Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986) 366 p.
On October 18, 1988, Jeff Winston is 42 years old, sitting in his office speaking to his wife on the phone. Suddenly he dies of a heart attack – a forlorn end to an unremarkable, underachieving life. When he wakes up again he’s lying on his bed in his college dorm, in the spring of 1963; back in his teenage body, but with all the memories of the “past” 25 years. He’s been given a a reset button: a chance to do it all over again, but this time knowing exactly how the course of history is going to play out.
To a contemporary reader this is of course very similar to Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, although obviously Grimwood had the idea a good 25 years before her. Which is interesting in itself, in much the same way that Marty McFly’s 1985 is now chronologically closer to his idealised 1955 than he is to us here in 2016. Replay, at least in the beginning, contrasts the hopeful, colourful and economically booming 1960s with the dour brown world of the 1980s, ravaged by inner-city crime and AIDS epidemics – a world that is just as foreign to me as the marijuana and hippie devoid college campus is to Jeff in 1963. (Although it must be said that Grimwood doesn’t rose-tint the past either.) And I found it amusing that Jeff’s death date is only a few days before my birthday – like, the actual day I was born, in 1988, and I’m now 27.
Anyway, once Jeff comes to grips with his situation he does what you’d expect: bets a lot of money on sporting events in which he knows the outcome, then sets himself up in the more respectable form of gambling on Wall Street. And indeed as he dies and comes back again, and again, and again, this becomes a form of financial security in all of his secondary lives, even as he searches for a deeper meaning and an explanation of what’s happening to him. Are there other people replaying their lives? Should he try to go public with his knowledge of future events, or try to avert catastrophes? Why does he keep coming back at increasingly later dates, while dying at exactly the same time, and what does that imply for his long-term immortality?
I won’t spoil any of the these questions, because Replay is a very enjoyable read. Grimwood takes the concept much further than you might expect, and I never found the book becoming repetitive or dull. I started reading it on a late night flight from Sydney to Melbourne, and it certainly classifies as great airport fiction; the kind of book which is intelligent and well-written enough not to make you feel as though you’re wasting you time, but which also has a compulsively page-turning guilty-pleasure plot. The 1980s seems to have been a golden era for that sort of book; it reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s early work, classics like The Mist or The Dead Zone. Not great literature, but certainly a fun sci-fi potboiler which I unreservedly recommend.