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Literature: Clocks that Don't Tick

You can’t take things back. You can’t turn back time, no matter how much of it you have.

Clocks that Don’t Tick is a 2014 dystopian novel set in a rotting world ruled by apathetic, immortal oligarchs known as the Bosses. It follows two five-hundred year-old bank tellers and a resurrected Charlemagne the Great in their attempt to escape their servitude. On the way, they are captured by the Revolution, a diseased horde bent on destroying the Bosses and protecting the girl they believe to be humanity’s salvation.

This novel includes examples of:

  • 0% Approval Rating: The Thralls, The Revolution, and the common people all despise the Bosses.
  • Absurd Cutting Power: The Revolution's 'umbrella swords'.
  • Aerith and Bob: Gary, Martha, and Charlemagne the Great, though it's mostly subverted in that the latter is usually referred to simply as Charlie.
  • Age Without Youth: Averted. Most of the immortals look to be in their mid-twenties.
  • Amnesiac Hero: Not full amnesia, but Gary and Martha still qualify. The source of their forgetfulness is that they have literally lived too long for all their memories to fit in their heads. Among other things, they’ve forgotten their last names and the faces of their former lovers.
    “I see (memories) coming and going, struggling to stay above the water. Big shortage of life jackets. Sometimes, waves push them ashore. That’s how it feels to have a five hundred year-old brain.”
  • And I Must Scream:
    • Gary and Martha don’t exactly enjoy working as a bank teller in a poor city for sixteen hours a day for five centuries. Charlemagne’s lifestyle of traveling the world is a little less boring, but he has seen far more horrors than they.
    • The fate of Jeff and Dawn, the Lady’s three month-old babies. The Bosses’ mercenaries break every bone in their body save their spines, sting them with colonies of wasps, and nail them to a metal cradle. All the while, they’re kept alive and fully conscious. After Martha makes a deal with Miss Jackson to ‘resurrect’ Gary, Jeff and Dawn are strapped to a machine that automates this process for fifty years, until Martha manages to put them out of their misery. Nobody said a dystopian novel would be pleasant, did they?
  • Arc Words: Hope, Freedom, the Bosses, the Company, and the Plan are always capitalized.
    Hope betrayed us. We betray Hope.
  • Artificial Limbs: Eternal President Clydesdale replaced one of his arms with a mechanical one. Nobody knows why. In all likelihood, he’s just that insane.
  • The Atoner: Charlemagne would like to be this after getting his friends into their predicament. He’s never able to live up to it, however. His illusions of nobility are just that. Illusions.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: By a long shot. In the end, it’s revealed that the Bosses had been watching the protagonists attempt at escape from the beginning, and could’ve captured them whenever they want. They simply enjoyed watching them struggle.
    You can’t take things back. You can’t turn back time, no matter how much of it you have. The past will never be reclaimed, for that is the domain of gods, and man’s true god always has been, always will be, greed. It has long had its way. Finally, the face atop the fountains has been scratched out, illegible. Only Marty Gilbert’s face remains. Finally, Hope is dead.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The Bosses.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Gary, Martha, and Charlemagne all work for the Bosses, much to their and the Revolution’s chagrin.
  • Big Fancy House: The Bosses' mansions, which are made even more impressive by the fact they're built inside mountains. The one shown was said to include everything from the mercenary's quarters to swimming pools to indoor gold courses. The main level where the Bosses reside is made to resemble a luxury hotel with a courtyard. Said courtyard includes multiple hot tubs and golden fountains portraying Hope, her dress embedded with dozens of jewels. Above it all is a ceiling perfectly made to look like a starry sky. The mansion is also the only place shown that features futuristic technology appropriate for the novel's setting of five-hundred years in the future. For example, there are holographic control panels that can be summoned by the Bosses making a certain gesture.
  • Black and Gray Morality: The Revolution can be very capable of evil, depending on who’s leading it at the moment.
