Is there anyone among us who hasn't wondered what life would be like if we had the chance to live it over again? You don't have to necessarily be unhappy with your current life to wonder about it. Even so, the chance to live your life over again and make more well-informed decisions holds a certain allure. What would life have been like if you actually turned down the Road Not Taken?
That's one of the reasons I like time travel stories. Besides the mind-bending concept of time paradoxes, the idea that the past could be made better – a ripple effect that (hopefully) makes the present better as well – is a fun one to contemplate. Of course, in fiction, things rarely go perfectly according to plan. Therein lies the drama! And the fun.
Speculative fiction – a genre that revolves around stories that ask "What if?" – can give readers a chance to see how a life reboot might go. Here are a few examples…
Replay by Ken Grimwood
If you've seen Bill Murray in the 1993 time-loop film Groundhog Day, then you will be familiar with the premise of Ken Grimwood's novel Replay, published back in 1986. In it, Jeff Winston is a forty-three-year-old journalist who dies of a heart attack in 1988 and wakes up as his eighteen-year-old self in his college dorm room. He retains the extra twenty-five years of memories from his previous life, which is exactly what we'd want if we were in his shoes. Jeff is naturally confused at what happened, but eventually accepts his situation and uses his knowledge to make his life better than the first time he lived it. Jeff soon learns that he is destined to die of a heart attack at forty-three…but also that he is repeatedly "reborn" with all of his accumulated memories, even if he awakens a little bit older each time. He also meets another "replayer" with whom he tries to get answers about what's happening to them. Will he ever find out before the length of his replays wind down to zero?
Replay won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1988. Rightfully so: despite watching someone relive their lives over and over again, it never gets boring. In fact, it's a genuine page-turner.
All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
In Hiroshi Sakurazaka's 2004 Japanese military science fiction novel All You Need is Kill, a soldier named Keiji Kiriya becomes stuck in a time loop causing him to relive the same day over and over. As if that weren't bad enough, the day ends with him being killed by ferocious aliens who are attacking Earth. If there's any good news to be had in this scenario, it's that Kiriya, who fights with a powerful exoskeleton, retains his memories from the previous days and is thus able to learn – one day at a time – how to better defend Earth against the alien invasion. He eventually connects with another looper named Rita, who unfortunately doesn't retain her memories each iteration.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because the film was made into an entertaining Tom Cruise film titled Edge of Tomorrow in 2014. It changes some things, so if you want the best version, pick up the book.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
North's memorable novel uses some of the same tropes as discussed above. Harry August is stuck in a time loop—but here, that time loop encompasses his lifespan. Harry is repeatedly born again and again. He retains his memories, but they really don't kick in until he is a young child. Even better, Harry possesses a perfect "eidetic" memory, allowing him to take every minute detail with him to the next life. After learning of his unbelievable ability—and after a brief second life marked by psychosis upon realizing he was reliving the same life—Harry sets about learning how to improve over successive iterations.
So far, this all sounds very similar to Replay and All You Need is Kill. But where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August smartly avoids the "Been There, Done That" scenario is in the introduction of the super-secret Cronus Club, whose so-called "kalachakra" members also relive their lives; a nefarious kalachakra villain who surfs the landscape of time loops as well as any of them; and some inventive ways that time loops can be used among kalachakra of different generations. Oh, and it also offers some fantastic philosophical contemplation on the true meaning of life.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Time loops aren't the only way that you can relive your life. Case in point: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. It's a little spoilery to discuss specifically what allows readers to envision a second chance at life, but suffice it to say that […puts on lab coat…] the author achieves this by creating "a character that jumps through different quantum states". […removes lab coat…] What this means exactly, well, you'll just have to read it to see.
The protagonist of Dark Matter is Jason Dessen: husband, father, and ordinary college physics professor in Chicago. Early on in the story, Jason is abducted and taken to a remote location where he is drugged into unconsciousness. When he awakens, the world is a very different place. His wife is just an ex-girlfriend, his son was never born, and Jason has earned a reputation as a scientific genius. Realizing that the situation is way too widespread to be an elaborate prank, Jason soon begins to question his sanity. Which life is the real one? Should he try to get back to the family he loves? Jason's quest leads him on an exciting, fast-paced journey.