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I wonder if Steven King or his publisher knows that King’s  novel “11-22-63” is online,  in full and for free. I can’t imagine that they would give permission for such a posting, for why would they? Hulu is soon streaming a mini-series based on the novel, and the trailers were captivating. It made me want to read excerpts of the novel, which I’d never read, and I looked for them online. Instead I found the whole damn thing. Perhaps King should travel back in time and prevent his novel from being illicitly posted in the first place. 

Such time travel is the premise of “11-22-63,” in which a disaffected and recently divorced high school English teacher, Jake Epping, is charged by a friend with the task of traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The novel is a real page-turner — or page-clicker in this case. Long as it was, I seemed to have clicked through it no time and read it in full. Sorry, Mr. King,  no royalty from me.

It’s a great yarn, with interlocking subplots and enough twists and turns to make the reader dizzy. Jake’s mission to the past isn’t made any easier when he falls in love with a beautiful librarian after arriving in Texas.

Can Jake Epping change the past? Can he prevent JFK’s assassination?

King comes up with what is, so far as a I know, a novel twist on the old time travel theme: the past does not want to be changed, and it fights you every step of the way. 

Here King is on to something, but he doesn’t take it the necessary step further: It’s not just that the past doesn’t want to be changed — it cannot be changed. It cannot be changed as a matter of logic. Hence Jake’s mission is doomed from the get-go. Nothing in the past can be changed; not even the tiniest detail of it. However, this  inconvenient fact, once recognized and acknowledged, would make for a pretty boring novel, and King is never boring.

Is travel to the past possible at all? It might be. Nothing in logic forbids such travel, and it may even be physically possible. All that logic forbids is conjointly traveling to the past and also changing it. The very act of traveling to the past does not, as one might suppose, change the past; rather it makes the past be just what it was: a spacetime region with a time traveler from the future in it. The time traveler was always there. His presence did not change anything.

In King’s novel, the protagonist finds a path to the past. I wonder if King knows that this has scientific warrant? Perhaps he does, but decided that introducing the concept of the Gödelian closed time-like curves would daunt the reader. In any case, I felt his failure to explicate his “rabbit hole” in terms of Gödel’s solutions to general relativity was a missed opportunity, for his “path” idea is just how past-directed time travel work, if possible at all. This is because all of us travel in spacetime jointly, not just space or time singly, and some such paths can indeed lead to past-directed spacetime locations.

The novel’s flaw, from a philosophical perspective, is that early on King broaches a discussion of the Grandfather’s Paradox but offhandedly dismisses it: “Why would anyone want to do that?” a character asks, referring to the the possibility of someone going back in time and killing his own grandfather. What King fails to notice, though, or (as I think) chooses to ignore for the sake of a good yarn, is that all efforts to alter the past are thoroughly contaminated by the Grandfather’s Paradox, which is just a special case of a general logical principle.

In the well-known paradox, a man goes back in time to kill his own grandfather before the time traveler’s father is born. If he succeeds, the time traveler will never be born. But if the time traveler is never born, he will never go back in time and kill grandfather. But if grandfather is not killed, the time traveler will be born after all. If he is born, he will go back in time and kill grandfather, and then … the problem is obvious.

It is thus logically guaranteed that the time traveler will not kill grandfather, no matter how hard he tries.

But Jake Epping’s going back in time and saving JFK is obviated by the exact same logical structure of the Grandfather’s Paradox. Suppose Jake goes back in time and prevents JFK’s assassination. In that case, in the future, Jake will not go back in time to save Kennedy, because Kennedy was never killed and so Jake has no reason to go back and save him. But if Jake doesn’t go back in time, Kennedy will be killed. If JFK is killed, Jake will go back in time to save him. But if he saves him … etc.  It’s the Grandfather’s Paradox all over again, and it can’t be avoided.

The larger philosophical point is that time travel to the past is no different from time travel to the future — it’s just more peculiar. Just as we cannot change the past, nor we can change the present or the future. Rather, by our acts, we make the past, present and future be what they were, are, and will be. We never actually change anything.

When Jake Epping was born (in 1975, in the novel) his future self had already done, what he had done, in 1963. Those things included failing to prevent JFK's assassination, given that when Jake was born, JFK had in fact been killed 12 years earlier. Jake’s mission is logically futile even before he undertakes it. The poor man could have refused his friend’s request on grounds of pure logic and saved himself a lot of time (five years) and trouble (he gets into a lot of it). All he had to do was crack a logic textbook! See how useful philosophy can be, after all?

Edited by davidm
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