  • Blood Sport: The reason Charlemagne came to Seattle was to star in a play. Said play involved him triumphing over an unnamed heathen army. Common people played the enemy soldiers, and the sword Charlemagne used was very, very real.
  • Book Ends: The novel opens and begins with a character stating you can’t take things back. In the beginning, Gary says it. In the end, Martha does.
  • The Bully: Peter, one of Martha's 'mind friends'. His roll in her psyche (and, therefore, the entire point of his very existence) is to be unkind and critical or her every action or thought. He even goes away' upon realizing that someone else hurt her more than he ever could.
    • Some of the Bosses and their mercenaries border on this.
  • Came Back Wrong: At one point, Charlie mentions that Miss Jackson was a kind, charitable woman before she died. When Clydesdale brought her back, she was driven mad by an identity crises. Indeed, while the other Bosses are apathetic towards the pain they cause, Miss Jackson seems to take joy in it. Charlie evidently has an identity crisis, too, but is far, far less evil.
    • The resurrected ‘Gary’ is hardly Gary at all, much to Martha’s regret.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The protagonist’s attempt at escape might have ended differently had Charlie not hinted at their plans to Bateman, the bartender.
  • Cool Crown: Averted with Charlie's. It's made of plastic and is just for show.
  • Crapsack World: It wouldn’t be much of a dystopian novel without one, would it?
    • The common people live in filth and disease. There are more parents burying children than children burying parents, even though the average life expectancy is only around twenty. There’s super rabies and super AIDS and super cancer and none of it is the least bit curable. But that doesn’t keep entrepreneurs from saying otherwise. Many spend their meager life savings in order to buy the equivalent of snake oil. Most of the population has missing eyes, digits, or both. Not to mention, the Bosses’ mercenaries have a nasty habit of raping and pillaging when they’re off-duty.
    • It’s mentioned that the world’s population is down to a billion or so.
    • Thralls and Travelers are beautiful, ageless, and free of disease, but are crushed under the weight of doing the same thing for centuries. Many attach themselves to their belongings and rarely, if ever, talk. Gary claims to be jealous of common people.
    They’re forgotten, left to rot. The Bosses don’t hate them, they just don’t care. I’d rather they hate them. I’d rather they throw them all in prison than let them live knowing the world outside is no better. It ruins Hope.
  • Crazy Homeless People: There's no shortage of them in this setting.
  • Deal with the Devil: Martha makes one with Miss Jackson towards the end of the book. After she begs the Bosses to 'resurrect' Gary in the same way as a Traveler, Miss Jackson agrees to do so, but only on the condition that Jeff and Dawn are kept alive to be tortured day and night indefinitely. For obvious reasons, the deal was hard for her to agree with in the first place. It's made even worse by the fact that the 'Gary' they brought back isn't really Gary at all.
  • Distant Finale: The epilogue takes place fifty years after the main events of the book.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Thrall district monorail broke down one day. Even though it only took the workers a matter of minutes to repair it, one of the Bosses had the head engineer dragged away and locked in an empty warehouse to starve to death, a Thrall's worst fear.
    • The Bosses' general modus operandi.
  • Dog Food Diet: Common people are oftentimes (If not usually) reduced to this. 'Dog food' here means eating actual dogs and other animals.
  • Downer Ending: Fifty years after the main events of the book, Martha is once again working in the Thrall district. She recalls how Gary was killed by Miss Jackson, and how she pleaded for the Bosses to resurrect him. They agreed, but only at a horrible price: Dawn and Jeff, her adopted babies, will be tortured day and night until she has the nerve to kill them. Every day, Martha has to pass by them. They’re trapped in a glass box, arms strapped to a clock-like machine. Every six hours, their arms and legs are broken by said machine. Once a day, a hive of wasps or a colony of bullet ants are released to bite them. This is made even worse by the fact that the ‘Gary’ the Bosses brought back isn’t Gary at all. Martha and Gary both carry a button with them. If pressed, they will put the babies out of their misery, but only one per button. Martha refuses to press hers, seeing as she doesn’t want the other one to be left alone. Gary refuses to press his, as the Bosses told them it would cause something bad to happen. One day, Chalemagne visits, now referring to himself as Ozymandias. He agrees to help Martha get the button from Gary. The novel ends with Martha putting both of the babies out of their misery and proclaiming that Hope is finally, truly dead.
