Greetings, Time Scout!
You've just stumbled upon one of the finest archives in the timespan: the Time Scouts Book Club! In this selection from the archives, you'll find a reading guide for selections from The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.
You can use this guide, originally shared in the Time Scouts Newsletter over 8 weeks in 2020, for a reading group or to read on your own!
Why wait? The time is now!
What a fascinating first twelve chapters, and... eight lives so far? The idea of time travel via the repetition of one's own life was a first for us, and had us wondering: how far back in time have people been traveling through it?
At least as far back as the fourth century BCE, mythological and cultural texts and folktales have mentioned characters jumping forward in time without realizing. Look up King Raivata Kakudmi, Urashima Tarō, or Honi ha-M'agel for some of Time Travels early hits!
But let's hop back to the present for your first batch of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August discussion questions!
1) Do you envy Harry August at all? Would you like to have a few (or limitless) opportunities to live your life in different ways? What would you do if you had two chances to live your life all the way through? What about 10? 100?!
2) One of Harry's first attempts to make sense of what he's going through is to study as many of the world's religions as possible. If you were trying to make sense of living through a never-ending time loop, where would you seek out knowledge? Is there a specific person you might reach out to?
3) Though we still know very little about the Cronus Club, we've learned that its members refer to themselves as "ouroborans" and "kalachakra," references to the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its tale and the Sanskrit word for "time cycle," respectively. If you were tasked with coming up with a new name for the members of the Cornus Club, what would it be?
We thought it was especially cool to learn more about how members of the Cronus Club send messages forward and backwards in time! Almost as cool as it was to receive messages laterally in time from our book club members!
A Time Scout from our Aurora outpost had this to say:
I’ve said many times that I don’t regret any choices I’ve made because those choices made me who I am. But, there are choices I would make differently to adjust for a new trajectory for a life I’ve yet to live. That fascinates me. To be who “I” am now, yet with each new life, “I” would become so much more. I would take those opportunities to help people that I missed the first time around. I would learn more languages, travel more, and be more daring. With all these new memories, I wonder who I will be next time?
To which we say: totally agree! One of the many paradoxes lingering in the background of Harry's story is that, by the very act of reliving one's life, you make it a completely different life. The Ouroboran-kalachakra-Cronuses (there's a tongue twister for you!) aren't necessarily living the same life any more than people living in the same town or in the same time period are!
This is the very conundrum that seems to really annoy Vincent Rankis during Harry's first meeting with him. We expect this won't be the last we see of Vincent and are intrigued by what the future (or past!) may hold with him.
The reason Harry is aware of Vincent's name in the first place is that Vincent has been disciplined for "cutting the corner of the grass." This is a reference to the policy at some Cambridge colleges that nobody but fellows may walk on the grass.
According to this True or False list from Cambridge publication The Cambridge Student, this policy has resulted in ducks being classed as fellows because, well, ducks aren't the best at following the rules.
And finally, here are some things to think about from the reading:
1. Complexity should be your excuse for inaction. This is the mantra of the Cronus Club and the explanation for why they don't try to fix the world's ills with their extratemporal knowledge. Do you think this--the knowledge that you can't effectively fix anything so you shouldn't try--would be frustrating to contend with, or a relief that you needn't try? Do you think you would listen, or might you give saving the world a go?
2. We loved the mischievous strategy around Cronus club members picking clubhouses and devising ways to make sure they/those after them could be financially independent without attracting too much attention. Where would you put a clubhouse in your town? What strategy would you use to gain a little inconspicuous financial comfort for you or the next generation?
3. There seemed to be a lot of insight in Harry's need to write (anonymously) to his biological father, and in his response when his father finally replied. What do you think Harry was trying to achieve by writing to his father? Do you think he got what he was looking for?
In this week's reading, dots are connecting and things are getting dark. But that's just how timeloop apocalypse mysteries tend to go, isn't it?
Over multiple lives, and conversations with Vincent and Virginia, Harry unfolds one of the tragic ironies of his life (or lives): that even once he finds his fellow ouroborans, he can never get too close to anyone on account of, ya know, them being able to use the details of his birth to erase his entire existence.
