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Literature / Clocks that Don't Tick

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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’ 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:

  • Amnesiac Hero: While they don’t exactly have amnesia per se, Gary and Martha still qualify. They’ve forgotten much of their past on account of literally having lived too long for all their memories to fit in their heads. Among other things, they’re unable to remember 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 results in him seeing far more horrors.
    • 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.
  • Arc Words: Hope, Freedom, the Bosses, the Company, and the Plan are always capitalized.
    Hope betrayed us once, and we betray Hope every day.
  • 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.
  • Authority in Name Only: Charlemagne still considers himself to be a king despite the fact that he’s essentially a clone. He fully understands that he has no power, however. Many of his fellow Travelers are presumably in a similar situation.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Gary, Martha, and Charlemagne all work for the Bosses, much to their chagrin.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The Revolution is very capable of evil when provoked.
  • 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, it’s Martha.
  • Born Lucky: If it weren’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. 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.
  • Came Back Wrong: Charlie mentions that Miss Jackson was a kind, charitable woman before she died. When Eternal President Clydesdale brought her back, she was driven mad by an identity crisis. While the other Bosses are apathetic towards the pain they cause, Miss Jackson seems to revel in it. Charlie also has an identity crisis, but is 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 at least a little differently had Charlie not hinted at their plans to Bateman, the bartender.
  • Crapsack World: It wouldn’t be much of a dystopian novel without one.
    • 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 have been bored beyond tears on account 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.
  • 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 morning and evening, 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 is released to bite them. This is made even worse by the fact that the "Gary" the Bosses brought back isn’t really Gary at all. Martha and Gary both carry a button with them. If pressed, they will put a baby out of its misery, but only one per button. Martha refuses to press hers because she doesn’t want the other twin to be left alone. Gary refuses to press his because the Bosses told them it would cause something horrible to happen. One day, Charlemagne 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.
  • 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 Futures-Passed is referred to by her title almost exclusively. When Gary asks her name, she says it’s Caylee. That might have been one of the only times she was ever asked that question.
  • 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 exactly a positive thing in this case. The world is at ‘peace’ simply because war has become unprofitable and its leaders are too apathetic too fight for any causes. That doesn’t mean, however, that gangs don’t feud or revolutions don’t riot.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The protagonists themselves eventually come to the realization that escaping was a ludicrous idea to begin with.
  • For the Evulz: William manages to simultaneously play this straight and be a well-intentioned extremist.
  • Friendly Enemy: While Gary is initially friendly towards Charlie, he eventually comes to resent and (quite understandably) blame him for their predicament. He shows signs of forgiveness after they make off with the Lady’s babies, but goes back to hating him once it’s revealed that Charlie told Bateman, the bartender, their plan, directly leading to their capture.
  • 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.
  • 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’re passed between the various Bosses to be used for entertainment.
  • Hope Spot: Some readers might take the protagonist escaping Seattle as this.
  • Ignorance Is Bliss: Very generally true in this world. At one point, for example, Charlie lies to Mathew and says that the Revolution is a coherent, wide-reaching movement in order to spare him the truth.
  • 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 on account 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 be a bigger bastard than the real people in her life. Though their leaving distresses Martha, it’s also representative of her becoming closer to her friends made of flesh and blood.
    • 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. Anyone can take it, if they can afford it. Thralls are people who took out an enormous loan to get the procedure, and now work sixteen-hour days every day of the week, their income going towards paying off the loan... which will never happen, because the only lender willing to give that loan charges an usurious interest rate.
  • Immortals Fear Death: Gary acquired 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, though still rather cautious, was motivated a hope to see her fiancé again rather than a fear of the unknown. On the other hand, Travelers weren’t ‘reborn’ by choice, and are thus generally much less prone to paranoia and much more willing to take risks.
  • Inspirational Martyr: William’s motivation for killing the Lady was the idea that she would become one. Later, the immortals notice smoke rising above the city, indicating that the Revolution has indeed 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.”
