Review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North
This is an enjoyable story based on an interesting premise. The premise is the existence of “kalachakra”, people who when they die are reborn to the same life, at the same point in time, in the same body, but with their memories intact. The novel explores several surprising logical consequences of this premise, but the phenomenon is never explained, so it remains basically a fantasy premise. The bad guy, Victor, is trying to modify the timeline at each rebirth so as to eliminate opposition and to accelerate scientific and technological progress so as to construct a “quantum mirror”. This would give him absolute knowledge of, and presumably absolute power over, the universe. So the novel itself incorporates a struggle between the genres of fantasy and of science fiction.

The narrative is in the first person, as Harry August recounts his first fifteen lives. Harry is one of the few kalachakra endowed with perfect memory of their past lives, so his account can be detailed. However, a kalachakra must be careful not to be specific about their origins, as this information can be used to make sure they were never born, thus deleting them permanently from the timeline. So Harry has every reason to be an unreliable narrator. The story is told in nonlinear fashion at the beginning, as Harry slides from one life to another to fill in context and motivation, and then straightens out as the battle between him and Victor gains momentum.

The story seems a little difficult to follow at first, due to the complexity of the image of time underlying the initial premise. However, the time-image is not really very complicated, as it is basically linear time with re-sets when a kalachakra dies, allowing for passage of information from the future to the past, and progressive modification of the time-line. This is something that an association of kalachakras, the Cronus Club, tries to keep to a minimum.

Victor’s accelerationism is bringing him ever closer to the Quantum Mirror, but it is also ruining the planet at an ever faster rate. Harry shares sum of Victor’s curiosity, but cannot accept the means to the end, the ecological degradation, the overweening narcissism. In a way, both are demi-gods, but Harry opposes Victor’s hubris, based on physics, with the more humble science of accounting. Both are masters of cunning and of simulation, so the end is predictably ambiguous.

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