Wednesday, 24 July 2002

Philip K. Dick: Counter-Clock World (1967)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1108

In general, Dick's novels contain a dazzling multiplicity of ideas; but Counter-Clock World is dominated by just one and careful limits are placed on how fully it is explored. It is in many ways (dictated by its theme) similar to Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake. There, people relive a decade of their lives, fully conscious that they have already experienced what they are going through; here, time has suddenly reversed.

Dick doesn't go to the extent of reversing everything, for a similar reason that Vonnegut's characters' memories are not erased - if everything went backwards, there couldn't be a story distinguishable from a strangely told forwards one. (At the very least, the characters need to be aware of what is going on.) He describes several bodily processes - or, rather, more effectively, he mentions them and leaves the details to the reader's imagination - including shaving, conception and the unpleasant, private affair that is eating. Two of these reversed processes are used as the basis for the plot. Since all that has been created now must be destroyed, the library, which searches out books for this purpose, has become a powerful institution (controlling what knowledge is still available); there can be few novels which make the profession of librarian so sinister. The mainspring of the plot is the resurrection of the dead; undertakers have been replaced by vivariums, companies that seek out those who have recently been revived and want to get out of their coffins. (Dick doesn't go into what happens to those who were cremated.) A small vivarium discovers the lost tomb of Timothy Peak, a religious leader who created a popular cult based around communal drug taking. He is about due for re-animation, and the politics surrounding him make this important and dangerous; those who have control of the cult since his death are not likely to give up their power easily, and the Library doesn't want him to return at all because of the disruption his anti-racist stand caused when he was alive.

The way that Counter-Clock World is written makes me think it was inspired by the striking image of the revived dead trying to get the attention of the living so they can be released from their coffins. The treatment of the time reversal is full of inconsistencies (such as the production of newspapers with current news in a world where all existing literature is being destroyed rather than published). It is an extremely ambitious idea and remains, I think, unique in science fiction; time's arrow is so fundamental in human thought that to conceive of it being any other way is incredibly difficult if properly carried through. It is not, in the end, one of Dick's most successful novels, but it is certainly a fascinating read.

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