The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
Synopsis: Groundhog Day, but the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life, and he has to stop the world from ending hundreds of years in the future.
Book Review: When I say “the time loop duration is Harry’s entire life,” I just mean that’s the portion of the time-loop he experiences. In fact the time loop lasts at least from the beginning of human history until the end of humanity, and it’s likely that the time loop is literally the entire lifespan of the universe from big-bang to heat-death. But several people in the world (including Harry) remember their lives in all the previous time loops every time the universe resets. And they can use this information the same way Bill Murray did in Groundhog Day. They are also limited in the same way as Bill Murray, because in the end everything resets, everything is the same, and nothing they do matters(?).
There’ve been quite a few books I’ve read between Blood of Elves and now, and Harry August is the one I’ve chosen to restart my blogging with, because it is far and away the best book I read in 2020. It may be the best book I’ve read in several years. It takes everything that was good about Groundhog Day and pushes it into the stratosphere. Groundhog Day was a universe without consequences for Murray, since anything he did would be reset in a few hours, and it explored what that could do to someone. Harry August asks how far out this meaninglessness can be pushed. If everything you do matters for the rest of eternity… but then you wake up after a lifetime and everything has reset, did it matter at all?
My personal interpretation is that it doesn’t, which puts me in a bit of a bind, because that doesn’t seem to make sense. Why shouldn’t it matter that you saved someone’s life, or murdered someone, if it changes the world? Just because in a few decades for you it will look like it was all undone, that doesn’t mean it didn’t effect everyone for the rest of that universe, and that should be impactful. And yet, seeing the same non-awakened people doing the same thing over and over, and having to redo everything you did before, just makes everything feel so… empty. I was very quickly won over to the side of “None of these people matter, nothing I do matters,” and that bothers me a bit. You gotta read the book to get it, it presents it very well.
Or at least, that’s my take, but I already struggle with “Nothing matters,” in real life, and there’s no time-looping going on here, so maybe I’m just predisposed to think that way.
But that’s just the start. Other people who also loop are introduced, and suddenly something matters again. THOSE PEOPLE. Because they remember what you did, they continue to be effected by it from one universe into the next. Actions have consequences again. Unfortunately this now leads to a two-tiered world, of a few people who are real people and matter, and the vast majority of humanity that are basically expendable NPCs and can be used and discarded at will, because next life it’ll all reset and they won’t remember. Which is troubling. And yet, I can’t help but feel that it’s true, on a basic emotional level (in the context of the story, of course).
These people all try to deal with their ennui as best they can, and one of them in particular befriends Harry, and then we learn that he’s trying to change the universe forever with various interventions, that he experiments with and iterates on every life. But these iterations are dangerous to the other loopers, the Real People, and now we get a multi-lifespan, many-loops cloak-and-dagger intriuge that piles deceptions and lies and murder into this giant cake of absolutley delicious action and ideas. And all the while, we aren’t even sure we’re on the right side of this fight, we may be the baddies? Like, I just said most of humanity are non-people that don’t count, wtf is wrong with me!?
This is an absolutely stellar book. If you can only read one book a year, and you haven’t read this one yet, make it this one. The Highest Recommendation.
Book Club Review: Yes, yes, of course yes! The main thing about this book is that it asks a lot of questions about what is meaningful in life, and gives some thoughts about it, but leaves it up to the reader to figure out what is right and what is wrong. It’s basically designed to get people to state their opinions on grand questions, and disagree with other’s interpretations, and really get into the meat of what makes humans human. It does it all while telling a really compelling story, and being very well written and entertaining, rather than a lecture. It made for lots of indepth conversation that went on for quite some time!
I note that this was published in 2014. I almost hadn’t heard of it. How is that possible? Of the books nominated for the Hugos and Nebulas in the corresponding award cycle, only Annihilation was on par with Harry August. This is a bit of an embarrasment, the whole point of awards is to find and highlight books like this. Books which will never be hugely successful in the wider market, but are designed to be adored by the heavy reader like us that wants to see something new, innovative, and fantastic. Anyway, I’m ranting. Highly Recommended.
Could get it for £3.44 on ebay 2nd hand – bought. Thanks for the rec.
Good to see you blogging again
Glad you’re back, this was a favorite of mine from 2 or three years ago.
Great analysis of a great book! I to, highly recommend this read. I think you’re insight about the ethical questions that come up will add to people’s enjoyment of the stellar novel.
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The book did feature in both ‘Richard and Judy’s Book Club’ (former daytime show hosts) and the BBC Radio 2 Book Club here in the UK, so I think a lot of the publicity for it played out on the mainstream lists rather than the SF/Fantasy ones. That might explain why it is relatively unknown in genre circles compared to how good it is.
Claire North has written several good books since then, but I don’t think she’s quite topped this one so far.
Just to save you the trouble, this is a dis-recommendation of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a book with a similar-sounding premise that, unfortunately, totally fails to deliver on the implicit promise it makes on its exciting first page.