11 March 2008

Resurrection on the cheap

Counter-Clock World
Philip K. Dick
Vintage Books, 2002 (First published 1967)

"His most theologically probing" story is set in 1998. Time has been running backwards since the Earth entered the "Hobart Phase," an unexplained temporal inversion that only seems to affect the Earth (e.g., time on the moon flows forward normally). Because of this reversal of the direction of time, those who died before the world entered the Hobart Phase (a.k.a. the "old-born") are returning from the grave. One protagonist, Sebastian Hermes, runs a vitarium, one of the facilities where the newly resurrected are restored to life and sold to the highest bidder, as per W.U.S. law. A mild psychic, Hermes intuits that the resurrection of the Anarch Peak, a radical religious leader who died in the 70s, is imminent. This resurrection starts a chain of events in motion. Three forces vie for possession of the Anarch---the Library (a mysterious paramilitary organization whose purpose is maintaining public safety through "eradication of dangerous, disturbing written material"), the Udi religion (a psychedelic, consciousness-raising religion founded by Peak and now lead by Ray Roberts, whom we initially see as crazy and evil, but whom then turns out to be on Peak's side), and "Rome" (presumably the Catholic Church). The convoluted storyline ostensibly revolves around the resurrected Peak (and the potential danger of his revelations about postmortem existence) but rapidly goes off onto tangents about the protagonist's love for his ever-younger wife, her affair with Officer Tinbane (another protagonist), Hermes' affair with the daughter of the head of the library, and the true meaning of life after death (which all old-born experience, but only the Anarch is spiritually clear enough to recall with clarity). After the Library finally captures the Anarch, Hermes is "hired" by an alliance of Rome and the Uditi to rescue the Anarch; instead, Hermes uses the weapons his unlikely allies have given him to rescue his wife from the same enemies. Allusions to the race riots of the mid- to late-1960s and intimations of the Black Power movement appear throughout the novel. As the convoluted storyline comes to an end, the protagonist hears a slough of voices in the graveyard calling out to be reborn, and goes about his work digging them up. In typical Dick fashion, the sanest response to an increasingly crazy world seems to be to put one foot in front of the other.

Counter-Clock World is, like most PKD novels I've read, pure hallucinatory pulp. Another metaphor that came to mind while reading was that of a literary amphetamine. I couldn't help but suspect that the page-turning fervor with which I approached the book emulated the speed-driven fury with which he typed it. Maybe Dick took his time with this novel, but it certainly doesn't feel that way; instead, it's as if the ideas in this novel leaped fully formed like Athena from his brow directly to the page, inconsistencies and all.

People don't really read Dick for his plotting and character development, though. Instead, we read because we want to steep in the bottomless well of his intellect and imagination. This novel is filled to the brim with ideas that greater writers would have put to better effect, if only those better writers had been blessed with Dick's vision. Dick presents us with a new religion, Udi, which, like Timothy Leary's League of Spiritual Discovery, uses psychedelics to experience new forms of group consciousness. We have the aforementioned Hobart Phase, which finds its primary use as a narrative device. As with much of Dick's fiction, this novel presents us with an alternate vision of our contemporary world; in this case, the US has split into three different countries as a consequences of the secession of the Free Negro Municipality (FNM, the Udi nation lead by Ray Roberts). While the specifics aren't ever detailed, it seems that the Midwest (at least Kansas City) is part of the FNM, while California comprises part of the W.U.S. (Western US?). For those who like reading Dick for his wilder speculations on philosophical and religious, you won't be disappointed with this novel. He deals with
resurrection and immortality, deception, hiddenness, apophatic theology, God as negation (the "pulsing black presence"), the emptiness before life and after death, and how we learn love best through its absence.

Finally, it must be noted that Dick's greatest genius was perhaps his attention to the mundane details of these fictive universes. In this world where time runs backward, people say "Goodbye" to begin a conversation and "Hello" to end it. Sexual intercourse is engaged in at the end of a pregnancy, so that the fetus' life-force can become a part of a man and a woman. Metabolic processes aren't described in detail, but enough oblique references are made that the reader can understand just how weird things have become: people "disgorge" food bite by bite and tend to do so in private, they imbibe sogum (which, while never explicitly described as such, is hinted to be a form of reverse defecation), and they use the words "mouth" instead of "ass" (e.g., to be a "horse's mouth") and "food" instead of "shit" (e.g., "foodhead," "foodlist," "food!" "feood"). In this crazy backwards word, men even put on whiskers in the morning in lieu of shaving!

Another flawed must-read by one of the greatest minds, if not writers, in science fiction.

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