  • Invincible Villain: The Bosses, despite what some would like to think.
  • Lack of Empathy: The Bosses take this to extreme levels. They’re completely apathetic to the suffering of billions. At one point, Gary realizes that they stay isolated in their mountain mansions in order to keep what tiny, tiny amount of empathy they might have left at bay.
    “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 who 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 simply can’t catch a break.
    “It’s a shame,” said the president. '“You two have found love in your ignorance, the way you’ve erroneously connected persons from your past to those from your present. It’s unfortunate we’ll have to relieve you of said ignorance.”
  • 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 it 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 Futures-Passed 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.
  • Mysterious Past: Charlemagne spends a chapter speculating on what made William how he is, but can say nothing for certain.
  • No Romantic Resolution: In the epilogue, Martha admits to Charlie that she really does love Gary. Problem is, the "Gary" that’s around at that point is hardly Gary at all.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: At one point, Mathew is stabbed through the chest and has to cauterize the wound in order to keep from bleeding out. It doesn’t affect him very much. In fact, a leg injury suffered in the same fight ends up being more debilitating. Justified in that common people like him simply tend to be rather tough.
  • 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.
  • Puppet King: The Lady of Futures-Passed 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.”
    • Charlie also qualifies, given that he is a king who is a puppet to the Bosses.
  • Sadist: Miss Jackson.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Though a non-vulgar example, it’s a little jarring when Charlemagne is referred to as Charlie (which is throughout the majority of the novel).
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers plays as Charlemagne slaughters common people for Siegfried’s entertainment.
  • Squick: The protagonist’s journey through the sewers. Just about everything concerning the way common people look/live.
  • Superior Species: The Bosses see themselves as true humans. The protagonists agree that, at any rate, they’re quite different.
    “’Real men’?” Miss Jackson asked. “Darling, we are humanity fully realized.”
  • The Atoner: Charlemagne would like to be one after getting his friends into their predicament. He’s never able to pay them back, 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. Reclaiming the past would take nothing less than the will of a god, and man’s true god has always been, always will be, coins on a string or numbers on a screen. A million famines exported for the sake of scorecards. Finally, the face atop the fountains has been scratched out, unrecognizable. Only Marty Gilbert’s remains. Finally, Hope is dead.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The Bosses. Common people are also envious of Thralls and Travelers for their lack of debilitating diseases.
  • The Dragon: Nolan acts as one to William.
  • The Empire: The Bosses’ reach extends throughout the entire world. The situation in Seattle is hardly exclusive to it.
  • 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 disintegrates when we need it the most. People don’t make music like this anymore, music so beautiful, sombre, sad, ethereal. No room for composers and concert halls in a world like this, a world ruled by people like the four before us.
  • The Plague: Just about everything in the twenty-seventh century. There’re super AIDS, super flue, super rabies, and that’s just scratching the surface.
  • There Are No Therapists: Gary outright says many of his fellow Thralls are on the verge of madness. The four Bosses directly shown 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 by 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.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Something that Mathew realizes far too late.
  • 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 a much better education than most. However, whether or not he’s really smarter than his friends is debatable.
  • The Un-Twist: It might not come as a huge shock when it’s said that Martha was Gary’s old girlfriend that he’s been hung up over for five centuries. However, that’s turned on its head when the Bosses reveal that she’s not. Gary’s true lover was named Eleanor, and really is dead. Martha’s old fiancé is a Thrall working in Beijing, and she’ll never see him again.
  • 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.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: William has equal shades of this and For the Evulz.
  • Wham Line:
    She’s not dead. I’ve worked right next to her for a century.
    Look, Eleanor, I’m finally like Marty Gilbert.
  • What Could Have Been: Martha’s daydreams about raising the Lady’s babies and saving the world. It’s especially poignant considering what happens directly after.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Mathew, Henry, and (later on in the novel) Martha. Henry is probably the most extreme example.
  • Woobie: All the Thralls and Travelers, especially Martha.
  • 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.