First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

At any rate, it feels like a metaphor for life in modern, post-industrial affluent societies. The protagonist is born, I think, in the early 1920s. He grows accustomed to dying some time before the 21st century. Yet in many ways his experiences seem to give him a preview of certain features of our information age world.

By going through his own life multiple times—and associating with others who do the same, and who pass knowledge of the future backward each time they’re reborn—Harry August winds up with a lot of information about the world even by 20th century standards, and with even more accessible if he wants it. Nonetheless he and the rest of his kind largely remain adrift in history’s currents. There are a variety of reasons for this; to some extent they enforce a rule about not intervening in major events, as this would nullify the existences of later generations of their kind. It also seems to end badly in general, though, owing to butterfly-effect tendencies and the fact that changing history with knowledge of the future often means introducing technological advances “ahead of schedule.”

One or two of August’s lives, in which another character attempts this kind of scientific leapfrogging, struck me in particular for how plausible it felt. Confronted with technologies that we know to “belong” decades later, 1950s America naturally took for granted that the bewildering pace of change was entirely natural—and why not? This seems to be the inherent condition of human civilization over the past 100 years or so. Looking at that more-accelerated world vs. our own, what on Earth was there to indicate (except to someone with lived knowledge of the “normal” timeline) that the rapid pace of discovery and invention was too rapid?

In another timeline, the artificially rapid introduction of certain technologies ahead of schedule resulted in noticeable symptoms of climate change emerging by the 1980s. This, too, just felt like a revealing exaggeration of our own world, though. That timeline’s denizens just kind of blundered ahead as the world began melting around them… but that’s mostly what we’ve been doing even with an extra 30 years to adjust. Meanwhile, a small number of people like August knew full well what was going on, but that knowledge by itself meant little.

This, again, really felt familiar. With all of the vast, constant deluge of information before us in the Twitter age… the inability to do much with it, most of the time, feels almost as much a cosmic joke as a mobius-strip life. So many people choose to remain—insist on remaining—ignorant and outraged, wedded to fantasies that aren’t even fun let alone productive.* Even with his extra, science fiction information edge, the only peril that Harry August manages to save the world from is also a science fiction element, produced by others with the same edge. The world’s other disasters continue around him just like they do around us.

“The world is always ending,” one of the characters remarks at one point. It isn’t made explicit at any point, but context implies that the “normal” course of human civilization ends in extinction, some way short of unimaginably far in the future. August and his fellows are all basically resigned to this, and disturbed only by the fact that cataclysm seems to begin arriving earlier and earlier.

Meanwhile, well, I’m actually not all doom and gloom at the moment, but that phrase still seems to capture some deep, honest feature of life. The story always ends the same way, ultimately. We die; the people we care about die; the things we care about go into decline and cease to be, or at the least become transformed beyond recognition. (All my 30-year-old electronics end up breaking on me.) Lakewood, and most of this region… whatever we do… is probably in for continued societal senescence, on the whole. I think we should go down swinging at the very least, and may even win meaningful victories against the overall trend. Just as important, though, I don’t see an obvious alternative; where would I jump ship to that not only isn’t sinking, but isn’t going to start? Some times abandoning one situation for another makes a difference, absolutely—but I think predicting those medium-term winners and losers is very difficult.

The world is always ending, and ultimately there isn’t any dependable escape shuttle. So… make the best of the situation without going into despair about the evidence that progress, if any, seems ultimately to come too slowly.

Easier to write than to live by, day after day. But it’s an idea I guess.

* In Iowa last week, I was exposed to a number of Republican presidential candidate campaign ads, and it was like… wtf planet are they living on?

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation