Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Is there really only a single day remaining in 2015? Is it really 15 years (- a day) since 01/01/2001? Is it really a quarter century since the Gulf War? Is the Vietnam War as distant in time today as World War 1 was when I was in high school? (I remember how remotely ancient that conflict seemed to me.) Is the end of World War 2 really as far back in time today as the Spanish American War was when I was in high school? How astonishing one finds the answer to each of those questions no doubt depends on one’s current age. To a 15-y.o. 2001 is very long ago: as long ago as possibly can matter except to crusty historians. To a 30-y.o. it is half a lifetime ago. To a 10-y.o. 2015 all by itself is fully 10% of his life – a hefty chunk. To those of us past a certain age, however, something seems terribly wrong with the answers. Surely it was just a handful of years ago that I walked down F St NW in DC with a new diploma in hand wondering what to do now that undergrad studies were over, wasn’t it? Only if the years are equal in number to a handful of dried rice. News Years Eve makes one conscious of one’s life clock as does no other day of the year, birthday included.

By coincidence (I think) the two novels I read this week both dealt explicitly with time. Since I was a boy science fiction has been part of the mix of my recreational reading, and it remains so. (Children’s lit of the Dr. Seuss sort aside, the very first novel I ever read was Doyle’s The Lost World and the second was Wells’ War of the Worlds.) Time travel is such a staple of scifi that it is well-nigh impossible to come up with a completely original take on it, but these two at least put new twists in older ideas. They couldn’t be more different from each other.

Split Second by Douglas Richards is a rousing and well-constructed action/adventure scifi tale. Physicist Nathan Wexler believes he has come up with an elegant theory with little real-world application. If his interpretation is correct, quantum effects and dark energy in particular circumstances could allow time travel into the past a mere .00004515 second. This seems too short a time period to be of any practical use, but he neglects to consider that this effectively would duplicate an object; the duplicate (in a sense the same object) would be displaced by the distance traveled by earth in .00004515 second (about 58 feet). Other people do see the implications and they want to monopolize the technology permitted by the theory before it goes public. Mayhem ensues involving Wexler, his girlfriend Jenna, and a private investigator who finds himself in a bigger fight than he anticipated. Though nearly all scifi requires at least one dubious supposition, the science for the most part is well researched. Thumbs Up, though the philosophical questions the book raises about time are nothing unfamiliar to regular scifi readers.

Whereas Richards writes of split seconds, Claire North (one of the pen names of Catherine Webb) writes of lifetimes. I suspect her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was inspired by the movie Groundhog Day, which is perpetually playing on some cable channel or other. (Yes, the irony is hard to miss.) Suppose that there are some few people who – rather than repeat the same day – repeat their lives. They are born over and over in the same year and in the same circumstances as always, but starting at the age of 3 their memories of the last life come back to them; each such person lives a life of normal length, dies, and then finds himself or herself at the beginning of it once again. Harry August is one such person, repeatedly born in 1915 in a train station washroom and dying less predictably, but usually between 1997 and 2003. Time and again his life restarts in 1915. We’ve all thought “if I knew then what I know now.” Harry gets to act on the thought. Naturally he becomes an uncannily sage investor, but after several lives he feels himself grow jaded. He does not seek out the loves of his previous lives. It seems to him that nothing he does can make a lasting difference, since whatever impact he has on the world in one life apparently is erased when his life starts over. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are multiple timelines and all of them are permanent. Harry meets another “ouroboran” (Ouroboros, the reader will recall, is the serpent that swallows its own tail) whose effort to find out which is true by (in part) accelerating technological development has dire consequences. Whether or not those consequences are permanent, they affect the people who experience them and Harry, after initially helping, has a crisis of conscience.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is moodier and more thoughtful than Split Second and, if you pick only one, it is the better read. The busy Ms. Webb (aka Claire North aka Kate Griffin) already has more than a dozen novels in print, but is only 29. That seems a little early to have grasped the jadedness of the quasi-immortal Harry August as she did. Then again, I was never more age-conscious than when in my 20s. Twentysomethings are fully aware of how few are the years they can consider themselves youths. Youthfulness can last much longer of course, but they are aware of the difference. So, maybe it is just the right age for a novel of this sort. I wasn’t jaded at 29 though. Despite appearances, I was a hopeless romantic then and for long afterward. It never ended well. I’m jaded now. Nonetheless I’d still be happy to give the last several decades a second try.

The Guess Who - No Time


  1. The Harry August novel sounded more appealing to me. I think that is a fantasy we all have. If something like that could happen it seems like the protagonist after he became self-aware of how it all works, might start to experiment a bit and change things up. Rather than being good, maybe I'll be a little more carefree this time around or adopt some other behavior or endeavors.

    Around Christmas I read a short story that takes place around Christmas in the early 1900s. It was unusual to see how far we've come from that era from lighting and heating our homes, to recreational activities, and so forth. But yeah, time in fiction has much to offer.

    1. All of my grandparents were born between 1894 and 1900, and that generation experienced the most radical technological transformation of any before or since. My Bellush grandfather left Austria-Hungary in a horse-drawn hay rick and returned to Budapest in a Boeing 707. The change since he made that flight (the year I attended the NYC 1964 World’s Fair with its exhibits about the future) is nothing like that. Modern phones and social media are cool and all, but they would not have impressed the denizens of 1964 all that much. Once again, I was one. They would have said, “OK, that’s sort-of nifty but show me some pictures of your flying cars and moon bases.”

      There is something appealing about the turn of the century (20th that is) precisely because it is where the future really began. If only we could have avoided that nastiness in 1914… Two of my short stories are set in 1910: the nonfiction How to Avoid Work and Flirt with the Butcher and the science fiction Model ET