May 25, 2015

Recent Science Fiction Stand-Out: Claire North's "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August"

Recently, I have been trying to read as much science fiction as possible, because I think I’ll like it. Overall though, it seems to me that most of the canonical writers were more focused on setting up cool scenarios than creating characters that were interesting and giving them something to do. I read Haldeman, Clarke, and Heinlein and ended up disappointed in all three. Basically I want everyone to be Douglas Adams or Vonnegut, but they set very high bars.

So when I came across this book, and I read it, I was pleased. I read it strongly and deeply. I enjoyed the premise: There are a few people who remember their past lives when they die. The thing is that they get put back in the same life when they are reborn. It seemed novel to me. The only thing that was similar was the movie Groundhog Day, but that’s only one day and as far as we know, only one person. This set  up allows you to live life over and over and learn as much as possible. Harry was a doctor and then a scientist and then a mathematician. I liked the set up so much, I was somewhat disappointed when the conflict started being introduced. There’s another like Harry who doesn’t want to play by the rules they have set up -- he wants to bring the future as far forward to his time as possible to learn more about the world. Living the same life over and over means that your potential death is pretty set by biology. The bad guy through his efforts creates what would be now current technology in the early 70s.

I liked it so much that it wasn’t until about 300 pages in, and after North has a couple of characters talk about time travel paradoxes, that I thought there was a flaw in the premise. I don’t know if others might see it or if it is idiosyncratic to me, but it lowered my enjoyment of the book - which I would still recommend. So here’s the thing, it’s like the “fixed points in time” thing that feels like a big hand-wave in the Whovian universe. Even though the people relive their lives over and over, they don’t become big names. In fact, the things that are big events are said to usually happen, in a sort of off-hand manner. In fact, if I recall correctly, Harry is able to use the date of the Chernobyl meltdown as a way to get in touch with others of his kind. To me, though, it seems as if they should be travelling on multiple timelines, especially since there are people repeating lives all throughout time. But they remember each other and seem to live on the same time line. It doesn’t seem like much, and I can’t explain it well, but it felt like a hole. It feels that way because the bad guy is more or less threatening to end the world, but it seems to me like it should be only on one timeline the world is ending. The repeating lives should mean multiple timelines and thus less is at stake if the world is ending on one branch. That was all it took to take me out of the created reality, and it lessened my tension as a reader. I will still be looking forward to North’s future books, however.