CounterClock World, by Philip K. Dick

counterclock-world-by-philip-k-dick coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Published: 1967
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by James Michael White

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Philip K. Dick starved in relative obscurity for most of his career, being one of those “genre writers” and, perhaps even worse, one of those “science fiction” writers. Then along came Hampton Fancher’s and David Webb Peoples’ Ridley-Scott-directed script of a 1982 movie called Bladerunner, which was loosely based on Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, plus a few other works in the Dick oeuvre as well. With the success of that movie Dick all-too-briefly enjoyed the financial rewards that had eluded him most of his career, never mind his critical successes, and then he promptly died.

Suddenly Hollywood took notice of this Dick fellow and discovered, by Jove, he was pretty crackerjack, this kid could write, in fact, his work would make swell movies, just swell ones, and now there have been some five or so cinematic exploits of his words and ideas.

But way back in 1967 Dick was writing novels to make a living after having quickly discovered that the short stories weren’t cutting it and the real money was in the longer stuff. His first novel came out back in 1955, marking the beginning of his legendary productivity.

Counter-Clock World is one of those early novels in a career that spanned from the mid-fifties to the early eighties, and it exhibits the rough-hewn Dick-as-pulp-writer prose that all too often bedeviled his most quickly written works. In this novel the combination of Dick’s curious imagination tangles once again with his pervasive religious fascination, producing something that skims the surface of ideas that readers will no doubt want to know more about and simply won’t get, at least not here.

The plot goes something like this:

Sebastian Hermes used to be dead but something called the Hobart Phase has gripped earth, and only earth, making time run backwards so that those, like Sebastian, who once were dead, come to life again. What causes the Hobart Phase is never made clear, but then that’s not the central issue anyway, and neither are the myriad questions associated with the phenomenon. What’s of primary interest is of a religious nature.

You see, Sebastian is in the business of digging these newly-come-to-life people up and selling them to interested buyers, the more noteworthy the recently un-deceased, the higher the price. It is thus Sebastian’s good fortune that he happens across the Anarch Thomas Peak, a religious leader who started a movement that grew after his death, grew to such a state in fact that it threatens the very weird status quo of a U.S. that has been split into the Free Negro Municipality, a state run by the Anarch’s successor, Raymond Roberts, and the W.U.S., the collective western states.

To further complicate matters, the library — here a monolithic and mysterious entity with even more power than the police — exists not to store and disseminate information, but to eradicate it. Time is running backwards, after all, so you can’t very well have things in existence before whoever wrote them regresses to the point at which they wrote them (a knotty problem Dick avoids explaining). As a result of this Merlin-esque regression from death and old age to youth and birth, the long dead and recently returned-to-life Anarch Peak has had — what else? — a deep and meaningful during-death religious experience that he wants to share with the world, except the library, ahem, is supposed to eradicate things and, well, er, the Anarch’s revelations, more powerful and profound than your average deader’s like, say, Sebastian’s (whose memories of death are vague and faded, like most folks’), may very well shake social stability (read that, status quo) to pieces. Since he can’t talk about an after-death experience because he’s alive, never mind that he’s alive because of the Hobart Phase, the library must eradicate his message, even if that necessitates eradicating him.

The plot then becomes “Will Sebastian sell the Anarch to those most likely to spread his word and enlighten mankind?” or, “Will Sebastian sell the Anarch to those who have their own agenda for the Anarch and his message?” or, “Will the library capture the Anarch and eradicate him as well as his message, the library holding the most vested interest in maintaining the status quo?”

From there, especially in so short a novel as this, the only good solution available for an author is to avoid theological explanations, which is exactly what Dick does. In other words, you can’t let the Anarch speak about what after-death experience he had or you’ll have a hokey explanation that no one will buy, unless you’re willing to develop a story mythos over a lot of pages to make plain why you jiffied up such a hokey message in the first place.

What Dick manages to resolve, however, is the plight of Sebastian Hermes, which includes marital problems and questions of religious experience in the face of loss of significant parts of those memories, matters that culminate in making Sebastian a justifiably sympathetic viewpoint character about whom we ultimately care, and perhaps care more deeply for, than the unexplained Hobart Phase gimmick and the Anarch’s ineffable message.

So is Counter-Clock World any good?

The ideas certainly are and, as Dick himself acknowledged on numerous occasions (about his own work, not just this one), the prose is not. Yet the prose is merely of a pulpish kind that exhibits all the vanilla qualities of having been very rapidly written, and for all that it’s not terribly off-putting. The story is quickly-paced and sprinkled with characters as humanly engaging as they are often mysterious. If you’re interested in assessing the early work of one of science fiction’s enduring names, a trip through Counter-Clock World will provide a glimpse of a writer still working to gain command of his authorial tools while exhibiting the kind of imagination that keeps his books selling some twenty years after his death.

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