  • The Dragon: Nolan is this to William.
  • Dream Sequence: Martha has a couple, though she's technically awake. One involves her dancing with her imaginary friend, Jack. In the other she's back to the Space Needle as it once was, looking down at the world below as Peter accosts her.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gary, nearly. He pleads with Martha to kill him with their umbrella sword after learning that he was largely responsible for her becoming a Thrall. When she refuses, he comes within an inch of offing himself.
    • This is especially notable considering the distaste for suicide held by Thralls.
  • Dying for Symbolism: There's a pretty direct example in Hope (the girl) dying. Guess what? Hope (the concept) symbolically dies as well.
  • The Empire: The Bosses’ reach extends throughout the entire world. The situation in Seattle is hardly specific to it.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: Averted with the immortals. Charlie seems to be more or less celibate. While Gary and Martha end up falling in love…sort of, they don’t get more physical than holding hands.
    “Really think we have time for romance?”
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Swiss scientist’s names (Julian and Nico) are only mentioned once in passing. Blink and you’ll miss them.
    • The Lady of Pestilence is referred to by her title almost exclusively. When Gary asks her name, she says it’s Caylee. He might be one of the few to know it - when he mentions her real name, Mathew asks who that is.
  • Fantastic Caste System:
    • The Bosses are oligarchs comprised of former politicians and businessmen. They were among the first to become immortal, and the only wealthy enough to pay for the procedure out of pocket. While they were always rich, now their material possessions and influence are far beyond comprehension to an average person. Any one of them could have millions killed at the lift of the their finger, all for fun. They spend the majority of their time living in their vast mountain mansions.
    • The Bosses have entire armies of mercenaries to their names. They are provided luxury in order to keep them loyal, and are supplied with the latest in weaponry. While it's never said explicitly whether or not they are immortal, it can be reasonably assumed they are considering their health. While not running missions for their Bosses, the mercenaries kill time by harassing civilians.
    • Thralls are people who were so afraid of death they took out a loan in order to afford the procedure to become immortal. Said loan is impossible to pay off due to its astronomical interest rates. Therefore, this essentially makes Thralls undying slaves. They work sixteen-hour shifts and only get one day off a year. In addition, nearly all of them have lost appreciable amounts of their sanity, whether due to stress or the fact that their brains have literally overflown after the passing of centuries.
    • Travelers are essentially clones of historical figures made for the enjoyment of the Bosses. Like Thralls and Bosses, they are immortal and immune to disease. They are educated on the person they 'used' to be, then sent out to the world via their own private jets, passed between one Boss to another to be treated as they see fit.
    • The life of a common person is a short one filled with death, tragedy, and disease. All hate the Bosses, and most hate their 'servants' as well. Their sickness reflects on their appearance, with all of them having some sort of deformity such as missing eyes, missing digits, or rotten teeth. As the protagonists find out, the only thing keeping them going is the last vestiges of love for one another they can muster in such a time.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Bosses have shades of this, as does William.
  • Forever War: Partly averted. It’s more like Forever Peace, but that’s not a good thing in this case. The world’s at ‘peace’ simply because war has become unprofitable and its leaders are apathetic towards fighting any causes. However, that doesn’t mean that gangs don’t feud or revolutions don’t riot.
  • Foregone Conclusion: It’s acknowledged that the idea of the protagonists escaping was little more than ludicrous. It doesn’t end any better than you’d think.