We also find out that Harry's mentee Vincent is an ouroboran, but loathes the Cronus Club and may (ya know) be intentionally or unintentionally bringing about the apocalypse ahead of schedule.
So there is a lot on Harry's mind, and a lot on ours!
1. When Vincent discovers that Harry is in the Cronus Club, he gets angry and hits Harry. Why do you think Vincent and Harry have such different responses to discovering the Cronus Club? Vincent, one of animosity; Harry, one of acceptance. Do you think Victor's response causes Harry to rethink the Cronus Club or his membership in it?
2. Virginia repeatedly describes the questionable past actions of the Cronus Club with the phrase "cruder times." When Vincent lays out one of his theories to Harry, he describes being able to "theorise your way to the very bottom of things based on rather crude observable effect." How does this focus on the crude (raw, unrefined) play into the story as a whole? As people who live the same life over and over again, aren't they never totally crude after their first life? Or always?
3. Harry says this about a moment during his travels:
"It is perhaps the universal experience of travelers ... there is a moment, in the dead hours of the night, when a man may sit upon a platform in an empty station, waiting for the last train upon a long journey, and regardless of the personal experience of that individual, he ceases to be an 'I' and becomes a 'he.'"
Have you had this experience? When?
We're exactly halfway through Harry August's mission to stop the apocalypse (er--make sure the apocalypse doesn't happen sooner than it's meant to) and, wouldn't you know it? This universe of concentric timeloop Highlanders is becoming just a bit complicated.
Harry just met his mark, Vitali Karpenko, and discovered him to be none other than Vincent Rankis, former student and verbal sparring partner. But instead of stopping Vincent/Vitali, Harry agrees to help?!
Is Harry only saying he'll help so he can get close to the plan and foil it? Or has he been enchanted by a fellow kalachakra into breaking the first rule of Cronus Club: don't try to change the world?
And that's not our only question:
1. On the final page of our last reading, Vincent Rankis back at Cambridge, poses Harry a hypothetical:
"will the good you do the other man by helping him overcome his problem--whatever that may be--gout, let's say--will the help you do to the other man in overcoming his gout exceed the hard, exhaustion and general sense of distaste that you incur to yourself in helping him? I know it doesn't sound very noble, Harry, but then neither does damaging yourself for the sakes of others, as you will then require fixing, and others will be damaged in the attempt, and so it goes on and on and on, and everyone ends up a worse mess than they were to begin with."
We now know that Harry decided that, yes, the good he does for another will overcome the "distaste" he puts upon himself: he kills Richard Lisle before Richard Lisle can become a murderer.
But do we think Harry knows he made the right decision there? And how does this influence his decision to help Vincent with the Quantum Mirror? Or, again, is the endeavor that Harry is about to put himself through one of foiling Vincent in order to help humanity?
And how does Vincent's decision to develop the quantum mirror, something that he believes will help the world, factor into his own philosophy of inaction?
(Hey, we said it got complicated!)
2. In chapter 46, Harry encounters a cryptic crossword puzzle clue that had stumped him three lives ago (so roughly 240 years earlier by his experience) and is upset to discover he still can't crack it.
Can you imagine anything more irritating?! If you were a kalachakra, what petty annoyances of life would vex you the most?
3. Have you solved the clue that made Harry consider, "Maybe, for one life only, I could be the man who wrote to the newspapers to complain."
“Hark--a twist in the road, I perceive." Eight letters.
We are pleased to announce that one of our own solved the crossword from last week's reading! (Er, they discovered the answer using an ouroboran-like secret information transferral channel called... The Internet!)
It's a fascinating answer and we're excited to share it, but not until we discuss these discussion questions!
(If you would like to solve it for yourself first, stop scrolling after discussion question #3!)
1. Harry spends a lot of time talking about the difficulties and minutiae that come with the beginning and end of a kalachakra's life. Everything in between is comparatively glossed over. What does this mean? Why does someone who will live forever still fixate so much on the beginning and end of a life? Is there a specific age you think you would look forward to every life? An age you might dread?
