One of the four basic building blocks of science fiction is time travel. Alongside artificial life, space travel, and aliens, time travel has been explored in numerous ways in fiction going back at least as far as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
But what if a person was forced to relive his or her life in repetition? That’s the central premise behind Ken Grimwood’s 1998 novel Replay. Review and some spoilers after the cut.
The novel opens with 43-year-old Jeff Winston in 1988. He’s got a go nowhere job as a news editor for a radio station, a stagnant marriage, and a life that seems drab and dull. Then he dies of a sudden heart attack…and wakes up 25 years earlier. It’s 1963, he’s a freshman in college, and after a bit of disorientation, he realizes he can relive his life and use his knowledge of future events to make things better for himself.
There are a two catches as he soon learns.
- He cannot really change major historical events, though later events in the novel call this one into question.
- No matter how healthy he is or what precautions he takes, he will die at the exact same moment and in the exact same manner he died the first time, and then the cycle will start all over again.
Obviously, his first impulse is to use his knowledge to win big gambling on sporting events. I’d have been dead there since I don’t memorize Kentucky Derby winners in my spare time. Sorry, American Pharaoh.
What Jeff soon learns is that repeating your life over and over is a less a gift and more of a curse. What happens to children he’s fathered when his life resets? Can he win his past/future wife over a second time? Should he? What’s the point of it all? Why is it even happening?
That last question is maybe the least important thematically. It’s never really answered.
That’s OK, though. Jeff finds out basically his whole experience is about choices. What does he do this time around? Does he live a life of financial success, or does he try to make things better for other people? What career path should he chart for himself? How do you handle dealing with people–including the occasional spouse–who have no recollection of a life you shared with them because in this particular timeline it didn’t happen?
When does it become too much for one person?
The overall tone of the book is actually quite melancholy at times. Running into people and places that remind him of things that did and didn’t happen takes its toll. He explores life through solitude and sounds at times like a man who’s much wiser and more experienced than the age he appears to be (because he is) while trying to find someone or something that understands what he’s going through and at the end of the book he finds he may have actually been given a gift from…someone. Again, no explanations are ever offered, so the quiet satisfaction that comes at the conclusion for Jeff really made the journey worthwhile.
If I had a complaint at all, it’s that the longer the book goes (and its just over 300 pages in print), the less time is spent with each of Jeff’s replays. There’s a good reason for it, but it made the final few chapters seem a bit more rushed than before.
Let’s say 9 out of 10 feelings of deja vu.
On a side note, this novel would probably pair off well with Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical classic Slaughterhouse Five.