If you could somehow change history, or even had the chance to go back in time, would you? This is the central theme of Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63. The date of course refers to the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. There will be no spoilers here – I won’t mention the outcome of the book, but thought that it was an excellent idea – the kind of thing that King is well known for.

Imagine being told that there was a way, a “door”, if you like, that always took you to a certain time and place. Even better, it is always the same time and place when you go through, and regardless of how long you stay in there, days through to years, about two minutes will have passed when you return. A fantastic concept, and it had me hooked from the start. Another idea that had me thinking about it for weeks was – if you did go back to 1958, how would you manage to blend in? Think of all of the phrases you couldn’t utter. All of the knowledge you couldn’t reveal, or you would likely end up in either police custody or an asylum for the insane. In fact, turning the coin over, imagine if someone purporting to be from 2062 arrived in the US, or Europe today; what would happen to them? It would depend on what they said, did and looked like, I think. See? I finished this book a month ago, and he’s still making me look at it from different angles! No wonder I love his writing.

The protagonist in this book, once he has had the concept proved to him, decides to return to the past in order to try and right a terrible wrong. One of his adult learning class had nearly died as a child when his father ran amok with a hammer and killed the rest of the family on Halloween night. Again, I won’t spoil the book, as finding out if he could do it or not is a major part of the story.

As the story progresses, he returns to 1958 in order to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Of course, this raises some very interesting questions – would the world have been a better place if JFK had lived? There are certainly indications that the remainder of the 1960s would have been quite different. This is what interested me as a reader. When I first heard that King was writing this story, my gut reaction was “of course things would have been better”. Gut reactions are not usually particularly well thought out or reasoned, hence their name. Clearly, the assassination was a terrible thing, in common with any murder. That it left itself carved into the American psyche is pretty clear. If it didn’t happen, would everything be sweetness and light? Given human nature, and the state of the world back then, I doubt it. King uses an interesting phrase throughout the book: “History has a way of harmonising with itself”. I think that awfulness would still find a way to manifest itself, just wearing a different mask.

The story is significantly complicated by the fact that as the protagonist settles in to wait for Oswald to come back from the USSR, he meets and falls in love with someone, Sadie. Sadie comes from a time when divorce is not nearly as common as in our present age, and has some serious baggage, in the form of a violent husband, in tow.

Another thing that I liked about this book was that I learned things. Yes, the book is fantasy, but many of the events throughout the book were real. Imagine being able to sit through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not only know how it was going to turn out, but who would say what, and when! Imagine how that would feel today, if someone told you in real detail, how the Arab Spring in Libya would turn out, before it really kicked off. When I watch old American or British civil defence films from the late 50s and 60s, I get a real sense of how close nuclear Armageddon was, and how frightening it must have been. Growing up as a child in the Seventies, on the tail end of it all was scary enough, but that must have been dreadful. In the book, you get a real sense of what it must have been like at the time.

It’s funny, but for a book that I really want to talk about, I can’t, for fear of spoiling it! I’ll focus instead on what I think made it such a great read. It has been one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the few that has had me sitting up in bed until 2-3AM, just to see how things turn out. First, characters. As always, King manages to create characters who feel like real people. Thinking about half a dozen characters, they feel as though they could be standing here in the room with me. Two other authors who can do this for me are Robertson Davies (The Salterton Trilogy, Murther and walking spirits) and John Irving (The world according to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, A prayer for Owen Meany). This is one of the best gifts an author can confer, in my opinion. Secondly – great ideas. This book is founded upon an incredible “what-if” scenario. Thirdly – great attention to detail. He gives a great impression of what it would be like to live in the late 1950s, from haircuts to clothing, accents to cars. So much so that I think it would be very difficult to fit in without drawing attention to yourself. Fourthly – he imbues this book with a world-view that runs through many of his books. It also connects to places mentioned in previous novels, like Derry, where something is clearly terribly wrong. King also has a view of the innate goodness of (some) people in small towns which I find comforting. I’m thinking here about Deke Simmons, Mimi Corcoran and Sadie Dunhill. Their behaviour justifies my faith in humanity.

