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Literature / The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

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Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

"I'm fifty-four. I'm two hundred and six."
Harry August

A 2014 sci-fi book by Claire North (pseudonym of British author Catherine Webb), "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" is about the titular protagonist Harry August. He is born, he lives, he dies... Except he does this a lot more than most regular people. Harry is a kalachakra (or ouroborus, the names are used interchangeably), a member of a select few people who, upon dying, simply return to when they were born with all the memories and knowledge of their past lives.

This is all well and good until, while on the deathbed of his eleventh life, Harry is warned by a little kalachakra girl that the world is ending, and he must stop it from doing so.

A Film of the Book, rumoured to be directed by Wes Ball, has been in Development Hell since 2020.

This work provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Ending: The story ends with Harry dying and Vincent getting the book. The question of whether Harry truly managed to go with the plan in his next life or if Vincent managed to somehow prevent it, since thanks to the book he now knows everything, will never be answered.
  • Ancient Tradition: The Cronus Club were actually founded in the 18th century, but thanks to time-looping they've managed to bootstrap themselves into ancientness.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    • In Harry's third life, Franklin Phearson breaks down and berates Harry, asking him "What is the point of you?" when Harry is both unable and unwilling to help him. The question sticks with Harry, and despite ignoring its context, it tortures him throughout his remaining lives, eventually leading to his betrayal of Vincent.
    • In another life, Rory Hulne pleads with Harry to use his fortune to save the family home from being sold to developers, growing increasingly outraged at Harry's utter apathy. Harry icily replies, "When you raped my mother, did she scream?" The wind is completely taken out of his biological father's sails.
  • Born-Again Immortality: Kalachakras play with this by returning to when they were born with their memories and knowledge. If a kalachakra is born in 1919, then their consciousness will return to that date upon dying. Because of this, a kalachakra can only exist within a set time period (e.g. 1919 until whenever they die in one life).
  • Child by Rape: Harry is the son of Rory Hulne and one of the household maids, and though whether his mother had any real say in the rough sexual encounter that produced him is left a matter of Questionable Consent, Harry ultimately believes that the incident was indeed rape. In a later life, once given the opportunity to do so, he gives Hulne a "The Reason You Suck" Speech and leaves him to suffer through the downfall of his family.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Two characters get the receiving end of this.
    • After Harry is committed to an insane asylum in his fourth life (having revealed his secret to his wife), a CIA agent named Franklin Phearson discovers the truth to Harry's claim and tries to get details of the future out of him.
    • Harry gets another at the hands of Vincent, who hired a Torture Technician. This time the torturer uses a more nuanced method, involving a car battery, sleep deprivation, extreme heat, nail-pulling and a "creative" use of surround sounds, featuring violent noises, yelling in different languages, and techno beats.
    • Victor Hoeness, a kalachakra who, by speaking to others who would see the technologies of his future, brought advanced tech to the court of a 17th-century French king. This began a cataclysm which changed history enough for many kalachakras to simply cease existing. Once the remaining Cronus Club got their hands on Hoeness in his next life, they began torturing him as punishment for his action and in order to discover his point of origin (date and place of birth). When he finally broke and told them, they cut off his tongue, ears, hands and feet, gouged out his eyes and bound him in a metal straitjacket. When he died, the Club simply abducted him and repeated the process until he died a second time. However, after two lives and about two decades of torture, baby Victor wasn't able to use his hands, eyes, tongue or ears. The Club, upon discovering that they had essentially broken Victor, decided to kill him and abort his mother in the next life, thus removing Victor from existence.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The only way Harry manages to deceive Vincent after the latter does the Forgetting on him, is because there's another boy also named Harry August and also of around the same age as the protagonist. What's more, this other Harry is also adopted like the protagonist is (which is needed for protagonist Harry to be able to mislead Vincent, because Vincent needs to think there is no known biological mother); and to top it off this boy conveniently died at 8 years old, which is how (protagonist) Harry managed to steal/use his identity because stealing the identity of a living adult would raise suspicion. Because "August" isn't really a common last name, the chances of a boy of the same age who also shares the same first name are already small—but this boy having no known biological parents too, and dying at such a young age?
