Many theories have been offered on the birth and death of the universe, but I’m convinced that
the strangest by far is the notion of eternal recurrence, central to the philosophy of Nietzsche. On
this hypothesis, when the world ends, it starts up again, and the same events will occur over and
over—your first date, the Ali-Frazier fight, Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault. We are all just reruns
in unending syndication.

I’m hardly surprised that this notion has found its greatest
traction in the realm of the absurd. In the movie
Groundhog
Day
, Bill Murray finds himself caught in some inexplicable
time warp, living the same day over and over. But almost
every comedy has a dose of
Groundhog Day in its
conception: the very notion of a running gag—that staple
of comedy films and TV shows since the birth of film—relies
upon the intrinsically ridiculous notion of recurrence as
pattern-creating force. Yet other idioms also share in the
absurdity.  Think of that that goofy M.C. Escher drawing
that your roommate put up in dorm room of the handing
drawing another hand that is also drawing the first hand.
And then there’s Calvino’s
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler,
or Michael Frayn's
Noises Off or any number of short stories
by
Borges.  The notion is both compelling and ridiculous, the
loopiness of loops, and for that very reason will recur eternally
as evidence of its own self-validating illogic.

But there’s nothing comic or absurd about the eternal recurrence
at the heart of Claire North’s extraordinary 2014 novel
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  
Our protagonist is forced to lead his life over and over again, and not for laughs. Harry August
is orphaned from birth, losing both his biological mother and the soon after the woman who
adopted him. He never has a real father figure to look after him, even after fifteen lives—the
closest male in his world is actually his nemesis Vincent Rankis, another soul caught in the cycle
of recurrence. Yet this is the father figure he may need to kill, not just to establish an independent
self or work out an Oedipal complex, but for sake of the future.

It's not a good sign when your closest friend murders you twice. Or steals your wife from a previous
life. Even worse, Vincent’s super-villain program to accelerate technological progress—drawing
on learnings from previous lives—threatens to bring about the end of the world. Harry is tempted
to join in the quest to advance scientific learning, and potentially grasp truths hitherto hidden
from human understanding. But he also wants to save humanity, and get a dose of revenge.

Perhaps this sounds like a cross between a James Bond movie and the Upanishads. To her
credit, North manages to succeed both as a storyteller attuned, to the pacing and action required
for success in genre fiction, and also as a thoughtful guide to the many philosophical issues raised
in the course of her novel. I could even see assigning this book in social theory or political science
classes.  I frequently felt, while reading The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, that it provided a
very vivid case study in support of philosopher Sir Karl Popper’s concept of piecemeal social
engineering in his 1957 book
The Poverty of Historicism. Popper contrasted this cautious, step-
by-step approach with the inferior (in his opinion) holistic social engineering—the latter, he
claimed, was doomed to failure because it underestimated the difficulty of managing change in
too many different variables at the same time. In North’s novel, the protagonist August is a
Popperian with Aristotelian leanings, while his adversary Rankis is an anti-Popperian with a
Platonist bent.  In life after life, they pursue their opposed visions, and the readers are in a
position to compare and contrast the results.

Other sections of the novel look at key questions relating
to religion, ethics, free will, technology, psychology,
alternative universe theory, and penology. But these are
never addressed in a heavy-handed or doctrinaire manner.
Every theoretical issue is integrated into the story, and
illuminated by telling incidents—sometimes even with the
benefit of trial-and-error. The first life can serve as a control
group for subsequent experimentation.

Harry August is a member of the Chronos Club, a tiny group of individuals who live their lives over
and over again—in contrast to the vast majority of people, ‘linears’ in the language of the novel,
who only have one life to lead. Chronos Club members take a vow of non-interference in the
major geopolitical events of their lifetimes. They don’t try to avert wars of assassinate tyrants.
They have learned that there are too many unintended consequences of such maneuvers.  
"Complexity should be your excuse for inaction," August tells the maniacal US government agent
who wants to use eternal recurrence to help 'good guys' defeat 'bad guys'.  Our villain Rankis,
in contrast, refuses to join the Chronos Club, and is determined to change the course of history
by informing scientists of future breakthroughs decades in advance.

With each new life, Rankis manages to make greater and greater changes. Through his
machinations, consumers have personal computers, email and the Internet in the 1960s, but
also hackers and ransomware. Color television and jet engines now show up in the first half of
the twentieth century, along with other innovations, but environmental disasters and pollution ramp
up in tandem with these advances. Weaponry gets more sophisticated, but leads to ever more
deadly conflicts.  But it’s easy to ignore these problems when you have more lives to lead, and
can always fix the mistakes of this attempt when you get your next fresh start.  It’s a pity the rest
of the human race doesn't get those same fresh resets on their afflicted world.

This book is very readable, but I don’t minimize the difficulty North faced in managing the
flashbacks and anticipations required when presenting a biography that repeats itself fifteen
times. Perhaps the greatest sign of our author’s skill is how easily she covers the thousand years
during which her story transpires, without getting snagged by the inevitable repetitions or bogged
down by the sheer weight of a millennium of world history.  

I still find the notion of eternal recurrence implausible. But Claire North has convinced me that it’s
no
Groundhog Day joke. Instead of chuckling at absurdist running gags, readers may even
find themselves wondering about a very serious question: What would they do differently if they
could choose all over again?  And then there’s the even deeper question: If you were put in that
situation, would it be a blessing or a curse. There’s a bit of both in this thought-provoking novel,
which I recommend you read in this life, because who knows if you’ll get another chance in the
next one?


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent
book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).



Publication date: November 13, 2017
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The First 15 Lives of Harry August

by Claire North
Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.
Fledgling

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gardner, John
Grendel

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady
Horrorstör

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Yamada, Taichi
Strangers

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



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Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Perhaps this sounds
like a cross between
a James Bond movie
and the Upanishads...