Alternate history is becoming personal. There was a time when alternate histories began with a big public event, a battle that went the other way, an assassination that did or did not occur, and then traced the way in which history might have been reshaped by that change. If Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg, would the north become a backward, impoverished state in hock to the south? If Hitler had been victorious, what would life have been like in a restrictive, post-war Nazi world? The ordinary man or woman might be affected by these changes, but that wasn’t what the story was about.
But lately we have started to trace the ordinary, the unspectacular, the personal through alternate histories in which the great events remain largely unchanged. It is a pattern we see, for instance, in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, in Jo Walton’s My Real Children, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. There are nods towards changes in events of the wider world: does Atkinson’s Ursula assassinate Hitler? Does Walton’s Tricia really live in a more peaceful world? To an extent, however, this doesn’t matter, because the focus is upon the different opportunities that life in the twentieth century might offer these women (and in each case, it is a woman).
Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August occupies an uncertain position somewhere between the two schools of alternate history. The wider world changes more radically than it does in any of those alternative lives of women, a change of emphasis perhaps signalled by the fact that the protagonist is male: both protagonist and antagonist are men out to make a mark upon the world. But these changes are largely in the background, glimpsed in passing as it were; the focus remains on the personal. The driving force of the plot may be the big question of whether or not the world will end, but the book is far less concerned with how the world might be different, and far more concerned with how the life of an individual might be affected by living in a different world.
There is one other major difference from Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, and it is this difference that sets the whole story in motion and gives it a distinctive character: our protagonist remembers each previous life. I am not saying, of course, that this is an entirely original conceit. We have seen something similar, for instance, in Groundhog Day or Ken Grimwood’s Replay, but North takes the idea further by imagining a society of people who experience their lives repeatedly.
The situation is that, throughout history, there have been certain individuals who live their lives again and again. When they die, whenever they die, they are immediately born again in exactly the same circumstances as their original birth, to the same mother, in the same place. At some point during early childhood, they start to recover memories of their previous lives, which enables them to make some changes. They can put money on a winning horse in order to acquire cash; they know in advance when wars or other dangers are at hand, so they can keep themselves safe. Moreover, after living through a couple of lifetimes, they start to discover that there are others like themselves, indeed there is a club that has been in existence in one form or other throughout history, the Cronus Club. The club gives them protection when they are vulnerable, funds when they are in need, and provides a conduit for messages passed back and forth through time. Buried artefacts are often left for future members of the club, while a whispered message from a child to someone on the point of death can pass a message back through time. Time, thus, is fairly flexible in such circumstances, but while members of the Cronus Club might endlessly relive history, they have no incentive to change it dramatically; after all, if they did, their mother might not be there in the right place at the right time when it came for them to be reborn.
Harry August is a fairly typical member of this society. He is born, illegitimate, in the early hours of January 1st, 1919, in a railway station in the north of England. His mother dies in childbirth, and he is raised by a gamekeeper and his wife. That much is common to all of his lives. Other than that, he might fight in the Second World War or avoid service; he has various careers; and in one life, when he has come to the attention of a rogue spy who tortures him for knowledge of the future, he learns about the Cronus Club. Thereafter he contacts the Cronus Club as early as is feasible in his childhood, and, in common with other members of the club, goes on to enjoy a comfortable life that might be productive or might be dissolute, as the mood takes him. And so it goes until the very end of his eleventh life, when a young girl appears at his deathbed and passes on a message from the deep future: the world is ending earlier than it should.
When he is reborn to carry the message on, he finds the Cronus Club itself is under threat. In one life, indeed, he finds it has all but disappeared and he has to contact the few scattered survivors and slowly start to rebuild it. But Harry quickly realises that he holds the key to what is happening. In one life he is a professor of physics, and one of his students has bright ideas way ahead of his time. The student, Vincent, is another of those who is endlessly reborn, but he is not a member of the Cronus Club. Across successive lifetimes, Vincent works to accelerate technological development, in one life setting up a secret Soviet project, in another becoming an American entrepreneur. Of course, each time he is reborn, he has to start all over again, but he is still able to make things move ever more quickly, which incidentally seems to bring the end times that much closer. North is not exactly clear why he should be doing this: at times he seems to have no purpose other than the betterment of humankind, at others it appears to be simple curiosity, at still others it seems to be self-aggrandisement. In the end, we are left to assume that it is just antagonism towards the Cronus Club and all it stands for. Certainly, in among a busy schedule of endlessly stimulating invention, Vincent finds time to attack the Cronus Club, and ensure that key members are not reborn. The obscurity of Harry’s birth is what saves him, so he is the one who has to lead the fight against Vincent across multiple lifetimes.
What we have, therefore, is two alpha males squaring off to save the future across a succession of alternate histories. It’s a complex, well-oiled plot, ingeniously constructed, compellingly written, but even so it could too easily become a sequence of epic but familiar battles of wits and tedious machismo. What saves it, what makes it a far more interesting novel, is that the big, public event-story of the war for the future is embedded within the unspectacular personal story of what Harry August can do with his life. Major events in the world—politics, wars, the rise of the Soviet Union—are mostly restricted to the background, passing references that allow us to deduce some change, big or small, in the history we recognise. But in the foreground, for instance, North makes a point of showing us, in life after life, Harry offhandedly murdering a man who would otherwise have gone on to be a particularly nasty serial rapist and killer. The emotional investment is in what affects the person, not in what shapes the world.
If you were to live your life over endlessly, assured of enough money to live comfortably, forewarned of any great dangers that might lie ahead, what would you do differently? Harry August has no more clue than the rest of us, but he has endless lifetimes in which to try and find an answer. In his third life, which he refrains from telling us about until near the end of the novel, he “wandered for a while as a priest, monk, scholar, theologian—call it what you will—idiot in search of answers” (p. 385), and he remains that idiot in search of answers throughout the novel. We witness his repeated failure to break through the coldness of his adopted father, or to get any understanding of his biological father, and we see how he and other members of the Cronus Club can spend entire lifetimes devoted to drink and drugs and sex. In a way, the war with Vincent is the thing that gives shape and meaning to his multiple lives, and we are left wondering, when it is all over, when he is reborn yet again in that freezing railway station at the very start of 1919, what is there left for him to do?
Paul Kincaid has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award. His latest collection of essays and reviews, Call and Response, is forthcoming from Beccon Publications.