2. Every time Harry meets a new kalachakra, we learn just a bit more about their shared potential. Fidel Gussman, for instance, essentially acts as a time mercenary, chasing "action" in whatever wars he can find. The more we meet Harry's counterparts who operate well outside the purview of the Cronus Club, the more the Cronus Club appears to shrink in importance.
What do you think makes a kalachakra chase belonging versus violence versus omnipotence? Are they different from the things that influence the desires of "linear mortals?" Or do kalachakra just have formative lifetimes the way the rest of us may have formative years?
3. When Vincent is having Harry tortured, Harry says:
Someone with a highly creative appreciation of the use of surround and an ear for the unholy had created a soundtrack which oscillated between techno beats, tortured screams and graphic descriptions of violent and violating acts, carried on with Foley effects and in several different languages.
What song do you think deserves to be included in this dreadful mixtape?
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S CROSSWORD
Reminder: the clue was:
“Hark--a twist in the road, I perceive." Eight letters.
Last chance to solve it for yourself!
You're sure you don't want to try just a little bit harder?
Yeah, we gave up also!
Okay! A Time Scout from a Time Base rumored to be in Colorado-USA-21st-Century-A.D. found this answer on fifteensquared.net:
If we’re allowed to mess with the numeration and assume some slightly dodgy cluing, there’s a case to be made for MIND’S EYE.
MIND[Hark] + S[a twist in the road] + EYE[homophone of I]
That would work better with “I perceived” instead of “I perceive”, but the author might not be a stickler for such things.
Harry survived Vincent’s Forgetting, but so many kalachakra did not. Now, Harry must team up with the most notoriously unstable Cronus Club to track down his nemesis. He’s not wasting time, and neither are we!
1. As serious as fending off apocalyptic acceleration may be, Harry still finds time to crack the occasional wry joke. One of our favorites came up in this section. When Harry spends an entire night jumping through hoops for the Beijing Cronus Club and goes straight to teach a class for his cover as a Russian academic, he then sprints to the bathroom with this aside: “No one ever considers the question of bladder when dealing with matters of subterfuge.”
What are your favorite Harry hilarities?
2. When Harry lives to the twenty-first century for the first time, he employs a bit of much more serious wordplay as he and his wife witness the attacks of September 11th, 2001:
“We sat in silence watching the twin towers fall in 2001, over and over again, a loop on every screen across the country.”
What do you believe Harry is saying here? Are his own lives as meaningless as watching something on repeat? Or does watching something again and again give it more meaning?
3. When Harry tunes out his biological grandmother as she chides him for leaving home to accept his Cambridge scholarship, he shrugs to the reader: “...live as a servant long enough and you acquire an understanding of when sound is meaningless.” To whom do you think Harry considers himself a servant?
There's only a life or two left before we've witnessed Harry's eponymous first fifteen, and he's now engaged in one of the most mind bending games of cat and mouse this side of the wormhole:
Vincent pretends he doesn't know who Harry is. Harry pretends he doesn't know who Vincent is, and further that he doesn't know Vincent is pretending (which he does!). Harry works for Vincent to get close to him; Vincent seduces and marries the only woman Harry has ever loved in over eight hundred years (she of course remembers neither of them).
But speaking of cats and mice... We learned a new word!
NEW WORD ALERT!
Dogsbody. noun. A person who is given boring, menial tasks to do.
We figured the etymology of this had something to do with man's best friend being so obedient, but just like the dogsbody we are, we were wrong!
According to World Wide Words, dogsbody was an indelicacy served to members of the British Royal Navy in the early nineteenth century. The dish (fortunately) had nothing to do with dogs or bodies, but (unfortunately for the sailors) consisted mostly of peas boiled in a bag. Possibly because of the shape the bag took upon preparation, the dish was christened "dogsbody."
Soon enough, the name was borrowed as a derogatory term for junior officers. By the 1930s, it was an anglicism for anybody in a lowly position. So, while you really shouldn't refer to anyone as a gofer or a lackey or a grunt, if you really must, use dogsbody! It's whimsical!
