Replay by Ken Grimwood dates from 1987, and won a World Fantasy Award in 1988. I read this on a recommendation after I read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August earlier this year. The concept is similar, a man living the same span of years over and over, repeating them upon death. The details, however, are very different.

A major difference between the two is that Harry August was focused on a larger organization of time-travelers, whereas Replay is focused on the individual experience. Grimwood’s book is more like the movie “Groundhog Day”, and with good reason — I’ve read that it was cited as an influence.

An interesting aspect of this is the focus on the terrible sadness and lonliness that must inevitably come from such a situation. No matter what you do, none of it really matters, because it all resets at the end. So what’s the point of trying to accomplish anything? You have more knowledge than any other human being in that time, and yet there’s no purpose in using that knowledge. You can make yourself comfortable, and that will be entertaining for a while, but after that?

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As with Harry August, the author generates a meta-situation that partially addresses this, making the story more interesting (in this case a shortening time-frame with each leap backwards), but ultimately this leads to the book’s major shortcomings:

1) It’s hokey. There’s entirely too much “I drove along the street, my <specific vehicle dating the period> thrumming to the beat of the pavement, while the erstwhile tunes of <specific singer dating the period> played on the <specific brand of radio dating the period>.” After a while it all starts to read a bit too much like a Simpsons parody flashback.

2) It’s dated. The story’s obvious attempt to play to nostalgia now seems more of historical note than emotional appeal. Even at my age (51) I don’t remember what it was like when the Dodgers swept the Yankees in ’63, because that was six years before I was born. The story has simply “aged out” of its readership. Not to say that it doesn’t have historical interest, but it takes some of the emotion out of the work.

3) It’s too sex-focused. The protagonist’s life seems to revolve around the women he associates with, who are all pretty much the same — strong, commanding types who nevertheless collapse in a heap of emotional rubble at the first sign of difficulty, allowing the protagonist’s artificial knowledge of events to save the day. This, of course, invariably leads to… sex. And lots of it, with plenty of vivid descriptions. (yawn) (Hey, it’s SF in the ’80s, what did I expect? It’s the era before Internet porn.)

But my biggest complaint would have to be the mainstreamification of the story. I can’t think of a better word for it. It’s as if the protagonist thinks that everyone enjoys the same music, the same TV shows, and is effected by national events in exactly the same way. I don’t think I’ve seen to much generalization about social behavior since the last national political convention. Just to give a brief example, at one point the protagonist declares that the entire world felt a period of lull and depression just prior to the Jonestown massacre. (WTF?) This kind of extrapolation of personal feelings against the whole of humanity is irksome to say the least. I don’t need to be told how I’m supposed to feel about certain events. An author should tell me how he or she feels, not tell me how I should feel.

All of those disadvantages aside, there was a snappy store here with a very clever ending. If you can get past the emotional social baggage it’s worth the trip.

 

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