  • For the Evulz: Averted with the Bosses. It’s plainly stated they aren’t evil in a traditional sense (With the exception of Miss Jackson). They never go out of their way to hurt the common people, but have absolutely no qualms with letting billions die due to their apathy or using others for entertainment. William somehow manages to play this straight and be a well-intentioned extremist.
  • Girl in the Tower: At one point, Martha spent four hundred years maintaining the Space Needle. This occurs far before the events of the novel, however.
  • Gone Mad From The Isolation: Martha, to an extent.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: According to Gary, Thralls are supposed to look happy while in the public’s eye.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Travelers are figures from history brought back by means of cloning. They roam the world in order to entertain the Bosses.
  • Hired Guns: The Bosses' mercenaries.
  • Holding Hands: Gary and Martha become fond of the romantic type after learning they used to be lovers. Earlier in the book, Gary mentions that Thralls often hold hands in silence, though there's nothing romantic to it.
  • Hope Bringer: Hope herself was this towards the end of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the Swiss scientists exploited her special qualities in the name of their own profits, which became one of the main factors that led to the sad state of the world. By the events of the main book, she is considered by most to be a failure, or even a traitor to the human race.
    • The Lady of Pestilence is another example. She's a girl with an immunity to disease. As such, The Revolution and Martha put all their faith in her. Gary and Charlie, however, remain unconvinced after seeing what happened with Hope.
  • Hope Spot: Some readers might take the protagonist escaping Seattle as this this.
  • Imaginary Friend: Martha has three. Not surprising, considering she spent four centuries alone maintaining the Space Needle. Peter is cynical and constantly criticizes her. Emily is supportive, though she becomes quite angry with Martha as the novel goes on. Jack is meant to be her boyfriend. Eventually, they vanish one by one. First Jack leaves her out of a ‘broken heart’. Then Emily leaves Martha when she or realizes she’ll never be able to make her happy. Finally, Peter leaves when he realizes that he’ll never be able to upstage real people in being a bastard. Though it distresses Martha when they leave, it’s also representative of her becoming closer to real people.
    • By the epilogue, Martha is just as lonely as she once was. As such, Peter and Emily are back.
  • Immortality Inducer: The procedure that the Swiss scientists devised using their knowledge of Hope’s mutation and ‘super’ white blood cells.
  • Immortals Fear Death: Played mostly straight. Gary gained an extreme fear of death after watching his father succumb to cancer, which led to him becoming a Thrall. It can be reasonably assumed that most of his peers had a similar reason. Martha’s motivation to become immortal didn’t involve a fear of death. Though she’s nearly as cautious as Gary, it’s motivated by a hope to see her fiancé again rather than a fear of the unknown.
  • Inspirational Martyr: William intends for the Lady to become one, which is why he killed her. Later, the immortals notice smoke rising above the city, indicating that the Revolution has gone haywire. His plan works.
    “Martyrs win wars,” William said. “She’ll be the biggest martyr that’s ever been. That’s her real destiny.”
  • Karma Houdini: The Bosses.
  • Lack of Empathy: The Bosses take this to extreme levels. They’ve no qualms with allowing billions to die out of their apathy. At one point, Gary proposes that they stay isolated in their mountain mansions in order to stave off what tiny, tiny amount of empathy they might have left.
    “You lock yourself in here so you don’t have to face what you’ve done. You’re afraid of your own empathy, that your shriveled heart might grow a few sizes.”
  • Loving a Shadow: Turns out, Gary and Martha really aren’t old lovers that managed to find one another once again. The woman Gary loved really is dead. The man Martha loved is a Thrall working in Beijing, and she’ll never, ever, see him again. They just can’t catch a break.
    “It’s a shame,” said the president. “you two have found love in your ignorance, the way you have incorrectly connected persons from your past to those from your present. And yet, we’ll have to relieve you of said ignorance.”