And that brings us to...
1. Okay, sure, sure, sure. We can all agree that dragging the technology of the future into the past has unwanted side effects including but not limited to the eventual erasure of said future. But, if it had to happen, what technology would you be most excited about having earlier? What gizmos from the 2050s would you hope to have today? What gadgets from today do you wish you'd only had twenty years ago? Dream big. After, we're all relatively linear mortals here (wink, wink). What have we got to lose?
2. When Harry watches the McCarthy trials on television which is in color thanks to Vincent's efforts, Harry remarks:
"I wondered if Senator McCarthy would do so well in this new world, now the vivid flushes of his skin could be seen in such glorious technicolour. Black and white, I concluded, lent a certain dignity to proceeding that the proceedings themselves probably lacked."
While the world changes around him in massive ways (cell phones and computers available in the 1970's for instance), this tiny detail illuminates just how much Vincent's innovations are likely changing the world on a granular level. What other unseen side effects do you think might occur? What other historical events, seen by the world in color rather than black and white, would unfold differently?
3. The first thing Harry learned during his career in espionage is, "that a dull listener is, nine times out of ten, a vastly more effective spy than a charming conversationalist." Which is Harry? Which is Vincent?
Which are you?
Ever since Harry and Vincent started spiraling each other as kalachakra, it's felt clear that only one of them would make it out of the story alive. But Claire North kept us guessing as to which one of them would stamp the other out and by what turn of events until the very last chapter!
As one of your fellow scouts pointed out, there were many directions the story could have gone:
"When Harry described the subtle sabotage he introduced into Vincent’s project, I experienced a terrible foreboding and dread — that those changes were what had actually brought about the end of the world in a terrible explosion and eventual meltdown into a black hole that swallowed the planet, moon and eventually our solar system and beyond. I worried that it was our beloved protagonist who had actually killed the world through his own best intentions."
Indeed! Just as an ouroboran can live many different lives from the same point of origin, there were many different feasible paths even after the reveal of the quantum mirror.
We're glad the neutrons lined up the way they did this go-around because we thought it was a thrilling and fulfilling ending, but still left us with... questions, of course!
1. In Chapter 76, when Harry is building a cover life to covertly chase down Vincent, he is surprised to find that he doesn't need to dumb down his efforts in teenage academia to be an average student:
"As it turned out, obtaining B+ came more naturally than I had expected. Questions designed for a fourteen-year-old brain baffled me in my old age."
He's of course talking about homework and exams, but can't it be extrapolated to the questions and problems he's wrestling existentially? Is it possible that if he'd been exposed to Vincent's ideas at a relatively younger or older age, that Harry would have been more enchanted by them? Or maybe that he wouldn't have had the wherewithal and perspective to ultimately foil those ideas?
2. During Harry's seventh time fighting in World War Two, he describes his commander:
"He was a decent man who didn't deserve the death by howitzer that awaited him, but his decency was never of a kindly sort, merely the fixed determination that those who died on his watch did not die because of his inaction." (Ch. 77)
In some ways, this flies in the face of the Cronus Club ideal that inactivity is the only way to save lives. But much like his commander, Harry sets out on a multi-life crusade because if he doesn't act, more Cronus Club members will be made unborn.
And of course, Vincent is willing to sacrifice as many lives as are needed for his actions. But then isn't his end goal the Quantum Mirror, a tool which he hopes will answer all of the questions in the universe? That must save some lives as well.
In short: isn't intentional inaction an action?
3. Before Vincent unsuccessfully tries to force The Forgetting upon Harry one last time, Harry attempts to stop him with:
"Vincent, wait, I'm not--"
The Forgetting apparatus doesn't kill Harry this time, but it does interrupt him and we never find out what he was going to say. Is it because he got his chance to tell Vincent everything he needed to in the letter? Did he change his mind?
What do you think Harry wanted to tell Vincent, and why didn't we get to find out what it was?
If you enjoyed this Time Scouts Book Club Companion Guide, check out our other ones: The Time Traveler's Almanac and This Is How You Lose the Time War.
Thanks for reading, and stay relatively!
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