  • Death Is Cheap: For kalachakra, dying simply sends them back to their birth, though they only start to consciously recall their previous lives at about three years of age.
  • Deathless and Debauched: Because most Kalachakra would rather not change history for fear of accidentally erasing future immortals, they prefer to spend their lifetimes pursuing pleasure in any way they desire. Harry himself spent a hundred and twelve years on virtually nothing but wine, women, and song, while his friend and occasional lover Akinleye (AKA the queen of a good time) is known for experimenting with both her sexuality and with drugs, even introducing Harry to heroin. Deconstructed; Akinleye's hedonism eventually drives her to a depressive period during which she gets AIDS, prompting her to request the Forgetting from Harry so that she can be given a clean slate in her next life.
  • Doomsday Device: Unintended one. The quantum mirror. That said, the book implies that the mirror won't destroy the world itself - it's the constant leapfrogging of tech from the early 2000's being brought back to the 1940's to make the mirror possible that does the real damage, as the second half of the 20th century becomes a mad rush to show off new technology without thinking about consequences.
  • Driven to Suicide: Harry's second life - where he discovers his pseudo-immortality and is driven insane by the fact - ends when he throws himself out of the third floor window of an asylum at the age of 7. He later notes that many kalachakras go through this same stage of temporary madness and the Cronus Club finds possible members by looking at children who exhibit the same madness.
  • Fantastic Racism: The kalachakra look down on "linears" as inferior.
  • Friendly Enemy: Harry and Vincent
  • Groundhog Peggy Sue: Precisely what the kalachakras are. Unlike many examples of the trope, all of their loops begin at birth.
  • Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act: Harry and Vincent have a discussion about this. Both of them always live their lives before and through WWII; they talk at a certain point about whether they would kill Hitler before WWII. Harry seriously considers it, but Vincent says that it would be of no use. In this universe, kalachakras can only change their personal lives but can't change the world at large note  If Hitler would be killed, either another person would just take his place and do what Hitler would have done; or something would happen instead that would be even worse than WWII was.
  • If It's You, It's Okay: There's nothing indicating that either Harry or Vincent is anything other than heterosexual, but their interactions have a slight sexual/romantic undertone. Downplayed in that this only ever stays a Belligerent Sexual Tension, and nothing concrete ever happens between the two of them (see Will They or Won't They? below). Though at the end of the book, by the time he's in his 15th life and spending much time with Vincent, Harry outrightly states he certainly would have sex with Vincent if given the chance.
  • Immortal Apathy: The Kalachakra all possess Born-Again Immortality via "Groundhog Day" Loop, being destined to restart their lives at the moment of birth regardless of how many times they die. Given that they can't reveal their natures without being locked up in asylums or tortured by government agents for their knowledge of the future, Kalachakra often grow detached from mortals and the notion of lasting consequences; the members of the Cronus Club are downright apathetic towards "Linears", and rarely stir themselves from their hedonistic lifestyles unless a future-destroying apocalypse is on the way. Harry himself is considered a bit of an oddball because he still cares about Linears after a fashion and believes that his actions have lasting consequences in other timelines... and even he has no qualms about regularly murdering a Serial Killer.
  • Immortal Genius:
    • The Kalachakra possess Born-Again Immortality via "Groundhog Day" Loop, and on the few occasions they've been documented by historians, they're usually considered improbably wise: not only have they had lifetimes to master their chosen fields of study, but they know the history of their eras almost off by heart.
    • This goes double for the few Kalachakra who can remember literally everything of their past lives: Harry himself is one, having used his unfading memory to become a professor of physics at an incredibly early age, even working on the Manhattan Project in one iteration of history. Vincent is a villainous example of this: he's using his scientific skill to perform a Technology Uplift in one timeline, then uses all the knowledge he accumulated over the course of that life to perform an even bigger uplift in the next one until he has a working quantum mirror.
