1/26/13

Counter-Clock World by Philip K Dick (1967)

Philip K. Dick has a problem with time. Sometimes time is out of joint, sometimes it slips or you have to wait for last year, and sometimes it runs backward. In his novel “Counter-Clock World” Earth enters the Hobart Phase, where time’s arrow reverses. Men wake up shaven and pat on whiskers each morning. It’s shameful when people see you eat, but OK to publicly “imbibe” sogum in cafes. As people dwindle to children they climb back into the womb, and the dead wake up buried six feet under.

Sebastian Hermes, a deader -- someone who has lived, died, and returned to life -- now runs a vitarium where they make a business of digging up the new deaders and selling them to relatives or the highest bidder. It’s Sebastian’s luck or misfortune that he can sniff out people who are soon to resurrect, and during a routine cemetery call he stumbles across the grave of Edward Peak, a beatnik, jazz messiah and religious founder known as The Anarch Peak, and he gets the feeling that the man is about to return. He realizes the wealth he’s found in this information, and guards the secret, sending his wife Lotta to the Library to research more about Peak.

In the course of the novel other factions become aware of Peak’s imminent revivification and compete for control of him. One faction is the Catholic church Rome, but an equally powerful group is led by the Very Honorable Ray Roberts, head of the Uditi church which was inspired by Peak. The story is set In the WUS (Western United States), where California is predominantly white, while the eastern "Free Negro Municipality" (FNM) is inhabited by African Americans. The Uditi church is reminiscent of Rastafarianism mixed with an undercurrent of Nation of Islam. Roberts plans to make a visit to the WUS to hold a public event revival meeting where the followers take drugs and participate in a shared experience -- a group mind.

Of all the enemies, however, the most interesting is The People’s Topical Library. The Library is an oppressive institution dedicated to eradicating the works of man, in accordance with the Hobart phase.
The head librarian, Mavis McGuire, commands a shadowy of Erads, whose mission it is to eradicate the books and knowledge, forcing the creators to undo their own works. McGuire directs her secret agent Ann Fisher to seduce Sebastian Hermes in an attempt to discover Peak’s grave. The very building of The Library itself is menacing, described as a monolithic structure with labyrinthine corridors. At the beginning of the book we learn that Lotta Hermes has a fear of the place, and it seems unfounded, but by the end I equated The Library with George Orwell’s Ministries of Oceania, places where people were sequestered, interrogated, perhaps never to be seen again.


I remember when I first read “Counter-clock World” as a teenager that I found it forced and not nearly as imaginative as Dick’s other books. My opinion on rereading it hasn’t changed much. There are a couple interesting smaller ideas, such as Carl Junior, the robot representative of Carl Gantrix. But in general the reverse-time theme doesn’t work very well. For example, for some reason the Hobart Phase is limited, as it doesn’t affect Mars, or other colonies. The actual mechanics of reversed time are sparse and sort of clumsy. People say “goodbye” instead of “hello,” cigarettes grow longer, and clothes get cleaner while you wear them, but systems are still moving toward greater entropy, and new events still occur. Part of PKD’s personal theology is that we are living in the past, the Roman era around the birth of Jesus, so this reversal of linear time provides opportunities to discuss some of his ideas of Christianity and religion, but on the whole it falls flat.

From the back cover of the first edition:
The dead grow young.
Now that the Hobart Phase was in effect, Officer Joseph Tinbane wasn’t surprised when he would hear a voice speaking to him from beneath the ground.
It wasn’t that he was going out of his mind. Not at all. It was just one of the “old-born,” giving notification that it was ready to be dug up.
You see, the year is 1998 and things have changed quite a bit. Time has reversed its flow: the dead come back to life, and people grow younger instead of older.
It sounds a little strange -- and is! -- that’s why it’s called the Counter-Clock World...
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