  • Lucky Bastard: If it wasn’t for Marty Gilbert’s blind luck, he’d be just like every other Thrall. He is, of course, far too proud to admit it. Not surprisingly, the Company likes to use him as an example for an ideal worker, something everyone can be if they try hard enough.
    Marty Gilbert, along with Hope, eventually became major parts of The Company’s iconography. He embodies our every poorly-followed ideal. It’s one we can never live up to, and he presents it as a standard. Maybe we – maybe I could be just like Marty Gilbert? Try hard enough, and maybe. Just maybe there’s chance at being Free.
  • Meaningful Name:
    “The girl…our girl. I don’t care what the Lady might’ve named her. She’s ours now. I’ll call her Dawn, because that’s what she is.”
  • Mega Corp.: The Company. Though few details are given about it, one can assume its reach is worldwide, and was the result of the bank merger Gary mentions.
  • Messianic Archetype:
    • According to Gary, the world saw Hope as this up until she died from cancer. She continues to be a major part of the Company’s iconography.
    • The Revolution sees the Lady of Pestilence as this. Mathew even admits that some among them go so far as to worship her.
    • Late in the novel, Martha starts to consider the Lady’s babies as this after their mother’s death.
  • Mundane Solution: According to Miss Jackson, the protagonists could have just quit at any point.
    • Though it's unclear if that's really true, seeing as she shot Gary in the back of the head when he tried. She could have been telling the truth, but made an exception for fun. That, or she was lying altogether.
  • Mysterious Past: Charlemagne spends a chapter speculating on what made William how he is, but can say nothing for certain.
  • Never My Fault: The Bosses outright refuse to admit any responsibility for the state of the world.
  • No Romantic Resolution: In the epilogue, Martha admits to Charlie that she really does like Gary. Problem is, the ‘Gary’ that’s around at that point is hardly Gary at all.
  • Not So Similar: The Bosses openly admit they find everyone else to be beneath them, even sub-human. The protagonists agree that, at any rate, they're quite different.
  • The Ophelia: Martha is attractive, day dreams often, and is prone to mood swings.
    “’Humans’? Darling, we are humanity fully realized."
  • The Plague: Just about everything in the twenty-seventh century. There’re super AIDS, super flues, super rabies, and that’s just scratching the surface.
  • Please Wake Up: Martha's initial reaction to Mathew's death.
  • President for Life: Eternal President Clydesdale, though he doesn’t have any interest whatsoever in running the country. He doesn’t even live in DC.
  • The Promised Land: The protagonists often imagine living beyond the reach/care of the Bosses. Near the end of the novel, they travel to a place out of Seattle that they believe fits that description, going so far as to actually refer to it as the promised land. They don't get to stay for long.
    The promised land, kids, that’s where we’re headed. The new cradle of humanity.
  • Puppet King: The Lady of Pestilence is revered by the Revolution, but holds little actual power.
    “Aren’t you in charge?” I asked.
    “More of a figurehead. I make small decisions, things like deciding if you can live. William is the regional leader. He makes the big ones.”
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: According to Bateman the bartender, he once tried to escape his servitude to the Bosses. In response, they forced him to work alone at a bar. What especially sucks about it is that nobody in the area has money for drinks. Charlie was apparently his first customer (and the first person) he has seen in years.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Gary has one for the Bosses at the end of the book, quoted above under lack of empathy. The Bosses, of course, merely shrug and brush it off.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Something that Mathew realizes far too late.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: Seattle's streets are filthy, its buildings are crumbling, and sizable portions of it have been reclaimed by nature. According to Charlie, the rest of the world didn't fare any better. The only places not in a state of disrepair are the Thrall districts and the Bosses' mansions.
  • Sex Slave: According to Martha, all Thrall women are supposed to go to bed wearing provocative lingerie, just in case one of the Bosses is in town and wants to sleep with them. It's kept a secret from Thrall men.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Gary borders on this.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Mathew knows a lot of history for a teenager living in a world such as his. Justified when he mentioned that The Revolution supplies books in order for its members to learn about better times.
