Redhook, 2014, 417 pages
Some stories cannot be told in just one lifetime.
Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.
No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.
As Harry nears the end of his 11th life, a little girl appears at his bedside. "I nearly missed you, Doctor August," she says. "I need to send a message."
This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.
I picked this up because of its resemblance to Ken Grimwood's Replay. The premise is a similar: a man dies and gets reborn into the same life he just lived, finds out that this will keep happening over and over, and that there are other people like him.
Replay was much smaller in scope, though, focusing on the life and experiences of the protagonist. Claire North has written a true science fiction novel with much more exploration of the implications of people who have centuries of accumulated experience, living the same years over and over.
Harry August is an ordinary bloke born in a train station restroom in the early 20th century in northern England, the bastard son of a minor aristocrat and a serving girl. The first few chapters tell about his very ordinary life, living through World War II and the latter half of the 20th century, dying a natural death in the 80s... and then being reborn as a baby back where he started, but with all the memories of his last life. He goes insane, is sent to an asylum, and commits suicide. Oops, he's back where he started. Again.
His third life goes a little bit better, and then he starts to get the hang of it. He eventually learns of a secret society called the Cronus Club, made up of other people like him, called "Kalachakras," whose lives repeat over and over. They have existed throughout history; those whose lives spanned earlier eras leave messages for the later ones, who are encouraged to create funds and occasionally perform rescues for their later-born comrades. (This mechanism is quite clever: a "young" Kalachakra at the beginning of her latest iteration finds an "old" Kalachakra whose current life is about to end, and gives him a message, which he takes back to his starting point, and in this way, Kalachakras can actually relay messages back through time.) But fundamentally, the Cronus Club is a bunch of dilettante immortals who've concluded that they can't fundamentally change history. Until someone decides to break the rules.
Harry August's good friend and mortal enemy, Vincent Rankis, is a man who decides he wants to unravel the secrets of the universe and understand time itself. He dedicates himself, lifetime after lifetime, to accumulating enough scientific knowledge to build a "quantum mirror." Each time, he gets a little closer. In one life, he sets himself up as a commissar in the Soviet Union and builds it deep in the Russian boonies; in the next, it's in America under the Eisenhower administration. But he undertakes it as a very long-term project, knowing that it may not reach completion in any given lifetime, but each time he learns a little more and is able to get it up and running a little faster next time, and in the process has the world building lasers and nuclear power plants and studying quantum physics decades earlier than scheduled. Harry learns, through warnings from other Kalachakra relaying messages back through generations, that the end result of Vincent's project will actually bring about the end of the world.
Since the Cronus Club is opposed to this meddling, the villain also figures out how to wipe out the Cronus Club across multiple lifetimes.
This is a very thinky book with a novel take on "time travel," and while it might not have explored every possible implication of the Kalachakra, it hit enough of them that it was clear the author had thought through everything very well. What might throw some readers is that there are long stretches, especially at the beginning, which are very slow going. The book starts with Harry August on his deathbed being warned by a little girl that the world is going to end. Okay, that's starting things out with a bang. But then we spend the next several chapters reading about some English guy living his very uninteresting first life. And in the middle sections of the book, Harry sometimes goes on tangents about other lives where he faffed off to China to become "spiritual," or he married a fellow doctor and tried to tell her the truth about himself and wound up miserable for the next three lifetimes.
While Harry's repeated sojourns through the same life might occasionally become tedious for the reader, I think this might have been a deliberate narrative gambit, to convey how tedious reliving the same life over and over might be for the individual... imagine having to come back to go through childhood for the eleventh time, when you're actually close to a thousand years old!
Harry's long, deep-cover mission in later incarnations to defeat Vincent, was tense and well thought out, and emotional as well, as the two men really have developed a kind of bromance despite each knowing they have to destroy the other while one doesn't know the other one knows, but thinks he knows and the other one doesn't know.
I enjoyed this, and recommend it to anyone who likes time travel stories or explorations of what immortality does to one's psychology, but be aware it's a bit plodding at times.
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