Claire North's The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) is a brand new book about two very old topics: time travel and the apocalypse (aversion thereof). I have to confess, I went into this novel a bit jaded. Time travel - be it relating to wives, doctors or serial killers - has been everywhere lately. As has, frankly, the apocalypse. I couldn't see how Harry August would have anything to add into the mix.
I was, of course, wrong. I like this book because, rationally, it takes a new approach to two of the oldest tropes in science fiction. And I love it because Harry August himself is such a brilliant character.
Let's start with the latter.
Harry is born in the early 20th century in grim circumstances. His mother was probably assaulted by the local upper-crust. She dies whilst giving birth to Harry. He's given to a pair of caretakers, pretty much because they had the (good?) (ill?) luck to be there when he was born. His early life is predictably unpleasant - he grows up in the shadow of his biological family and is more or less miserable. He goes off to university (yay!) and then war (argh!). Lives his life. Meets people. Falls in and out of love. Has a job. Dies. It is brutal to reduce 95% of his life to that sequence of truncated sentences, but there it is. Harry's life is unextraordinary - he's a person that has minor successes and failures, just like the rest of us.
But then, he's born again. With all the memories of his previous life.
Harry's not an alien superman or a Chosen One or the child of legend or anything of that type - there are no dragon-shaped birthmarks or strange prophecies. He's just a guy. And that's the most amazing thing about him. He's a bit squishy, a bit geeky, and not all that brave, but, for some quirk of quantum mechanics and/or genetics and/or literary force majeure, he's effectively immortal.
Disconcerting, to say the least.
After a predictably unpleasant adjustment period, Harry begins to embrace all the possibilities, both positive and negative. Can he change his life? Can he correct his failures? Can he become a saint or a villain? How does this end?
The book is structured in a brilliantly logical progression - it begins with Harry himself, and his self-absorption. How does his situation affect him? Certainly there are the little things: he's not the brightest man in the world, but when you get to attend university over and over again (with the knowledge of the inventions and innovations that happen sixty years later), things get a bit easier. Similarly, knowing the winner of every horse race for a century is a handy thing to have in your back pocket... but then, how do you take advantage of that when you're a five year old with the knowledge of a two-century old man?! Harry's tactical fumbling is one of the joys of the book, which doesn't shy from the detail of 'time travel', but instead looks for ways of making the mundane elements interesting.
Harry's world expands slowly. After indulging himself, he begins to look outwards. Can he change the lives of others? His parents? Murder victims? Even the war? And as he becomes less self-absorbed, he begins to notice more patterns... perhaps he's not completely alone after all. (I'm not sure it is pessimistic or realistic, but there's something to be said about the lesson that it takes a person several lifetimes to 'get over ourselves' and start paying attention to others.)
Once Harry begins to encounter other members of the "Cronus Club", the full possibilities of his unique brand of time travel become clear. Harry is confined by one lifetime, but as a collective, the Club can pass information forwards and backwards along the length of human history. And, on a more practical level, having friends solves a lot of the fiddly problems of immortality (see: 'five year old with the knowledge of centuries', above). Harry learns more of the routine, the invisible network of support that the Club provides. He also learns more of the rules - what they can and can't do, what are the limits of their 'powers' and, if necessary, the ends of it. He also learns that many of his big questions are still answered - can they change history? And, if so, should they?
Through it all, Harry is amazing because he is so utterly normal - a completely decent, flawed, usual (slightly nebbish, even) human being. It is all to easy to slip into his shoes and walk with him as he unpicks the complexity of his existence.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August escalates even further. Although Harry's utterly-justified existential questions are fascinating, he's caught up in larger events. We learn on the very first pages that the end is nigh, someone is breaking the rules, and the future is unravelling. Unexceptional/exceptional Harry seems to be the last link in the chain - so as he goes through life after life, he not only needs to learn about himself and his peers, but also keep an eye on the fate of the universe.
Harry's also given a perfect foil, someone else who tackling the same Big Questions, but with more certainty. If anything, the line between heroism and villainy in The First Fifteen Lives is just that: the confidence to act on a theory, rather than stay within the comfort of the status quo. It makes the inevitable showdown all the more compelling, as even Harry is uncertain who is "right". It is, again, a reflection of his ordinariness - his humanity - that Harry avoids absolutism. He's not the champion of good or law; his enemies are neither evil nor creatures of chaos. Just as his view expanded from self, to friends to world, the answer to his problems comes from constricting his gaze. There's no objective right or wrong and there's no 'goodness' that comes from being on a side - ultimately, Harry has to do what he, himself, believes is right. And it takes him the course of fifteen lives to find the confidence to do it.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has all the intellectual rigour and thoughtfulness of the best speculative fiction, but, more importantly, it is driven by incredible characters. Harry is so easy to empathise with and to understand that he becomes the perfect companion for an impossible trip. Harry August will break your heart fifteen times, and you'll thank him for it.
A version of this article first appeared on Pornokitsch (April 2014).