I must be old. Here’s me thinking a “buckyball” is a common term for “Buckminsterfullerene” – a C60 carbon molecule folded round in the shape of a football. And that a “screaming snowball” is something of a personification when someone says “there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell” and then decides to literally make a point by lobbing said snowball into the fiery pit.
But it turns out that a buckyball is a recreational drug, and it also turns out that in this novel a buckyball can send you back in time (or have a “life turn”).
Buckyball starts with James Pesola who’s recovering from a double stapedectomy – an operation to improve hearing. He’s nervous about the outcome and is advised to write down his thoughts about his life which is the novel that we’re reading. (So I should mention that on a personal level I immediately felt heavily involved because only the day before starting this novel I was at the hospital to get the results of my MRI scan for my own ear problems!)
Things start quickly. I thought it was interesting that the first person character isn’t the first time traveller; it’s James’ friend, John. On the night of Saturday 11 June 2005 John explains to his friends that he’s already lived the following week and has now come back to be reunited with his friends. Somehow.
Over the course of the following week John’s knowledge of the future is shown to be correct so there’s no prolonged confusion or disbelief (which would be understandable since drugs are involved). Then on Sunday 19 June the same happens to James – he finds himself (with John) back on Saturday 11 June 2005, again with their friends who know no different.
James and John find that they can act on information from the future when they return back in time and relive their lives again on a repeated week or “life turn”. For example, they’re cooks by profession and keep a burnt steak instead of chucking it out because they know it will be ordered the next day by another customer.
Not everything stays exactly the same though – there are some subtle differences between life turns. Winning lottery numbers differ, for example, and the two surmise that this is due to the small changes brought about just by their presence. Something as small as a smile in an elevator can change somebody’s mood and affect how they behave, which goes on to have subsequent ramifications, etc..
I liked this lottery number thing – not only does it do away with making easy money on each life turn (which would be a bore to read), this is an example of Fabien’s remarkable eye for detail when it comes to things surrounding time travel.
Generally speaking though, actions and (other people’s) memories are erased at the beginning of each life turn. Their friends on Saturday 11 June 2005 have no idea what’s going on, for example. Indeed, there is an incident between John and his girlfriend on one life turn where their relationship takes on a new direction. This is addressed in following life turns, even though the girlfriend is none the wiser.
This reset gives James and John almost a completely free reign over everything they do because in effect their actions don’t matter as they don’t have lasting consequences. This clearance also holds for their physical condition – a bodily injury or illness will dissolve on the next life turn.
This leaves an open question – what happens to the people (and objects) who don’t go back in time? If James is talking to Person X on 14 June then goes back to Saturday 11, what happens to Person X? Is there a 15th June?
We never know because we never read from that viewpoint – we read from James’, and James goes back so he never knows either. It’s an interesting thought though. Maybe that present (or future) disappears in the same way that our past disappears. But if it doesn’t vanish then that means that it’s recreated on the next life turn and we’ve entered the multiple universe theory…
The first few lief turns were always a week long and this fixed time length makes reading the experience seem a little like a week-long version of the Groundhog Day movie – but with the point of repetition much less laboured!
I was really pleased when the time between life turns increased to 5 months. This brings us out of the risk zone of the repetitive ‘Groundhog Day loop’ and brings about a new element of the mystery of time in the buckyball life turns. (Replay (Ken Grimwood) partly tackled the problem of repetition by the main character reliving ever decreasing portions of his life).
This prompts James and John to experiment and figure out what the catalyst is for returning to 11 June, and armed with this information they play out a number of ways in how they relive their lives. And as these two discover, if things were to remain like this it would become a dull life, and an even duller book. But it’s not to remain so!
Fabien continually throws curve balls in Buckyball to keep James and John – and us – on our toes. For example, they’re not the only two who have taken buckyballs, meaning that they’re not the only two who relive a part of their life and have everything reset after the catalyst to return to the past is triggered.
And crucially, this means that they’re not the only two who can set off the trigger. The upshot is that every now and then they find themselves back at the beginning of their life turn – often feeling very angry about it.
This lack of control over what’s happening to them reminded me in some ways of Syncing Forward (W. Lawrence). Indeed, James even refers obliquely to the phenomenon as a disease – a real change in attitude to his initial impressions of the experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed Fabien’s writing – he addresses my questions almost as fast as I was formulating them which certainly made me feel that he was writing on my wavelength in terms of information delivery. What I really value is his amazing eye for detail – for example, the time travel related details such as why lottery numbers differ, or specific details on how the catalyst to return to the past needs to be delivered.
Fabien uses the skills of the characters he’s written into Buckyball to ‘help him out’, most noticeably with an expert in physics and an IT girl (kudos to Fabien for using girls here in traditionally ‘male roles’). In fact, he uses a group of people as an opportunity to show further ways of living life turns which wouldn’t have been in character with either James or John who for the most part we follow (and I had a little smile in that one of them sets up a “Groundhog training school”! 😉 )
The writing style itself is progressive, but recall that this novel is being read as a letter written by James as an old man. Fabien sort of makes it difficult for himself then, writing in first person as an old man recalling feelings from a younger man. Should he write the whole novel in “old people speak”?
I thought that at first it read like James was a teenager, even though he’s in his twenties. Perhaps this is me being so far from this age group that it all merges into one (stand by for my upcoming post “A tale of two Dutch cities”). The thoughts and dialogue come sometimes with some inappropriate or politically incorrect insensitive language. Sometimes it was funny though on one occasion I can see that it may be offensive, but at the same time this could just be James’ character.
For the immersion side of things, I think Fabien took the right road in writing in first person as a younger man when James was younger. It also makes it much clearer to see James’ development in character as time goes on and the number of life turns clocks up. We see that even though he ‘officially’ remains at the same age of 26, his mentality changes and matures as he experiences different facets of life.
I really had no idea in how Buckyball was going to finish!
There’s an interesting scientific spew at the end which at first seemed disjointed to the preceding text until I realised we’re now back in current time with James writing his letter.
I have two slight issues with the final sections. The first is a heavy focus on a policeman which, though interesting, didn’t really seem to either move things forwards or tie any ends.
The other thing was – why a buckyball? It seems a grossly inefficient way to…ah. Read it yourself to find out! 😉
Replay. What was that again?
Anyone reading Buckyball might immediately think of Replay by Ken Grimwood.
But I’ll just say it straight – Buckyball is a better version of Replay! If Ken Grimwood relived his life again and rewrote Replay, he might be tempted to write it to be something more like Buckyball!
Whereas Replay effectively resets the storyline with each ‘reincarnation’, Buckyball has more of a continuous thread which follows James through each of his turns – and there’s much more going on!
Rating * * * * *
Buckyball has the full 5 stars for a brilliantly delivered take on repeatedly reliving part of your life over and over again. The attention to small time travel details and the writing style make Buckyball a superb read!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of “Buckyball” to read and provide an honest review. This is it!
| 5* Excellent! | 4* Good | 3* OK | 2* Not good | 1* Crud |