  • Inconspicuous Immortal: The Kalachakra possess Born-Again Immortality by way of "Groundhog Day" Loop; while many of them live large and devote themselves to extravagant lives of adventure, hedonism, philosophy, or scientific research, others are more than happy to spend entire lifetimes on a perfectly mundane existence. Harry himself has taken this path more than once, abandoning a decadent period of "wine, women, and song" in favour of becoming a labourer in Jerusalem. Harry also spends an entire lifetime as an unassuming journalist, simply in order to lull Vincent into believing that he successfully erased Harry's memories during their previous encounter.
  • Killed Off for Real: If a timeline is changed enough to prevent a kalachakra from being born, they're gone for good in all future timelines as well. Kalachakra therefore keep their exact birthplace and parentage a closely guarded secret.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Forgetting, the other way to "kill" a kalachakra. It involves a Memory-Wiping Crew carefully attaching number of electrical nodes to the head of the subject and injecting a chemical cocktail into their veins, which wipes the mind of the subject. The subject is then killed and reborn with no memory of previous lives unless the subject is a mnemonic like Harry, with perfect recall of all previous lives, who by the end of the book has survived three Forgettings at the hands of Vincent, although the book isn't explicit as to whether or not Vincent simply screwed up during the procedure.
  • Long List: By the time he lives his 14th life, Harry tells the reader a list of all the gathering
  • The Masquerade: Kalachakras generally avoid revealing themselves. This is justified by the fact that, if they alter history too much, all the kalachakras who will be born in the future will cease to exist.
  • Missing Mom: Happens to poor Harry twice. First, his biological mother dies giving birth to him, so he has never known her. Then, at 8 years old he loses his adoptive mother, too, which might be even more heartbreaking because he actually knew her... and he has to experience it in every one of his lives knowing there's no way to prevent her death.
  • Muggles: Linears, as kalachakras call anyone who isn't reborn with their memories.
  • Polyglot: By being Really 700 Years Old, Vincent has ample time to learn languages—and he gladly does so, including some more difficult and "exotic" (from the viewpoint of a native English speaker) ones such as Sanskrit, Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Thai. He also learns a lot of accents—he can speak English, as needed for the situation, with his own accent, or an RP accent, Scottish or American accent. It's almost an Exagerated Trope because he even learns to speak other languages with each others accent—for instance when he goes to China pretending to be a Russian, and speaks Mandarin with a Russian accent (though he notes that one was particularly difficult to pull off).
  • Really 700 Years Old: As people who have lived dozens of lives with centuries, if not millennia of knowledge and memories, all kalachakras count as this mentally. Amusingly lampshaded by one dying kalachakra Harry visits as a child.
    "You've trained as a doctor, haven't you? I can't stand bloody doctors, especially when they're five years old."
  • Renaissance Man: Because of being Really 700 Years Old, as well as having the ability to do a different line of work/study in every life, Harry has a vast amount of knowledge in many different fields. In one of his first lives, he is a doctor; this medical knowledge comes in handy in later lives. Later he becomes, amongst other things, a scientist conducting research in a lab, or a criminal (which comes in handy in later lives whenever he needs to bribe someone or forge papers).By the time he lives his 14th life, he decides to this time study Law at university, just for the heck of it because it's a field he doesn't know yet. Also, he learns to speak an incredible amount of languages, amongst which some rather unusual and difficult ones like Mandarin Chinese or Thai, just for fun.
  • Resurrection/Death Loop: First-time immortals often Freak Out as a result of their first death, and even veteran kalachakra are often reborn with the trauma of their previous deaths still haunting them; as such, it's the duty of the Cronus Club to provide vital psychological support to newly-reincarnated members. More disturbingly, the Club's punishment of Victor Hoeness involved inflicting this on purpose.
  • The Reveal: The penultimate chapter reveals that Harry is writing the novel as a letter in-universe to Vincent on a typewriter. This explains the way he writes and in the introduction, referring to the reader (Vincent) as his greatest enemy and best friend. Counting on Harry's memories not surviving the Forgetting, Vincent revealed to him his point of origin (birthplace and date). Since Harry sat through the Forgetting with his mind intact, he's now free to die and cause Vincent's mother to miscarry, thus killing him in all future lives.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!: Many kalachakras treat linears like animals at best. Once you've reset a few dozen times, it's hard to care about "short-term" consequences that only last one life at most.
