This book, first published in 1986, won the World Fantasy Award two years later. I read it over twenty years ago and was most impressed, but found myself strangely reluctant to read it again; I only did so because it was one of the books of the month in the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.
The plot concerns Jeff Winston, an American in his early forties, unsuccessful in his career and with a failing marriage, who dies apparently of a massive heart attack - and then regains consciousness twenty-five years in the past, in his own eighteen-year-old body, with all his memories intact.
This is the start of a fascinating "what would you do if…?" premise which is explored in detail throughout the story. What Jeff initially does is to use his memories to make a fortune and enjoy the good life, but does he really become happier as a result, and can he use his knowledge to forestall some of the disasters which have afflicted the world?
There are many twists and turns in the story but it is difficult to say more without spoilers. So I will just say that it is a great, thought-provoking read which I am happy to recommend to anyone, SFF fan or not. If you want to read the book and would rather discover its surprises for yourself (which I strongly recommend) then stop reading NOW!
The first twist in the story comes when Jeff once again reaches the age at which he previously "died" - and the same thing happens again. Once more he is eighteen, back in the early 1960s, with all his memories from both previous lives intact. This time he takes a different tack, marries his childhood sweetheart and lives a moderate and happy life. Until he reaches his "death age" when, despite having checked himself into hospital and been pronounced in excellent health, it happens again. Now he swings to the opposite extreme in angry defiance about what is happening to him until, disgusted with the emptiness of his life, he withdraws into isolation.
The next twist then occurs - Jeff discovers he is not the only "replayer" and meets up with Pamela Phillips, whose experiences match his own, except that she is out of sequence; they die at about the same time, but she is younger and is "replayed" at a later date. They become lovers, but discover that each time they are revived, it is at a later age - and getting later at a rapidly increasing rate. The gap between their revivals also increases rapidly, causing havoc with their relationship. They finally decide to "go public" in an attempt to discover what is happening to them, with devastating consequences. Eventually Jaff and Pamela manage to find a kind of peace, if not happiness, which seems the best they can hope for.
I think I know why I was reluctant to read the book again - a reluctance which disappeared as soon as I became caught up in it. As it develops, the story becomes an emotional roller-coaster and is very moving by the end. The message initially seems somewhat depressing - no matter how hard you try, you can't make things better for any more than a handful of people - but there is a kind of redemption as well. In the end, it is concerned with the philosophy of living, and the characters are all too human in their hopes and failings. The final lesson is an old but true one: we only have one life, so we need to make the best of it that we can.
Replay is an original and well-written tale, which draws the reader into it ever more deeply as the plot develops: it deserves to be a classic.