While I count Blade Runner as probably my favourite sci-fi film of all time, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really become a convert to the twisted worlds of Philip K Dick. I’ve now read quite a few of them and have invariably become engrossed in each one. This latest, Counter Clock World, is no different.
This novel is a good example of what I call the ‘alternate universe’ genre. This genre is characterised by taking our standard world or universe and tweaking it somehow, and seeing what happens. It’s kind of a science experiment in a book.
In this case, the tweak is that at a certain point in time, the arrow of time reverses direction. That’s it. Now, we could descend into a long discussion about what this actually means, but that’s for another thread at another time. Suffice it to say that Dick has constrained the actual effects of this reversal to a reversal in the process of human development, rather than considering a reversal of all entropic processes. I guess this constrains the variables involved, allowing a story to be told without it turning into a text book.
So the premise is that, after this turning point, life processes start running backwards. This means that from this point, living people begin to age backwards (a la Benjamin Button), and dead people start coming back to life, since the decay process reverses back past the point of death. Some of the more bizarre, but largely unexplored aspects, of the effect are:
- The people’s Library has become a kind of secret service organisation, whose mission is to ‘Erad’ or eradicate history which no longer exists. For example, as Einstein ages below 25, records of special relatively must be deleted, to keep history in order.
- People revert back to foetuses, and need to be implanted in a host mother, after which she is driven to have sex with a partner, allowing the component parts to be reabsorbed into the respective bodies, and,
- People basically vomit food, constructed from the nutrients in their bodies.
Anyhow, because of the major premise, a ‘vitarium’ industry exists. These businesses go around monitoring cemeteries, and listening for screams and yells as people come to life when the clock has regressed far enough. The vitariums must then dig them out before they die again of asphyxia (yes, it is possible to die, if it happens as part of the new arrow of time). Having salvaged the so-called ‘old born’, the vitariums in effect own salvage rights, and sell ownership rights to families or the highest bidder if the person is valuable in some way. If none are forthcoming, then the old born become wards of the state.
The major part of the story revolves around the salvage of one particular individual who was, in life, somewhat of a world-famous religious leader. His former followers want him of course to re-assert their primacy, rival religions organisations want him so they can prevent hime resuming his crusade, and the Library wants him because of potential for him to disrupt their power base.
While the premise is clearly science fiction, it turns out that the story is more about the politics of race and religion than anything else, as was being played out in the US in the 50’s and 60’s. Dick has simply used his future-vision as a back-drop for a socialogical commentary.
Even if not completely engaged in the sociology of the situation, I still enjoyed Dick’s envisioning of the future (which by the way is now in our past, being set in the 80’s). In this respect, he uses some common devices thoughout a number of his books, including flying cars, electric newspapers (‘homeopapes’ or just ‘papes’), and some drug of choice instead of alchohol (in this case smoking a ‘sorgum’ pipe). Regardless of the device used, his books are typically devoid of ‘technobabble’, preferring to focus on his characters.
All sorts of intrigue follows as the politics of this book play out, but I’ll leave it to you to follow up if the premise sounds interesting.
Although not one of his best, this is an unmistakably Dickian alternate universe novel, and well worth the journey.