  • The Smart Guy: Charlemagne’s speech (and thoughts, when the story is from his perspective) is a little more formal than Gary’s or Martha’s. Being a Traveler, he received much higher levels of education than most. However, whether or not he’s really smarter than his friends is debatable.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Though a non-vulgar example, it’s a little jarring when Charlemagne is referred to as Charlie (Which he is for the majority of the novel).
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers plays as Charlemagne slaughters common people for Siegfried’s entertainment.
  • Smug Snake: Miss Jackson is patronizing to the Thralls and her peers alike.
  • Stylistic Suck: The dialogue in Charlie's play.
    “Thy infidelic kinghood shall surely be destroyed by the might of the wrath of me, Charlemagne, the grand, enlightened, father-sire of Western Europe to Eastern Europe, not to mention the great, pastoral lands bordering the region known as the Middle East, whose powerful, great power ye infidelic heathens will surely fall to, each and every one of you, for mine is the power to kill you, and be killed you shall.”
    Literacy is rare this day in age. Decent scriptwriters are even rarer.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The novel is written from the alternating perspectives of Gary, Martha, and Charlemagne. Gary's is the most casual and plebeian, featuring an abundance of contractions, and often times merely implying the subject of a sentence rather than writing it out (ie: Decided to approach him rather than I decided to approach him). Martha's perspective is a little better, though she tends to go on tangents, crazily talk to her imaginary friends, and has occasional grammatical mishaps such as Me and my three friends rather than My three friends and I. Charlie's perspective is written the most intelligently, using few contractions and having minimal grammatical errors.
  • Theme Tune: The Agnus Dei arrangement of the Adagio from Barber’s string quartet is mentioned multiple times.
    Agnus dei. The lamb of God, a Hope for a better age when none was really needed. Every Hope is dead when we need them most. People don’t make music like this anymore, music so beautiful, somber, sad, ethereal. No room for composers and concert halls in a world like this, a world ruled by people like the four before us.
  • There Are No Therapists: Gary outright says many of his fellow Thralls are on the verge of madness. The four shown Bosses also appeared to be insane, especially Miss Jackson and Eternal President Clydesdale. It can be reasonably assumed that a large fraction of common people are crazy, along with, judging from William, much of the Revolution. The sane individuals are, for the most part, irrevocably bitter. Wide-eyed idealists like Mathew and Henry are rare exceptions. It can be argued, however, that being idealistic in such a world is madness in of itself.
  • Title Drop: I used to enjoy life. I used to be a man, but now I’m just a clock that doesn’t tick, hands tied to a teller’s desk.
  • Underequipped Charge: After missing with his dart gun, Mathew charges the better-armed William with a mere umbrella sword. It ends with him losing his head.
  • Violence is the Only Option: Even the most idealistic members of The Revolution realize this.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: William has equal shades of this and for the evulz.
  • We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: If you're willing to become a slave.
  • Wham Line:
    She’s not dead. I’ve worked right next to her for a century.
    Look, Eleanor, I’m finally like Marty Gilbert.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Mathew, Henry, and (later on in the novel) Martha. Henry is probably the most extreme example.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Not much, according to the Bosses. Note that they consider everyone else to fall under 'non-human'.
  • Working Off The Debt: The interest rate for the Thrall’s loan is such that they’ll be working to pay it off forever, just as the Bosses intended.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Bosses and their mercenaries. They go so far as to torture the Lady's three-month-old babies.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Martha's motivation for becoming a Thrall is different than most. Rather than being driven by a fear of death, Martha became a Thrall in the hope of being reunited with her former lover, who had previously became a Thrall himself. Her plan might have worked, if it wasn't for the Bosses intentionally keeping them apart.
    “Maybe when the sun burns out and we go to find a new one, I’ll sit next to him on the space ship. You never know.”
  • Your Head A Splode: The fate of Mathew courtesy of a dart gun.


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