Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 43: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Science Fiction Round 43: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

This book was amazing.  It’s not notable enough (yet?) to have its own page on Wikipedia, but here’s somebody else’s review, and here’s the author.

The prose is light, but the ideas are dense.  It’s worth a read.

And, yes, spoilers.

I'm pretty sure that this picture-in-picture thing doesn't actually happen in the novel.

I’m pretty sure that this picture-in-picture thing doesn’t actually happen in the novel.

A Most Fascinating Premise

This is one of the coolest — and best-executed — time travel plots I’ve seen in a long time.  (Yes, I saw The Terminator recently, but this book was good.)

It’s something like a cross between Groundhog Day and one of those time travel stories where somebody tries to fix the past world with future technology and things go awry.

The special people in this story are referred to as Ouroborous, after the snake eating its own tail.  Each such person’s lifetime is like Groundhog Day without end.  You die, and then you start over by being born, same time, same place, with all the memories of your previous lifetimes.  About one person per half million born is an Ouroborous.

These memories eventually fade — the human cranium has finite capacity — except for extra-special people, called mnemonics, who always remember every lifetime.  (Don’t ask where they’re storing the data.)

To prevent history from going unpredictably awry, the Ouroborus have formed the Chronos Club.  They play little time-travel games with each other, and set up trust funds for younger Ourobouri to get them set up in life, and then pass on the money they make with their foreknowledge to others of their kind.  Messages from the future get passed on by a young club member speaking to a near-dying club member, who can then carry the messages back in childhood of the next lifetime.

Effectively, the universe runs again and again, and the Ourobori remember the last ride.

The Unending Masquerade

Once you have time travel, it makes maintaining the Masquerade much easier.

It’s also well motivated.  The Chronos Club explicitly works to keep itself as a secret society, to prevent disruptions to the timeline (which would harm their members) and to avoid having people try to exploit their foreknowledge (which would disrupt the timeline).  There are just enough hints that a new Ouroborous could eventually discover the club, but it’s not easy.

Since there’s time travel… members can anticipate what’s going to happen.  There are fluctuations between individual versions of the timeline, but they’re usually not too bad.  Thus, they can generally avoid doing things they know will draw attention, and avoid being places where there are witch-hunts and whatnot.

Finally — and even better — it’s explicitly stated that, sometimes, the Chronos Club gets caught. A member gets trapped and tortured for prognostications, or an entire regional club is brought down as witches or illuminati or some such, which of course rumples the entire future of that timeline.

And then the universe reboots, and the members make sure that doesn’t happen again, and history again goes through the paths that it should.

That being said, I think we’re still…

Missing A Few Butterflies

It’s always a problem with repeated time travel.

Some of this is by construction — an Ouroborous can work to make sure things happen the say way — but much of history is chance and circumstance.

Nonetheless, history proceeds similarly enough that, despite the vagaries of the Ouroborous who lived in 3000 BCE, the same people are still born in 20th century England, at the same time and the same way.  It’s as if the Ouroborous are fixed points in time (like the Doctor Who handwaving), which can only be changed or removed through specific, deliberate means.

That being said, this conceit is needed to make the story work as it does.

Quantum Mirror, Wha?

I’m a physicist by training.  So… this part was annoying.

Look, if the first hit on the Google search is a ficticious device on the Stargate Wiki, then your device is probably not realistic.

And quantum reflections don’t give you the secret to the universe or let you observe all of time, past and future.  (In essence, quantum reflection is “particles bounce off a surface,” which gets quantum when you have individual atoms and whatnot.)

So… really.  Don’t just label it quantum to make it sound sciency.  Be a little more creative, eh?

Also, no, there’s no such device for understanding all of physics and the universe at once.  It’s usually multiple experiments working together to learn one more small thing.  Or several different small things, and more than any single experiment alone.

And, to conclude…

Was That Framing Necessary?

I’m not sure I liked the particular framing device, where this very story is written by the protagonist at the end, as a message to Vincent.

I also felt a bit… unsatisfied.  The novel ends with little further fanfare.

But… I still want to know.  What happened after that?  Did Harry find Jenny again in his next life?  What happened to Virginia, after the Forgetting?

Does the world always end in fire, sooner or later?

  1. 2015/05/17 at 2:14 am

    Some other inferred-but-not-stated things:

    There have to be some occasional fluctuations to the timeline. Otherwise Harry August wouldn’t have a first life – he would have been eternally looping through. Presumably, the occasional fluctuations sometimes result in an ouroborous being born who was not born on the previous iteration. The Chronos Club will eventually reach steady-state from one iteration to another when the rate at which fluctuations add members (which the Club then tries to make sure appear the next time through) equals the rate at which members are permanently lost (by permanent-suicide, by permanent-murder, or by never-fixed butterfly effects).

    Also, I form head-canon:

    Let there exist in Nepal a monastery, hosting a few tulku lineages. Said monastery has somehow avoided ever being hit by a large earthquake – because the tulkus are actually members of the Chronos Club, using their sequential looping to coordinate appearing to be each other’s reincarnations. Convenient for getting parents of 2-year-olds to let their actually-700-years-old kids move away.

    This would fit nicely with the book having “kalachakra” as an alternate term for “ouroborous”.

  1. 2017/01/08 at 4:48 pm

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