Time, Immortality, and the Philosophies of Life

I finished the book I’m about to discuss a few hours into the new year, and figured that reviewing it would be the best way to kick off 2016. Read on, and here’s to a happy and healthy new year for you all!

If you know me, or have been following this blog long enough, you probably know that I’m a sci-fi fan. Within that genre, time travel and related topics have always fascinated me. The logical and philosophical questions posed by time travel provide endless opportunity for thought and discussion. So it should come as no surprise that I was drawn to Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

harry august

The premise, as is often the case with temporally-based plots, is fairly simple. Harry August is a man who, in essence, cannot die. When he does, he is reborn back at the beginning of his life, with all of his past experiences and memories intact. It’s sort of like Groundhog Day on a massive scale. Of course, this is only the base of the story; the real plot is that he’s told at the end of his eleventh life that the world is ending, far earlier than it should in the natural course of events, and it’s up to him to stop it. It would have been too cliché to have the message given as “Help us, Harry August; you’re our only hope,” but that’s basically the message he’s given.

Pictured: Not what happens in the book

One of the most interesting things to me is the presentation of the book It’s presented as, and reads like, so-called “literary fiction,” but it’s chock full of elements of science fiction and historical fiction. It could easily fit in any and all of those genres. I’m not sure how it’s classified in bookstores; I bought my copy online basically as soon as I heard about it. North’s writing is absolutely stellar, and though I don’t know if she’s very well-versed in science, medicine, and history of just very well-researched, her breadth of detail is mind-boggling. It makes sense, of course. You can’t write a convincing time travel story without strict attention to history detail (assuming you’re setting any portion of it in the past). But that doesn’t make it any less impressive.

The narrative is told in first-person, mostly in an autobiographical style, though it does occasionally skip to events outside of chronologically order, as they become relevant. But it never feels disjointed. The asides always have a point and fit in with the plot at the time they come up. The nature of the story and narrative is particularly well-suited for character development, and benefits from the fact that it’s being told by Harry from his fifteenth life. Such longevity provides ample experience and opportunity for both personal growth and deep reflection. Even as he relates his past he provides commentary on the moral, philosophical, and personal implications of his actions.

The sheer scope of the novel is incredible. It’s one thing to write about one lifetime, that’s already a pretty big undertaking. But to write fifteen lifetimes? That’s just beyond impressive to me. I’ve never read anything covering that much ground, and certainly give North a lot of credit not only for attempting it, but for accomplishing it so masterfully.

What it comes down to is that this is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and I’m proud to make it my first recommendation of 2016. There’s a lot going on here, but it never feels needlessly complex. The writing is clear and, frankly, quite beautiful. The world is fantastically rendered and never once did I question it. Every aspect felt real. And it raises some interesting questions. Like, if you lived you life again, with all the knowledge you have now, would you make the same choices? Would you seek out the same people? Or would you try other things, lead a completely different life? I don’t know how to answer that, myself. I don’t think I would like to be in Harry’s position, though. It’s taken me this long to get where I am now; I don’t know if I could, or would want to, go through it all again. But I do know that were I to live my life over, I would certainly be rereading this book. It’s a story, ultimately, of a quest for meaning in a meaningless world, of that search for purpose and reason which we all undertake in some manner at some point in time. And, honestly? It’s just a damn good book.


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