually better with minor characters. I don’t know what it is that falls apart in his main characters. I think that possibly the level of doubt and uncertainty that exist in all of our decisions on a day to day basis end up making us confused, but in a lot of cases, I think he tends to stretch chapters with that. There are inevitably scenes that stretch out character decisions in such a way as to render characters unlikeable. I do not know if he is doing this on purpose, but it may be forgiven in some cases.
Recently, he’s been getting better. I think that when he was hit by a car, it was preoccupying. It would be. Try to imagine being hit by a car. Maybe your femur gets shattered by a bumper. Maybe you hit your head so hard on the pavement that you lose everything for a while. It would be a terrible thing.
I almost gave up on him when he inserted himself into the Dark Tower series. I don’t find the ending of the series particularly glaring. I figure if a man writes 7000 pages, he gets to do what he wants with the ending. Good for him. The problem was that it seemed like he was going to go permanently metafictional.
Cell was not a great outing. Duma Key was better. Under The Dome practically measured up to The Stand. I think he has problems getting outside his own frame of reference. Subculture seems to be foreign to him. I think he also has issues assuming science fiction paradigms created by others. Also, the Simpsons did it.
11/22/63 is amiable enough. I read it recently and continued turning the pages. He has that knack. He can make you flip pages.
I learned something from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when I was watching the episode where they riff on Overdrawn At The Memory Bank. It’s a bad movie starring Raul Julia. In the movie, they show the opening sequence from Casablanca on a monitor in an immediate and obvious fashion. The comment one of the robots make is, I think “Never show a better movie in your movie.”
Throughout 11/22/63, they make reference to the Butterfly Effect.
Do you know why the Butterfly Effect is called the Butterfly Effect?
I only know this because I was a Ray Bradbury fan growing up. I have the issue of Weird Science Fantasy from EC Comics in a polybag somewhere that has the first printing of that story. My favourite Ray Bradbury story is probably The Scythe followed by The Veldt. Somewhere, not too far down the list is A Sound of Thunder.
A Sound of Thunder deals with a Time Safari Company. They offer you the chance to go back in time and hunt a T-Rex. It is heavily implied that the T-Rex is probably on its last legs when you start shooting. If it dies where it’s supposed to, nothing bad will happen.
Oh hell, I’m not going to explain it. Read the thing.
See? The dumb bastard stepped on a butterfly and the difference was enough to change the future in an unpredictable way. I particularly like Bradbury’s treatment of it.
Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.
“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.
It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?
So, look. The problem with 11/22/63 is one of scale. If, as you know if you’ve read time travel fiction, a small change can make a big one, then 11/22/63 is guaranteed to be a loser. The protagonist emerges in 1958 and has to live in the past for five years in order to attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination. That the protagonist is an English teacher is just embarrassing. I have to assume that any English teacher would have read A Sound of Thunder. It is one of the most heavily reprinted science fiction stories of all time. It was the most widely reprinted science fiction story in the world from its publication in 1953 up until 1984.
Bradbury must be happy with that.
The problem with the novel is that King expects us to believe that an otherwise intelligent man who is an ENGLISH TEACHER not to have ever read or viewed any of the works that deal with time travel. Like…. I don’t know….
The Time Machine, A Sound of Thunder, anything by Jasper Fforde in the Tuesday Next series, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Terminators 1-3, Back To The Future, 12 Monkeys, The Hitchhikers Guide, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Any episode of Dr. Who, Slaughterhouse Five, Time and Again, Time after Time (which is sort of insufferable because of Malcolm McDowell), Timequake, Harry Potter, The FRIGGIN Langoliers (which King actually wrote and is a better thing than 11/22/63), Planet of the Apes, Time Bandits, Star Trek IV, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Army of Darkness, Groundhog Day, Austin Powers, an actual movie CALLED The Butterfly Effect, Futurama, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (which is excellent), Hot Tub Time Machine and Midnight in Paris.
Consider that the protagonist is meant to be 35 and living in 2011. Much of this stuff would have been obvious pop culture fodder for a character’s background.
Let’s give him a pass. Let’s say that Jake Epping, the hero, is a nice fellow but that he doesn’t get out much. Let’s give him that and say he doesn’t know Michael J. Fox from Christoper Lloyd.
King actually lampshades A Sound Of Thunder in the closing chapters of the book. Not through the protagonist, but through his girlfriend. She comes out and says that she knows what the Butterfly Effect is because of the Bradbury story.
Clearly, this is King messing with us. He must be, right? No one would be that glaringly obtuse.
The worst part is this: He attempts a framework to explain the alternate timelines. He gives us the card men. It is never explained what they actually do. We know they are human, but that means nothing. Where are they from? This could have been explained in a damn chapter. Six pages. Who are the time police? What do they do? He never explains this. Oh, sure, he shows us the consequences of the changed past, but do they all stem from the circumstances surrounding the assassination of JFK? We never find out what changed what. Anything could change anything. Any character spending thousands of dollars in the past could change a huge amount without realizing it. The assumption that the big change is the only one that matters is tantamount to a slap in the brain.
It’s unforgivable. If you are unwilling to deal with the omission of any sort of pop culture knowledge from the protagonist and also unwilling to create a defacto system of rules for time travel within your own work, then you have nothing in terms of cogent information upon which to decide whether anything that transpires is valid.
I’ll give him one thing: His portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald is probably fairly accurate. He did his research at length and it shows.
I can’t really recommend 11/22/63. Its flaws are too glaring. It could have been paired down by two hundred pages. I’m a nerd, but not really a time travel nerd and even I thought this was weak. It’s so weak that it makes me angry hours after finishing it. Good characterization of the villain of the piece and a classy ending earn it a 2/5. Maybe you should read it if you like Stephen King.
Actually, if you like Stephen King, go read Blockade Billy instead. It’s a better indication of what he’s still capable of. I have no doubt that at some point in the near future he’s going to hit on a winner. This wasn’t it.