Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive game we can play is “what if?” I ought to know; I’m a grand master. What if I’d gone to MTSU instead of ORU? What if I’d been more diligent about creative writing when I was younger? What if I’d asked out such-and-such a woman (or, more often, what if I’d tried again after being turned down the first time)? What if I’d handled my finances differently? What if, what if, what if? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, a question that always makes us feel worse about ourselves, a positively corrosive question that we continue to ask even though we know better.
We play “what if?” on a larger scale as well. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is a powerful topic for such speculation, perhaps second only to speculation about what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. I can recall either a “Twilight Zone” reboot or a “Twilight Zone” imitator in the 1980s doing an episode in which a time traveler attempts to thwart the assassination. There was also a “Quantum Leap” episode that touched on the subject, lent additional interest by the fact that the show’s creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario, actually met Lee Harvey Oswald briefly when both were serving in the military.
Time travel, in general, has a well-worn genre in the past few decades – providing clichés for “Futurama” to make fun of, more than once. I’m amazed that “Doctor Who” continues to make it interesting and find new things to do with it. Then again, “Doctor Who” – one of my all-time favorite shows ever since my college days – is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. In one era of the show, it’s implied that such-and-such cannot happen, and then in another era of the show, it happens, sometimes without even a token acknowledgement or trumped-up plot point to explain the inconsistency.
I was intrigued when I read about Stephen King’s 2011 book “11/22/63,” but I might never have gotten around to reading it if it hadn’t been for a $3.99 sale of the book on Kindle. It would have been my loss. This was a great book, the kind of book you can’t put down, the kind of book that has you cheering and weeping for the protagonists.
I can’t go very far without spoilers, but I’ll give you the basic premise: divorced and unattached teacher Jake Epping is recruited by a dying acquaintance for an unbelievable mission. The acquaintance has discovered a portal to the year 1958, and wants Jake to go through it, assume a false identity, bide his time for five years, and somehow prevent the Kennedy assassination. But the acquaintance warns Jake that the past doesn’t want to be changed, and that unusual obstacles will prevent themselves. There are also personal entanglements that complicate his mission and leave him unsure in which era his destiny lies.
King somehow manages to make time travel seem fresh and new and real. He sucks you into the story, and once you get going you have to keep going. I had no idea how the story was going to end – and I really cared how the story was going to end.
Sometimes, I think, a fictional “what if” story can be a catharsis, to help us process our own personal “what if” demons. King’s book took me on a roller-coaster ride, and I’m still not sure about how I feel about it. It’s great writing. I’ve always thought I had a great novel in me if I could just buckle down and crank it out, but I don’t think I could ever produce something in this league. Many of you have read it already, but if you haven’t, consider this my strong recommendation.