If doomed to repeat one’s life over and over again during the 1940s, who wouldn’t try to kill Hitler? Yet not interfering with history is one of the cardinal rules of the Cronus Club, a select group of people known as the kalachakra , who loop through time in “ The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August ,” by Claire North (Redhook, $25).Anyone who breaks the rules gets punished by the club to make sure the offense isn’t repeated in the next life. That system works fine until a little girl tells an old man named Harry that the world is ending — but in every succeeding timeline, the end happens earlier. Meanwhile, Cronus Cub members are being killed off by one of their own, and it’s up to Harry to stop the rogue kalachakra by any means necessary. The true heart of the book lies in Harry’s twisted relationship with this nemesis, because the only way to kill a kalachakra is to get him to reveal the specifics regarding his birth. Harry’s arch enemy ends up becoming, in a sense, his best friend as well as colleague, making their mutual betrayals all the more wrenching.
“The Revolutions ,” by Felix Gilman (Tor, $26.99), imagines a Victorian London where science and magic walk hand in hand. Arthur Shaw, having lost his writing position when a disastrous flood damaged buildings all over the city, takes up a job working at Norman Gracewell’s Engine, which runs on countless human computations to fuel astral projections to other constellations. Josephine Bradman, Arthur’s brilliant love interest, has a strong psychic connection to these projections. But during an eerie scientific investigation with a group of mystics,Josephine’s spirit is accidentally lost — possibly near Mars. Here the novel splits into two journeys: While Arthur desperately tries to find a way to reach Josephine’s spirit, she discovers an alien species that borders on the angelic. Gilman creates an atmosphere that is both haunting and seductive. He refuses to answer every question the plot raises, but in this case the novel seems to mimic life more than fiction.
In Alena Graedon’s first novel, “The Word Exchange” (Doubleday, $26.95),language itself can be infected by technology. The dictionary is a place of cultural and economic exchange. Words and their meanings are soldat 50 words per dollar. But the meanings have begun to be switched with more nonsensical fare, and no one is the wiser. Meanwhile, Anana Johnson, who works with her father at the North American Dictionary of the English Language, discovers that he is missing and has left cryptic messages warning her against using any technology. What follows is Anana’s quest to find him while also exposing the origins of this word flu, which begins to affect millions of consumers. Although some characters are more sympathetic than others, there are no straight-up villains or heroes. The Diachronic Society, which is a kind of Luddite-inspired resistance movement, is horribly inefficient, while the founders of Synchronic, which created the Word Exchange, move swiftly forward, not recognizing the side effects of their all-pervasive technology. Set in the near future, the novel is a sobering look at how dependent we are on technology and how susceptible we are to the distortions of language.
Hightower reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post.