  • Signs of the End Times: Message from the future kalachakras is quite clear. "The world is ending and we cannot prevent it."
  • The Slow Path: Kalachakras stuck in an unpleasant situation can end their life to be reborn, relive to the current moment, and avoid the problem, but it is considered tedious (especially the first few years), and most try to avoid it, if possible. The Cronus Club and its members will also sometimes send messages this way, with messages going backwards sometimes taking multiple cycles to reach their recipients. Henry meets one Kalachakra who spends his lives as a mercenary, picking a different side to fight for each time. They meet when the mercenary kidnaps a group of journalists, but treats Henry as an honored guest and lets him go.
  • Technology Uplift: Vincent's plan to obtain the technology needed for the quantum mirror is to send blueprints of future technologies to current scientist and wait for their progress. Then repeat it in the next life with new technologies they managed to discover.
  • Temporal Abortion: As the Kalachakra all possess Born-Again Immortality by way of a "Groundhog Day" Loop, the only way of killing one of them permanently is for an older Kalachakra to prevent the target's birth in their next life, most commonly by feeding abortifacients to the mother during pregnancy - or just flat-out murdering her. Vincent Rankin uses this method to decimate the ranks of the Cronus Club before they can stop him from enacting his apocalyptic plan; for good measure, the fact that nobody knows his date or place of birth prevents anyone from enacting the same trick on him. However, after spending multiple lifetimes pretending to be Vincent's brainwashed comrade, Harry August is finally able to trick him into admitting to when and where he was born, and the book ends with a "fuck you" note from Harry to Vincent as he sets off to erase his Evil Former Friend from existence.
  • Time Travel for Fun and Profit: The kalachakras tend to be quietly wealthy based on their foreknowledge.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The rules of time travel and causality are not exactly concrete; a popular concern among the Cronus Club is that they have to coexist peacefully with the Linears or risk permanently removing each other from history through clumsy alterations to the timeline... and yet multiple Kalachakra can exist throughout history and do almost anything short of deliberate alterations without accidentally removing each other via the butterfly effect. Plus, it's never established what prompts any of them to exist in the first place. Harry's own theorizing puts another wrinkle in the mix: he believes that Kalachakra aren't merely time travelers, but Dimensional Travelers, with each life being situated in an alternate reality - his reason for being a more conscientious immortal than most. It's never specified if he's correct and the Cronus Club experts on Kalachakra are wrong about the rules.
  • Tragic Time Traveler: The Kalachakras are people who are stuck in a time loop starting from their birth and ending in their death, only to go be reborn and go through the cycle again. However, some have it worse than others, like the titular Harry, who seems to suffer some kind of misfortune no matter how many loops he goes through, whether it's from being tortured simply for trying to share his secrets with "linears", or being constantly pitted against his Evil Former Friend Vincent Rankin.
  • Undying Warrior: The Kalachakra only possess Born-Again Immortality via "Groundhog Day" Loop, so most prefer to avoid violence - especially given that they usually end up reborn feeling the aftereffects of any trauma they experienced. The one exception to this is Fidel Gussman, who prefers to spend eternity on war, though he freely admits that he has no hope of changing the outcome of any of the conflicts he gets involved in, and fights simply because he enjoys the thrill of violence more than the luxury offered by the Cronus Club. Plus, he honestly prefers dying in battle to dying of cancer - his most common cause of death.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Harry and Vincent. They don't.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: It is inevitable that (except for lives he dies much younger, because of murder or suicide), Harry gets cancer (multiple myeloma) in his 70s/80s and will die of this. One live he manages to live to 84 years old before the illness sets in, which surprises himself. This seems to be true for every kalachakra, actually; each one (again, barring murder/suicide/accidents) has a set life span and will always die of the same causes.