Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood


Reading Ken Grimwood’s Replay while revisiting the first season of Quantum Leap on DVD, I couldn’t help but wonder if one influenced the other.

Published in 1988, Grimwood’s novel starts off with 43 year-old Jeff Winston taking a call from his wife who says, “We need…” Jeff never hears the end of the sentence because he’s struck by a massive heart-attack, dies and then wakes up in 1963 as his 18 year old self. Presented with the opportunity to live his life over, Jess takes a page from Marty McFly and Biff Tannen and wins a lot of money by betting on sporting events and making shrewd financial investments from his memories of the future.

After living 25 years in which is life unfolds on a very different path (he tried to re-create his meeting with his wife and instead of convincing her to go out with him, he convinces her that he’s a creepy, self-absorbed stalker), Jeff dies again and leaps back into his life 25 years before. It’s like a giant reset button has been hit–except that Jeff fully recalls his previous two lifetimes, including the emotional burden of knowing the daughter he fathered in a previous timeline doesn’t exist in this one and he won’t get to see grow up.

In many ways, it feels similar to the leaping that Dr. Sam Beckett does in Quantum Leap. But while Sam is leaping to “put right what once went wrong,” Jeff quickly learns that he can follow a similar path each time he leaps back but there are always unintended consequences to his actions. He also learns that he can’t make huge changes to the timeline or history. Early on, Jeff decides he’ll try and stop the JFK assignation only to discover that history can’t or won’t allow such a radical alteration.

In one timeline, Jeff hears of a movie called Starsea that features direction by Steven Spielberg and effects by George Lucas. The film, which is not part of any other time stream, leads Jeff to a fellow replayer Pamela. The two discover that the time of each replay is shortening and while they fall in love and carry the memories from timeline to timeline, they don’t always necessarily reset at the same point together. (This leads to some difficulty when Jeff begins replaying first and seeks out Pamela as a teenager only to find she’s not there yet)

For some reason, I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of time travel stories of late. Between 11/22/63, Time and Again and The Man on Primrose Lane, time travel has been at the center of several novels in recent months. (And again, I’m working my way through Quantum Leap, so there’s that sense of deja vu coming into play). Of those time travel books, Replay feels the most like it’s trying to do something different with the genre, mainly because the novel centers on the emotional and psychological impact replaying has on Jeff. Grimwood spends very little time trying to delve into the specifics of time travel. In Replay, it’s just the hook for the larger story being told about Jeff and his lifetimes of experience.

Jeff runs the gamut from being eager to relive his life, to frustrated about how the replaying works. Jeff works to try and figure out how to survive his death each time and keep moving forward, all the while wondering if the whole world is confined to one 25-year period loop and he and Pamela are the only ones who can remember it.

As a concept, it’s a fascinating one. And while the premise could easily run out of steam early in the novel, Grimwood wisely tweaks the replays as the story goes along. The introduction of Pamela as well the introduction of a sinister fellow replayer late in the novel help keep the story feeling fresh until the final pages.

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Filed under review, science fiction

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