So, in summary, I thought that this book was exceptionally well written, full of absorbing characters and rich historical detail. It kept my interest up to and beyond the final page, and the fact that I am thinking about it a month after finishing it says a lot. Go read it!

First line: “I have never been what you would call a crying man”

Last line: “Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance”

Rating (1-10): 9 Amazing.


Against a dark background

What can I say about this book by Iain M.Banks? Well, it is one of my favourites, has influenced how I run roleplaying games, has an absolute kickass female protagonist, and just flat-out rocks.
The book is set in a star system (Thrial) with lots of worlds, but separated from other systems by such vast gulfs of space that the inhabitants are alone. Most of the worlds have been terraformed, giving a great deal of living space, but they cannot reach beyond the limits of their own system. Vast dark dust clouds obscure great segments of space, hence the title, “Against a dark background”.

First lines:

“She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy”

This is from the prologue, with Sharrow, the main character, taking a trip as a child. Sharrow is the target of a religious cult, the Huhsz, who believe her to be the final obstacle before their faiths apotheosis. Her only chance is to try and find a weapon of unspeakable power, one of the so-called Lazy Guns. The book revolves around her quest for the Lazy Gun, while diving deep into her past.

Banks has an interest in families that were once wealthy, had status and land, and then fell upon hard times. Such is the case here. Sharrow refers to her relatives, and recollects holidays spent at expensive mansions, before it all had to be sold off.

The book is full of ideas, too many to list here, certainly not without spoiling the story. I think it is the mark of a good story when one of my favourite characters is an android, and the idea of a combat team being attuned to one another by a bioengineered virus is amazing. A world where one organism covers most of the planet is another great idea, and of course, there is the idea of the Lazy Gun.

Banks likes to surprise, and this book is no exception (SPOILER BELOW). Sharrow takes part in a conflict, and during a space battle sees a cruiser that has been badly damaged:

“The external view she had now – flagged as thousand magnification – showed a wrecked excise clipper spinning slowly in front of her, its black hull flayed and pitted, its rear end gone, ruptured plates fluting tumorously¬† from the craft’s waist¬† to shred away to nothing from about three-quarters of the way back, ending in a glinting mess of metal.

There was something biological, even sexual about the ruined ship, its matt-black skin like dull clothes ripped apart to reveal the flesh beneath, exposed and open. She’d never seen a ship so badly damaged.

She thought, Poor fucker; lift that driver’s chow-bucket off its hook and send it back to Stores…then realised that this was the view from Miz’s ship; he was following her, and what she was looking at was her own craft. She was the unfortunate pilot she’d been consigning to oblivion”

Masterful. Still gives me chills when I read it.

Unlike many of Banks’ books, this one is not set in the Culture, and has no connection with it. Indeed, with a million light-years separating Thrial system from its nearest neighbour, connection is impossible. The book has everything from humour, romance, nostalgia, melancholy and ladle-fulls of action. It is a refreshing change in science fiction to have a strong female protagonist, who takes absolutely no crap from anyone. Clever, resourceful, sexy, you gotta love Sharrow.

I was lucky enough to meet Iain M Banks, and let him know that this is my all-time favourite book, bar none. In response, he blinked, smiled and said “Blimey, thanks very much”. Nice guy – even signed it for me. It isn’t every day that you get the chance to tell an author how much you appreciate his writing, and I was glad of the chance.

There is a lot in this book, and I won’t spoil it for you. I would recommend it heartily, even if you really enjoyed the Culture novels and worry that you won’t like this. It is different from the Culture books, certainly, but the trademark elements of what makes a great Banks book are here – good plot, good characters, lots of action, great ideas.

Last line:

“A little later the monowheel vehicle spun backwards out of the sewer outfall, pirouetted vertically like a saluting mount, swung down across the greasy slope of stones at the base of the House’s walls, dodged uncoordinated gunfire from a nearby tower and accelerated quickly across the tide-flooding sands”