Rewrite by Gregory Benford (SF/Time Travel Novel, 2018).
A much-honored and old-school SF writer, Gregory Benford built a considerable reputation for works of a “hard science” nature. As such, some readers and critics were doubtless surprised when, in the 1970s, he produced Timescape. In general, time travel books are considered prime examples of the less-than-realistic sort of SF. But Benford’s wildly popular (and award-winning) novel gave the sub-genre a shot of genuine, if theoretical, science via the parallel universes/many worlds idea.
Decades later, Benford returns to such themes with Rewrite.
Here the author postulates a universe where all humans time travel at their deaths to be reborn in alternative Earths. Sometimes they are flung back to a new version of their own lives and others inhabit different parts of history. The common denominator is the vast majority of them have absolutely no memory of any past lives. But what of the handful who, for some reason, remember it all?
In 2002, a middle-aged professor of history named Charlie dies in a car crash. He wakes up, shocked to find himself returned to a new version of his past, on his 16th birthday in the stormy year of 1968. Considering himself a failure in his previous life, he charts a new course–and uses his memory/knowledge of what’s to come to make a new and very different mark for himself.
Interestingly, he’s not interested in making a killing in the stock market or other typical tropes of the sub-genre. No, Charlie transforms himself into a writer/producer, giving the world a string of hit movies–churning out his own versions of films like The Godfather and Back to the Future, each a few years before the original versions appeared in the previous timeline. It’s true he lives something of a decadent Hollywood life, but he also consciously influences public thought and to some degree makes the world a better place.
For the first half of the book, I assumed his original life was our timeline–until he thinks back on how his one truly new film altered the political landscape and prevented the Nixon years from turning into the outright fascist dictatorship he’d lived through in life #1. And yet, it isn’t ‘our’ world, either.
And he isn’t the only aware time traveler tweaking history in the time-honored fashion. Some who he meets, like Albert Einstein, famed lover Casanova and SF legend Robert Heinlein are, like Charlie, trying to make their new worlds better places–or at least avoid doing major harm. Others, for their own reasons, are willing to inflict violence and pain, to create timelines more to their twisted liking.
The latter become aware of him and attack. A battle rages as Charlie stumbles from one life to another, dying and being reborn into new versions of 1968, over and over. Others he meets, whether ones he considers positive influences or negative, can jump into different periods of history–but he seems stuck with reliving new versions of his native timeline. Still others, personified by another SF superstar (Philip K. Dick) are only vaguely aware of their past lives, encountering flashes of them as dreams and/or visions. It’s suggested that this accounts for some people’s ‘past life’ claims and maybe even helps explain some of the late Mr. Dick’s notorious quirkiness.
Anyway, Charlie dies again and again, sometimes at the hands of his evil rivals. He does briefly inhabit what looks very much like our world. Then another death throws him back in the key year of 1968 yet again. There, he thwarts his enemies, preventing one of the most infamous acts in that year of war, riot and political assassinations.
He hopes this will lead to a more decent world–but at least he’s trying! and he’ll surely keep trying, for as many lives as his strange condition will allow him.
I don’t think his novel is quite as groundbreaking as the best of Benford’s work (including Timescape). But it’s a strong and fascinating book, in addition to allowing the author the luxury of revisiting versions of good, now-gone friends (like Heinlein and Dick), along with historic figures he clearly finds intriguing (Einstein, Casanova).