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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Review of Novel

This was not the book I intended to read first after finishing Peripheral. But I knew within the first five pages that I would be reading this from cover to cover before I read anything else. That’s the power of a good book, of an arresting story. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the now uncovered pseudonym of YA author Catherine Web) is that. 

The simple idea behind the novel, a tweak of the Groundhog Day, is that certain individuals, called Kalachakra, are reincarnated into their own lives existence after existence, living the same span of time from infancy to death again and again. Harry August, for example is always born in 1919, spends his routinely traumatic childhood in Northern England, before winding up dying some time around the fall of the Berlin Wall. In different hands I think this novel could have easily been basically  contemporary fiction. Recall the Time Traveller’s Wife as an example of modern literature’s increasing appropriation of the tropes of science fiction in the service of more conventional plots. The First Fifteen Lives is not that, it is inescapably science fiction. The difference lies in how the concept of the novel, the what if question is handled. Where a book like Time Traveller’s Wife might introduce an idea, it is not the focus. A true speculative fiction work will keep turning over an idea, investigating its permutations and repercussions until a full understanding of the idea is reached. That is what this novel does. 

I liked this novel very much, probably better than William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Like Peripheral it investigates ideas of time travel and virtual futures, but unlike Gibson’s novel, none of these feels arch or overly-complicated. North creates in Harry August, a believably , routinely traumatized individual, a man who crawls from the wreckage of the past century as a haunted survivor, aware of his responsibility to set things right. If North doesn’t quite reach the conceptual heights of Gibson, she does a better job giving a character to care about, a world in which to invest.

The unusual structure of the novel goes a long way to explain its success, August, true to the title has lived fifteen of his own lives, a span roughly bookended by the end of WWII, and the fall of the Berlin war. However we don't have to slog through those near seventy years because the book takes a thematic approach to Augusts life, picking moments and lives that highlight certain concepts of the overall plot. The effect of this is always feeling as though you are getting exposition exactly when it is most important, while the momentum of August’s story continues at break-neck speed.

I also appreciated that despite embracing an entire century of settings, events, and characters, the novel is very human-scaled. August’s enemy, once unmasked is a person very similar to himself, and the clash of their personalities is very deftly handled. In science fiction I’ve always enjoyed novels that are able to convincingly manufacture world-ending scenarios from the conflicts of individuals. As a slight preview of the SPOILERS to follow, Harry August doesn’t confront aliens or ominous AI or even global conspiracies (although in a sense, he is part of one). His enemy is a human being with relatable human motivations. The very worst sort of antagonist. 

On to my detailed reactions to this story, which will of necessity include details about the plot meant for folks who’ve already read this novel. SPOILERS ahead:

One of theme that I’ve been tracking through the fiction released this year is the ongoing exploration of utopias versus dystopias. On one hand, just about ever YA released in the past five years (longer, perhaps) has embraced the concept of the coming dystopia - corrupt abusive governments, ecological collapse, and cracked mirror versions of our own troubled present. Confronting that is the growing sense that speculative fiction should consciously, explicitly offer a more positive view of technology and the future generally. The best example I can offer this year is the Heirogylph short story collection put together by Cory Doctorow, but even a fairly grim, post-cyberpunk novel like The Peripheral had room to sneak in a few utopian dreams.

Within that context, I feel Harry August adds a certain world-weary perspective to the question of progress. Very early on in the novel, Harry August hears of Victor Hoeness, a German living in the 17th century who learns of the technological advancements waiting just around the corner from Kalachakra living after him. Seeking to accelerate emergence of a better world, Hoeness becomes a trusted confidante of the French king and quickly introduces as much later technology as he can, in order to force the issue. The result is catastrophe. The world ends in 1937  when radicals from Australia detonate an atomic bomb that triggers a final nuclear holocaust. Something about this vision of the end of the world is appealing in that it forms a natural asymptotic limit to what can be achieved by the Kalachakras. There is no arbitrary force that restricts what can and cannot be done in the past, there is simply the sense that if too much changes the kalachakra to come might never be born. There are human limits.

The maxim that Harry August writes to explain all of this is "complexity should be your excuse for inaction.” Things proceed at their own pace and the end of the world comes from giving any one present too much too quickly. To reduce North’s basic idea somewhat, I feel as though this novel’s theme is that things can always get worse, so enjoy what you have. Every seventy year span could either be a utopia or a dystopia depending on the actions of the people living during that time.

Another big speculative fiction theme this novel reflects is the move towards near-future and pre-singularity fiction. As Harry August’s enemy gets closer and closer to his goals, he begins to distort the course of the future. Ideas breed ideas and by the late seventies, during August’s 14th life, technology not seen until 2030 exists in a world ravaged by ecological disasters. Similar to Victor Hoeness, there is an unspoken assumption that technology is inherently dangerous and context specific, that technological progress must be matched with social progress to avoid catastrophe. While August’s life is too short to see what the near-future will hold, the later sections of the book draw clear conclusions, and the reader grows to react to each new anachronistic innovation with mounting dread.

One minor complaint I have is that the way technological progress is described in the book seems entirely too linear, cause and effect for my taste. It’s almost as though North was consulting one of those wall poster timelines of inventions and just slide-rilling them earlier, assuming that the invention of the telephone at an earlier date will of course lead to an earlier emergence of computers. My own sense is that this is somewhat simplistic. Technology advances through happy and unhappy accidents and the pressures of conflict. If the Soviet Union didn’t pose such an existential threat in the eyes of the leaders of this country during the Cold War, would we have ever gone to the moon? If we hadn’t gone to the moon, would all of the resulting innovation really have occurred? Technology is just as much a product of human culture as literature.

Overall I suspect this book will be brought up at the Speculative Literature Year in Review and will gain readers in the future. Although I think the ending is certainly satisfying, there’s enough wiggle room that I wouldn’t be surprised if a “Second fifteen Lives of Harry August” appears in the future. With an idea this compelling, who’s to say there aren’t universes where that’s happened once, twice, or fifteen times already?
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