science fiction and fantasy book reviewsReplay by Ken Grimwood science fiction book reviewsReplay by Ken Grimwood

Replay is a story that every reader can empathize with. Who wouldn’t want to relive their best years over again, with all their memories intact? Fixing all the mistakes, seizing all the missed opportunities. It’s an irresistible thought, a fantasy of “what ifs.” Ken Grimwood’s Replay (1986) predates Groundhog Day (1993) by 7 years, and explores the concept in far more depth, taking it to the extreme to examine what gives our lives meaning. It’s a very appealing story, and delivers some powerful moments in the latter half.

Replay is about 43-year-old Jeff Winston, who dies of a heart attack and finds himself back as an 18-year-old student at Emory University with all his memories intact, reliving this 25 year period over and over. This could easily be simple wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it starts out that way, as Jeff pursues wealth, women, and success using his knowledge of the future. But as the story progresses, Jeff realizes that no matter how he relives his life, making improvements and avoiding past mistakes, he cannot escape that fatal heart attack, and is mercilessly sent back to his past again and again.

The pacing of the story is well-handled, as Jeff goes through numerous iterations of his prime years, each time with his previous memories intact, always taking a different approach and focus to his life. Initially he pursues the most sexually-appealing women his wealth can attract, but later he begins a new family, courts his first wife again, approaches his college sweetheart, and finally he meets a woman named Patricia who is also going through the same replay cycle. Their relationship is explored in great detail, as the only two people who understand what it’s like to live their lives over and over again. They think they have found a way to make this strange existence worthwhile, until they discover that the replay cycles are getting shorter at an accelerating pace…

The choices that Jeff makes in Replay are understandable, as he faces the double-edged sword of immortality but continually has to restart from scratch. Sometimes he reacts negatively and descends into hedonism and drugs. In other cases he tries to do good for society. The most chilling episode involves when he and Patricia try to locate other “replayers” and encounter a monster.

I did find the story quite sexist for the first half, as almost all the women are sexual conquests for Jeff, and only Patricia takes on equal status in the latter part of the story. In the early going, Jeff is fairly callow and seeks only to pursue his own pleasure. I didn’t like the suggestion that Grimwood thinks any guy, given this opportunity, would focus so intently on pursuing women. Perhaps he means that we always seek out companionship in life. In either case, after many iterations Jeff matures, much the same way we all gain perspective over time without the benefit of reliving the past. The period details of the conservative early 1960s, tumultuous late 1960s, troubled 1970s, and materialistic 1980s are nicely described. It would be interesting to see how this story might be written now, shifting the start-point to the 1990s and ending today, for instance.

In the end, Replay is a thoughtful fable that encourages the reader to imagine how they might behave in Jeff’s position. While the details would obviously differ, I think most would likely progress from basic wish fulfillment to more meaningful goals. The narrator of the audiobook is veteran William Dufris, who does an excellent job. Replay was Grimwood’s best-known novel, winning the 1988 World Fantasy Award and being chosen for David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels.

Published in 1986. Publisher: In 1988, 43-year-old Jeff Winston died of a heart attack. But then he awoke, and it was 1963; Jeff was 18 all over again, his memory of the next two decades intact. This time around, Jeff would gain all the power and wealth he never had before. This time around he’d know how to do it right. Until next time.